Retention Is No Way To Boost Reading

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Educators and parents are always attentive when the president highlights the importance of education in his speeches, as he did in his State of the Union Address this year. In the previous year's address to Congress, President Clinton had called for education to become the nation's "No.1 priority," offering his commitment that "by the year 2000, 8-year-olds in America will be able to pick up an appropriate book and say, 'I can read.'"

This year when he spoke about education, his concern shifted. He raised national consciousness about and reopened the debate over the controversial issue of social promotion. He advocated holding students in the same grade until they pass necessary requirements instead of passing them on for social reasons. "No child should graduate from high school with a diploma he or she can't read," Mr. Clinton said. "We do our children no favors when we allow them to pass from grade to grade without mastering the material."

The president has been ill-advised. This solution is a typical educational quick-fix of the sort this country has seen fail repeatedly. And retaining children is not the way to teach them to read.

In Chicago, where the school system's most recent policy is to retain students who fail to meet certain proficiencies, thousands have been retained in grades 3, 6, and 8 over the past two years. As yet, we have no hard evidence about what this will ultimately accomplish in that city. What we do know is that other research on the effects of retention indicates that it is a devastating experience for younger students and destroys their self-esteem. Other data show that there is a correlation between early retention and ultimately dropping out of school. And struggling readers are invariably those children who are recommended for retention.

There is another option. We need to think about early-childhood education differently and restructure the early grades to reflect the developmental nature of learning--and of reading, in particular.

Think about this: In any kindergarten just about anywhere in America, there is a range of three distinct ages. There are the babies--those 4-year-olds turning 5 in September or October (in some places, this can extend to December). Then there are the solid 5-year-olds, those born between January and late spring who are soundly 5 when they begin school. Finally, there are the soon-to-be 6-year-olds. These are the children born in late summer or early fall who start school already age 6, or turn 6 shortly after the term begins.

So what? This age factor alone accounts for major differences in the ability of young children in any given elementary classroom in the country, never mind other significant background differences such as socioeconomics, culture, and early exposure to literacy.

Early-childhood education in kindergarten through grade 3 presents students with a variety of educational challenges, most of which are developmental in nature. Social skills, mathematical concepts, and reading and writing are critical to success in the early years in primary grades. Research has presented clear evidence that many of these are developmental, just like walking and talking. No matter how often you stand your crawling infant up, she will continue to sit herself back down until she is developmentally ready to walk. We talk to infants from the time they are born, preparing them, in a sense, for understanding and using language. We do not have specific expectations about when or how our children will speak. Children all come to language somewhat differently and at different times; some early, some late.

Teachers need to accept children where they are and help them move to the next stage of development.

If we accept what we know about the developmental nature of learning and combine that with the fact that children begin school both developmentally and chronologically at very different stages and ages, the implications are profound.

The information we present to children in the early grades will be caught by some who are developmentally ready and missed by those who are not. We need to be more flexible in our expectations of children from kindergarten to grade 3. Teachers need to present material more recursively, revisiting concepts for those children who were not yet ready to understand the concepts when they were first presented. Teachers need to accept children where they are and help them move to the next stage of development. If your 2-year-old child says to you, "Mommy go work. Daddy go bye-bye," you accept that as appropriate for your child's age and stage. You do not scold that child for not knowing the correct grammar. You continue to model the correct way of speaking, praise the child for what he does well, and hold high expectations that, eventually, through your modeling and instruction, he will learn to say it correctly.

Reading and writing need to be presented similarly. Young children learn to read and write at different times, in different ways. Many teachers and schools do acknowledge these tenets. They have modified and restructured programs and have reshaped their approaches using multiage classrooms rather than traditional grade levels. They use a variety of flexible and cooperative grouping strategies.

I nstead of retaining young children based on some artificial expectation of what students "should" know, we need to spend time, effort, and money to better prepare teachers and administrators, many of whom are still stuck in a one-size-fits-all model of teaching. Schools need to devote more time to staff development. Colleges need to continue to focus teacher preservice education on the developmental aspects of learning and how these translate into classroom practice. This will lead to a restructuring of how we instruct students in the early grades.

Holding older students to high standards and making them repeat courses that they fail is a different subject entirely. But retaining young children because they are not where they "should" be is tantamount to punishing a baby because she doesn't speak or walk according to some artificial standard of when she should do so.

We need to provide preventative early-literacy programs that consistently have demonstrated their effectiveness and their results. We should provide summer programs that encourage children to read and to interact socially, as well as programs to train parents in how they can help their preschool children be prepared to learn. We need to provide tutoring programs with trained tutors, not just warm bodies who read aloud to children. We need to financially support proven reading programs such as Reading Recovery that assist at-risk children in the lower grades. We need to be more consistent in our kindergarten age requirements from district to district and from state to state.

Retention should be a last resort for every child in every district, when all other options have been exhausted. As things stand now, the children who are retained are not failing the system; the system is failing them.

Tina Gordon, a former professor of education and education consultant, is an administrator in a large school district in New Jersey.

Vol. 18, Issue 40, Pages 42, 44

Published in Print: June 16, 1999, as Retention Is No Way To Boost Reading
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