Saturday, May 9, 2015

Retaining 3rd Graders: Child Abuse, Mississippi Style

Back in the 1960s Mississippi was a flashpoint for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. As a student living in the north in those years my consciousness on the issue was raised by the murder in Philadelphia, Mississippi of three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, and by a song by popular folk singer Phil Ochs. Ochs song was an angry and bitter anthem decrying the shameful civil rights record of the state.

                            Here's to the State of Mississippi
                            For underneath her borders, the devil draws no lines
                            If you drag her muddy river, nameless bodies you will find
                            Whoa the fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes
                            The calender is lyin' when it reads the present time
                            Whoa, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
                            Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of

Enlightenment is still a long way off in Mississippi. Today, I read in the Clarion-Ledger that the “Great State of Mississippi” will, by law, retain 5,800 third graders (15.8% of all Mississippi third graders) because of their performance on a standardized reading test.

Apparently, the lawmakers in Mississippi have determined to strike a blow against the dreaded scourge of “social promotion” by punishing eight-year-olds for the sins of adults. What are the sins of adults that I point to here? Well, the first and most obvious is to put faith in a one shot test as a determinant of student reading ability. No test, no matter how well vetted, designed and field tested, can stand up to that burden.

But there were many other sins committed by adults before the students took the test. The most obvious one, of course, is that many of the students who have failed this test are poor. Poverty takes a terrible toll on a child’s ability to learn and poverty is the result of deliberate policies that have been put in place by federal. state and local governments over the last 100 years. As economist Paul Krugman stated it recently,

The point is that there is no excuse for fatalism as we contemplate the evils of poverty in America. Shrugging your shoulders as you attribute it all to values is an act of malign neglect. The poor don’t need lectures on morality, they need more resources — which we can afford to provide — and better economic opportunities, which we can also afford to provide through everything from training and subsidies to higher minimum wages.

Beyond adult unwillingness to do anything substantive about poverty, we also have the failure to provide these children with the resources they need to be successful readers by the end of third grade. While the Mississippi law exempts children who have been classified with learning disabilities, it has clearly not provided non-classified children with the resources they need to be successful.

What would these resources look like? Let’s start with high quality pre-school programs. Let’s continue with high quality and readily available health care services. Good health and good pre-schools have been shown to predict better learning in schools. Failure to provide them is a failure of adults.

Once the children are in school, schools need resources to meet the needs of children who struggle to learn to read. In most schools this will be between 10 and 20% of children, in high poverty locations the numbers will be higher. These students need effective interventions, designed to meet the individual and unique needs of the child. These interventions are costly; they demand highly trained specialists, plenty of time and small class sizes.

Have the adults of Mississippi supported the cost of these interventions? Not hardly. According to a 2013 U.S Census Bureau Report, Mississippi’s per student spending on education is among the lowest in the country.

And what do we know about retention as a method of remediation?  While anecdotal reports of successful retention experiences exist, the overwhelming weight of the evidence shows that retention is a failed policy. In their well-documented and very useful book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, respected researchers David Berliner and Gene V. Glass say:

The decision to retain a student subsequently results in that student having more negative outcomes in all areas of academic achievement, and in social emotional areas of development such as peer relationships, self-esteem, and classroom behavior.

Additionally, Berliner and Glass found that there is a greatly increased likelihood of retained students dropping out of school, being suspended and having high absenteeism. Not surprisingly, retention policies impact a disproportionate number of poor and minority children.

As I said in an earlier post, what the struggling readers in Mississippi and everywhere else need is attention, not retention. Repeating a grade won’t help most children, but providing a program that attends to the needs of struggling readers will.

Any enlightened policy, informed by research and an understanding of children and how they learn and the challenges that some children face in learning to read, would look at what interventions the child needs to become a reader. It takes time and it costs money, but it beats retention and it has the potential for success. There are many fine, skilled readers out there who did not read well by the end of third grade. Struggling to read in third grade is not a death sentence unless adults, like those in Mississippi, decide to make it so.

In a very real sense third graders who are being retained because of test scores in Mississippi are the victims of what Krugman called malign neglect. And so I would add a coda to Phil Ochs song of many years ago:

                        Here’s to the child you’ve torn out the heart of,
                        Mississippi find yourself a better program to be part of.

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