Cindi Ross Scoppe

September 3, 2013

Scoppe: Focus on retaining knowledge, not kids

Education Superintendent Mick Zais is absolutely right to say kids who can’t read by third grade are doomed to failure. But here’s the thing: Simply holding them back does no more good than promoting them.

EDUCATION Superintendent Mick Zais is starting to sound like a broken record. With each new round of test-score rollouts — and there seem to be as many of them this time of year as there are tailgaters on a Saturday afternoon in September — he reminds us again how essential it is that kids learn to read, and he calls again on the Legislature to pass his plan to hold back kids who aren’t reading on grade level by the end of the third grade.

And he’s absolutely right when he says that kids who can’t read by third grade are doomed to failure because from there on out, they have to be able to read in order to learn anything else. He’s absolutely right when he says these are the kids who drop out of high school. He’s absolutely right when he says we can’t just keep letting kids slide through from grade to grade without teaching them to read.

One of the biggest ways we fail our kids — and our state — is by allowing this to happen.

But here’s the thing: Simply making kids repeat a grade does no more good than letting them move on to the next grade when they aren’t ready.

Students who have to repeat a grade almost never graduate from high school. A few years back, the Education Oversight Committee did a study that found that the state was spending $20 million a year to send kids through the same grade a second time and getting little if anything for it: While students’ PACT results improved the year they repeated, their scores dropped in each successive year, and after five years they were failing again.

So either they have to repeat another grade — which leaves them in a classroom with kids two years younger, creating its own host of social problems for the failing students and everyone else — or they’re pushed along through the system with little chance of getting the intensive help they need to catch up. Either route sets them up for failure when they get to high school and can’t be so easily moved through the grades.

That doesn’t mean we should reject Dr. Zais’ proposal. There has to be a point at which we say that kids are simply too far behind for us to pretend they can catch up without serious intervention. And third grade is a reasonable point.

What it means is that his plan can be neither the starting point nor the end point. What it means is that we can’t tell this year’s third-graders we’re holding them back if they can’t read by May; we can’t tell that to next year’s third-graders either. What it means is that we have to phase in this new approach. What it means is that we have to figure out which kids are having problems from the time they enter the school system, and give them the extra attention they need to catch up.

In fact, we already know which kids are having problems. For that matter, we have a really good idea of which kids are going to have problems. They’re the kids who start out behind. They’re the kids who don’t know their alphabet or their colors, who can’t count, who don’t know about “inside voices” and “outside voices.” They’re the kids whose parents didn’t do well in school and don’t see any reason their children should either.

We know who they are. We just don’t do enough to help them catch up.

One way we can do that is by providing them with high-quality pre-kindergarten, which countless studies have demonstrated make all the difference in the world and which Dr. Zais bizarrely opposes.

But even if we don’t move forward as we should on that front, there are other things we can and should do to deal with the problem of kids who can’t read.

One of my favorites remains a plan that House Speaker Bobby Harrell rolled out nearly a decade ago, based on this well-known fact: Just about anyone can learn, if given a good enough teacher and enough time with the subject; it just takes some children longer than others.

His plan was to channel children who failed third- or fourth-grade reading tests into a year-round program, taught by top-notch teachers, with intensive work in reading. The goal would be to catch children back up with their classmates in all subjects, so they could join them in the regular classes by fifth grade. Children who need more help than that, along with others who fall behind later, would get extra reading instruction in later grades as well, even if that meant having to skip some other subjects.

Unfortunately, that plan never went anywhere.

Now would be a good a time to revive it. We could even start it sooner, providing that year-round program to kids who are behind at the end of second grade, or even first grade. If we layered this sort of program on top of top-quality 4-year-old and even 3-year-old kindergarten for children who are most likely to have trouble in school, it’s hard to imagine that we’d have to offer the year-round option to a lot of third- or fourth-graders. And if we layered the no-promotion policy on top of those programs, it’s hard to imagine that there would be many kids held back.

Which would mean we had succeeded. Because the goal isn’t to hold kids back. It’s to teach them well enough that they don’t need to be held back.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at or at (803) 771-8571.

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