access, choice, opportunity

Retention idea works, advocates tell panel

Holding back third-graders who can’t read gets parents involved, they say.

Written by JASON NOBLE

The prospect of repeating third grade provides a powerful incentive for parents and educators alike to ensure students are literate, school reform advocates told a panel of lawmakers on Monday night.

The presentation, by an education expert and an Iowa superintendent, examined the effects of a policy enacted in Florida in 2002 that emphasizes literacy in the early grades and holds back third-graders who cannot read.

A wide-ranging education reform package offered by Gov. Terry Branstad and now under consideration in the Legislature includes a literacy component that would hold back third-graders who cannot demonstrate reading proficiency.

A comprehensive commitment to early-grade reading skills that includes testing, parental involvement and “intensive intervention” that begins in kindergarten is critical to making a dent in child illiteracy rates, Matthew Ladner, a senior policy and research adviser for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, told the lawmakers.

But it’s the threat of retention — holding a student back — that has appeared to make the difference.

“The retention piece brings focus, and it brings leverage for educators to get parents involved,” Ladner said. “That’s really crucial. When you tell parents who aren’t involved in the education of their child that Little Johnny is going to be retained unless we see X, that’s a very powerful message.”

Ladner described in detail Florida’s experience with an early-grade literacy program. In 2001, the year before the program was implemented, 27 percent of Florida third-graders received the lowest score on a statewide reading test, indicating they were essentially illiterate. In 2009, after the program had been in effect for seven years, that figure had dropped to 16 percent.

The Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education advocates for school reforms emphasizing teacher performance, accountability measures and school choice. Its founder is Jeb Bush, who was governor of Florida when the third-grade retention law was passed.

Echoing Ladner’s arguments was Waterloo School District Superintendent Gary Norris, who previously worked for a Florida school district while the reforms were in effect.

In the first year the retention law was enacted, 13.2 percent of Florida third-graders were held back, prompting a surge in attention from parents and school administrators.

“Boy, when you … know that you’re going to be sitting across the table from 13 percent of your parents and telling them that you’re going to retain their child, that brings about focus in a school district — incredible focus and incredible adult behavior change,” Norris said.

Since the effects of Florida’s experiment have become better known, other states have followed its lead. Indiana, Louisiana, Arizona and Oklahoma have passed similar measures, Ladner said, and New Mexico, like Iowa, is considering it this year.

But some lawmakers, including Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, questioned whether Florida’s success could be credited to the retention element, or whether the increased funding and emphasis on literacy had driven the improvements.

Ladner replied that he believed retention was the key, saying that federal education programs have for years provided additional funding to boost literacy without results nearly as dramatic.

Afterward, Steckman wasn’t completely convinced. She said she’d prefer to see a more intensive instructional approach, with limited class sizes in the early grades and the presence of a paraprofessional as well as a teacher.

The argument against retention was also sounded at another education presentation on Monday, by school administrators representing the Iowa Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a professional-development advocacy group.

At that hearing, East Union School District Superintendent Pam Vogel called for better evaluations and additional education opportunities for teachers and a more intense focus on early-grade literacy. A retention policy is not necessary if schools provide more resources and opportunities to boost literacy, she said.

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