Not too many years into my career as a high school English teacher, I had reached my breaking point with run-on sentences. I couldn’t stand to see another one, and frustrated with my seeming lack of effectiveness in teaching students what run-ons are and how they muddle their writing, I decided to take action. I instituted a zero-tolerance policy in my English classes for run-ons. Use just one in your essay, and it’s a zero. Certainly, this would motivate my students to pay attention to my lessons and to edit their papers. I mean, no one wants a zero, right? I was giddy with the brilliance of this idea and couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it sooner.
Of course it didn’t work. Not one little bit. In fact, not only did it do nothing to reduce the number of run-ons in my students’ writing, it actually made their writing worse. My students stopped taking risks, they stopped writing anything but the simplest of sentences, and they stopped liking to write. I was also left with a gradebook full of failing grades for students who did not deserve to fail. I hadn’t thought about that part: I never imagined it would come to that.
So I understand Michigan state representative Amanda Price’s frustration with third grade reading scores in Michigan. She’s read the studies and she knows that kids who are not reading proficiently by third grade are at greater risk for academic failure. She’s tired of teachers and parents not doing their jobs, which in her mind are the most likely reasons for students not reading on grade level. And so she has taken action. The threat of retention will surely motivate those teachers and parents to teach the kids to read.
But what Price and other legislators fail to understand is that the majority of parents and teachers are already doing the best they can with what they have and what they know. They don’t need threats of punishment to make them teach better and parent better. They are already teaching and parenting the best that they can. They are already motivated to see their kids succeed. What they need are the resources and conditions to meet the diverse needs of the kids who struggle (and the ones who don’t). Retention is not a resource, nor does it provide the conditions in which a struggling reader can get the help he or she needs.
Young readers struggle for a variety of reasons. About 10-15% of them have dyslexia, which prevents them from learning to read in conventional ways. These students, my child among them, need to be taught using a method such as Orton-Gillingham, a multi-sensory method that has been extremely successful with dyslexic students. Others struggle because they lack the vocabulary and background knowledge to make sense of text. They may have no trouble decoding the words on the page, but they have no way to make sense of them. These students need experiences, exposure to a wide variety of words and texts, and teachers who can tap into their strengths and interests to make reading and learning new words exciting for them. Others suffer from toxic stress, in many cases brought on by poverty, (The Annie E. Casey Foundation just reported in July of this year that 1 in 4 kids in Michigan lived in poverty in 2013.) When kids are hungry, tired, worried, and scared, learning is almost impossible. In these cases, economic relief in the form of steady jobs with livable wages for their parents is going to do a whole lot more for these kids than any threats of retention.
These are only some of the reasons that a third grader may not be reading at grade level. There are myriad others, including the possibility that a child is just not developmentally ready to be reading at that level yet, or the test (in this case M-Step) may be designed so poorly that it is not be a good indicator of a child’s reading proficiency. It is the job of educators and parents to identify if and why a child struggles in reading, and it is the job of the legislature is to provide schools and communities with the resources they need to take care of these most vulnerable kids so that appropriate, and in many cases individualized, interventions can be put in place.
Sadly, the legislature is not doing that. Michigan’s schools are inadequately funded. Class sizes are higher than ever. More and more schools are eliminating their librarians, libraries, and library programs. Necessary support services like social workers and psychologists are being cut. Art, music, and field trips, which all provide experiences necessary to build background knowledge and vocabulary for reading, are being cut. Money for books and supplies: cut.
If the Michigan legislature was serious about helping third graders who struggle to read, they would consider passing legislation that provides them with the support they need without threat of punishment. Yet threats and punishment are what this bill seems to be about because the proposal in the bill flies in the face of research that tells us that retention is not only ineffective, but it actually causes additional harm — just like my zero-tolerance run-on policy did.
I don’t think anyone in the legislature actually wants to harm kids by holding them back, and I don’t fault them for wanting to pass legislation that will help kids read better. I’m a high school English teacher, so believe me, if I thought this plan would actually work, I’d be jumping for joy at the thought of all the proficient readers I’m going to inherit in about 6 years. But I do fault them for failing to recognize the complexity of literacy, for failing to trust the professionals who have been hired to teach our children, and for failing to provide the actual resources that it takes to educate children.
I was part of a group of concerned parents and educators who recently met with representative Zemke, a co-sponsor of this bill. Zemke pointed out all of the support that the law would provide for schools to help them get their third graders reading proficiently. I naively asked why there can’t be a bill that just provides support and no punishment. Why can’t we just have a law that mandates our schools be given adequate resources to educate all of our children? My question was met with derisive laughter. “It doesn’t work that way,” they told me, and then I thought, “how sad.”
I worry about the bureaucratic nightmare that this bill, if passed, will create for schools, and I worry about how many more bright, creative people will decide that teaching is just not worth it and either leave the profession or never enter it to begin with, but most of all, I worry about the kids who are going to go through the rest of their lives thinking that they are dumb because the adults in government are unwilling to do what it takes to actually help them.