Teacher Preparation Opinion

Flunking 3rd Graders is Not an Intervention

By John Wilson — February 13, 2012 3 min read
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It may surprise a lot of you, but I am a great reading teacher. It could be because I was a great reader and loved reading everything I got my hands on. It could be because I had great education professors who taught me how to teach reading through phonics and whole language. It could even be that I knew nonreaders would most likely be relegated to poverty without knowing how to read, and I was unwilling to give up on any student. Like all teachers, I have my success stories.

Zack was a towheaded 1st grader who came from an elite pre-school that traumatized him because he could not learn his letters. He was from an affluent home with parents who fought to have him labeled with a learning disability. That gave him a ticket to my resource classroom for special needs students. The first thing I did was take away all the pressure of learning those letters and finishing those reading books. Can you spell developmental? Zack needed to develop the learning abilities such as visual sequential memory that are the foundation for reading. Once we accomplished that, he was on his way to being a good reader. Today he is a successful attorney. Recognizing that some students are not developmentally ready to be readers even in the third grade and providing those students with services that address those developmental issues is a great intervention. Relying only on test scores is the worst response for these students.

Darren was a 7th grader who could not read at all. He had been placed in a special education class and labeled “mentally disabled.” His real handicap was poverty and being lost in a dysfunctional system. When I was on the NEA Executive Committee, I was provided a teacher partner who became the teacher of record, and I tutored students in reading when I was not travelling for NEA. Basically, I taught Darren how to read using several strategies from phonics to adult literacy. I will never forget the day my teacher partner met me in the hall and said, “You will not believe this. Darren volunteered to read in front of the whole class today.” My heart was full. Providing students the teachers who understand reading recovery methods is an intervention. A middle school reading intervention may have been Darren’s last and best shot to put him on a trajectory for success.

I visited a high poverty school in Martinsburg, West Virginia, where the entire faculty focused on literacy. They use a formative assessment program on a regular basis. They have learning communities that use the data to make decisions about students. If a student is not reading at grade level in the classroom, the teachers provide the student a small group intervention. If the student is still not reading, they provide a one-on-one reading recovery intervention. If the student still does not succeed, they provide special education services. They do not give up. They use their Title I and IDEA funds creatively. That approach is an intervention that has closed the learning gaps among their students.

My plea to politicians is to avoid a high stakes decision for 8-year-olds and 9-year-olds that is based only on a standardized test score and that flunks them if they cannot read by the end of the 3rd grade. Flunking 3rd graders is costly to the taxpayers and devastating to the students. Do the math. It costs $10,000 to educate a student every year or $20,000 annually for a special needs student. Is it better to fail a student and create an extra year of that cost or to create a “bridge” program for students who have not mastered reading by the end of the third grade? It is better to provide an intensive intervention in literacy while covering a fourth grade curriculum and eventually place the students in the fourth grade classroom when they will be successful there.

Interventions are the best pathway to literacy for all students. Failure only begets more failure. What are your best interventions to help children read?

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed 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.