Education Opinion

The Third-Grade Crackdown Club

By Nancy Flanagan — December 04, 2013 4 min read
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They’re at it again in my home state, Michigan--trying to pass, this afternoon, a bill mandating retention for third graders who aren’t reading up to snuff.

I’m dusting off and updating a piece from February, 2012--with some new links and resources. Because this idiotic idea just won’t seem to go away, in spite of a mountain of research that says it doesn’t work.

The opposite of “social promotion"--the manufactured bogeyman some Michigan legislators are now blaming for illiteracy--is social demotion. In other words, public humiliation. Failure, writ large.

Flunked. Held back. Retained. It’s failure, no matter what you call it. Imposed by adults, some of whom honestly believe they’re instituting a kind of academic tough love--or at least, raising collective achievement data. Suffered by children who struggle with learning, for any one of a galaxy of reasons.

And it seems to be all the rage, part and parcel of the Invisible Hand School of education policy which promotes technocratic, carrot-stick solutions, pre-packaged by ALEC, from merit pay to performance evaluations based on student test data. Florida and NY City passed legislation mandating retention of third graders who haven’t achieved an equally arbitrary reading level--with unimpressive results. In at least 13 more states, including my own, policy-makers are now eager to join the Third Grade Crackdown club.

Their clichéd rationale: We’re not doing kids a favor by social promotion, letting them move forward without the requisite skills to succeed. Definition of success: pass the reading test.

Well, we’re not doing kids favors by flunking them, either. Says educational psychologist David Berliner, Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University:

“It seems like legislators are absolutely ignorant of the research, and the research is amazingly consistent that holding kids back is detrimental.”

The frustrating thing? The to-flunk-or-not-to-flunk debate would not exist if we didn’t place our children in an arbitrary system that automatically grades them, in all senses of “grade:" dividing them into clusters by age, plus the practice of assessing their intelligence, effort, accomplishment and even character by letter marks and standardized test data. All of these practices are so familiar that they feel natural--scientifically precise, even reasonable.

But they’re not. We’re held captive by a flawed and unworkable system, from the turn of the last century when a tide of immigrant students flooded city schools and Frederick Winslow Taylor’s ideas about scientific efficiency were au courant. Sorting students by age, standardizing their curriculum and rank-ordering their achievement has been embedded American education practice for well over a century. Nothing is ever neat and tidy in education, however--especially learning. “Grade level” expectations vary widely, state to state, teacher to teacher, and from one decade to another. They, too, are arbitrary.

Consider that Finnish children begin formal schooling, including reading instruction, at age seven. A single year before Oklahoma, Arizona and Indiana start separating out weak readers by law and labeling them unsuccessful. At age eight.

Berliner makes the case that retaining students is costly-- an average of $10, 000 per retention--and the money would be better spent on tutoring. Oddly, in a time when economic efficiency is righteously pursued in public education, this doesn’t seem to be a factor. Lawmakers and commenters seem bent on penalties, but it’s hard to put a finger on who deserves blame when kids aren’t reading fluently by the third grade.

Header from article in The Atlantic: When a child repeats a grade, it reflects positively on the district. But for the individual, it can be an irreversible step backward. Since an estimated 15% of all students fail every year, some districts must be positively glowing with success. Perhaps lawmakers want to claim some of that reflected partisan glory:

In New Mexico, where the Republican governor has made student retention a part of her education blueprint this year, some Democrats have labeled the legislation the “third grade flunking” bill and have introduced competing legislation that would scrap the retention provision.

As a middle school teacher who’s attended dozens of retention meetings, this is my observation: most retentions of older children aren’t based on inherent academic weakness. They happen because kids have checked out, stopped trying. Failing a grade is used as both threat and punishment. Although it’s rare, there are cases where retention is the right decision. But that call should be made by teachers and parents, not at the statehouse.

The Michigan bill includes an “out clause"--exemptions for students who pass an undefined “alternative assessment.” Meaning: If parents are connected and savvy, they needn’t worry about their child, who “needs more time” getting caught in the retention snare. It’s only for kids who “deserve” to be publicly shamed.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.