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A Seemingly Revolutionary Idea -- that Third Graders Should be Able to ReadAllan C. Brownfeld Salem-News.com
With the growth of the third grade-retention program, we finally seem to be asking the right questions.
(WASHINGTON DC) - It recently made front page news (The Washington Post, March 11, 2013) that thirteen states last year adopted laws that require schools to identify, intervene and, in many cases, retain students who fail a reading proficiency test by the end of third grade. Lawmakers in several other states and the District of Columbia are debating similar measures.
Advocates of these policies report that social promotion---advancing students based on age and not academic achievement---results in high school students who can barely read. Educators say that third grade is the place where children are no longer learning to read but are reading to learn. If children haven't mastered reading by third grade, they will find it hard to handle increasingly complex lessons in science, social studies and math.
Literacy has declined dramatically among American students. Thirty three per cent of all fourth graders nationwide were reading below basic levels in 2011. For minorities, the picture is worse: half of black and Hispanic fourth-graders were below grade level in reading.
According to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, children who don't read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school than those who read well.
The philosophy of third grade retention received a major boost in 2002 in Florida under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who promoted an education strategy that also featured private school vouchers, data-based assessments for schools and teachers, charter schools and online learning.
Mary Laura Bragg, who ran Florida's third-grade retention program, said it forced elementary schools to get serious about literacy. Principals moved their best teachers to kindergarten and first and second grades, she said. "I saw a sea change in behavior," Bragg said. "It's a shame that it was the threat of retention that spurred these schools into doing what they should have been doing all along."
In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich signed into law the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, which says that starting this year, third-graders who fail a statewide reading test won't be permitted to enter fourth grade. Similar laws are going into effect in Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado.
In the years of slavery, it was illegal to teach slaves to read. At the present time, laments commentator Colbert King, who is black, "Nearly 20 per cent of adults in the District of Columbia cannot read the black history month proclamation by our nation's first black president. They aren't alone. Only four in 10 D.C. third graders are proficient readers. Put another way, the majority of D.C. third-graders are not developing the essential foundation for success in life: reading skills....Now, 150 years after the Civil War, our nation's capital, home to a significant number of African Americans, has too many residents who cannot read...the works of Frederick Douglass or the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King...Our city's most basic challenge is to teach children how to read and write and, equally important, how to use their literacy to gain control over their lives, foster their economic well-being and help lift up their community."
The decline in basic skills---such as reading---has been under way for many years, as public school systems experimented with a variety of philosophies which downgraded the teaching of reading, writing and mathematics. There was a time, in the 1960s and 1970s , when educators quite consciously decided to de-emphasize the teaching of intellectual skills in favor of the inculcation of social awareness and the psychological enhancement of the individual student.
Catherine Barrett, a former president of the National Education Association, stated in 1972 that, "We will need to recognize that the so-called 'basic skills,' which currently represent nearly the total effort in elementary schools, will be taught in one-quarter of the school day. The remaining time will be devoted to what is truly fundamental and basic."
Even the time which was devoted to teaching children how to read in these years saw a rejection of the time-tested method of teaching reading----phonics----and replaced it with a new, and far less effective method, known as "look-say."
The look-say method operates on the principle that a child learns to read by reading. Instead of sounding out each letter, the child focuses on the whole word to build his "sight vocabulary." Look-say books include various gimmicks to help a child guess a word. By contrast, phonics concentrates on letters and their sounds before introducing children to words and stories.
Using the look-say method, students guess at words. Using the phonics method, they read them. Use of the look-say method, says Rudolf Flesch, who captured public attention more than 50 years ago with his book "Why Johnny Can't Read," has "produced children who couldn't accurately read unfamiliar words. From the fourth grade up, textbooks in all subjects had to be 'dumbed down' to accommodate them. Grade promotion had to be based on age rather than achievement. High school diplomas were given to functional illiterates. Colleges had to adjust to an influx of students who couldn't read. The national illiteracy rate climbed year after year."
Finally, the fact that large numbers of third graders cannot read at grade level is attracting national attention. Why has it taken so long? Sadly, too many in our educational establishment have had a vested interest in defending programs and "innovations," no matter how well intentioned they may have been at the beginning, which have failed dramatically. The results are so dire that they can no longer be ignored.
In Florida, the third-grade retention program has shown positive results. A study which tracked third-graders retained in Florida found that they showed significant academic gains in the first two years, but those effects faded over time. Still, fewer students have been retained each year since the policy took effect, which suggests the emphasis on early reading is having an impact.
After leaving office, Jeb Bush created the Foundation for Excellence in Education. The foundation has lobbied and provided help to state officials and lawmakers who want to adopt third-grade retention laws.
Mary Laura Bragg, now a policy director at the foundation, says that,"Our mission is to help spread reform state by state, and a K-3 reading policy is one of those that states are very interested in."
When concern first arose about student reading levels, some in the educational establishment blamed the students themselves, rather than the manner in which basic skills were being taught. At that time, Mary L. Burkhardt, director of the Department of Reading of the City School District of Rochester, New York, based upon her own long experience as a teacher of reading, said: "...it appeared to me that students' reading difficulties were not of their own making and could be solved by improving the reading instructional program within the schools. It is time to stop asking, 'What's wrong with Johnny?' It is time to ask ourselves: 'What must we do to teach Johnny to read?'...The child who is truly reading disabled is very rare. When children are taught to read in a structured, teacher-directed instructional program, they read. When this is not done, many children experience difficulty and are then mislabeled dyslexic, an excuse."
With the growth of the third grade-retention program, we finally seem to be asking the right questions. It is high time.
Salem-News.com contributor Allan C. Brownfeld received his B.A. degree from the College of William and Mary, his J.D. degree from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary and his M.A. in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland. He has served on the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland.
The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, Mr. Brownfeld has written for such newspapers as THE HOUSTON PRESS, THE RICHMOND TIMES DISPATCH, THE WASHINGTON EVENING STAR and THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER. For many years he wrote three columns a week for such newspapers as THE PHOENIX GAZETTE, THE MANCHESTER UNION LEADER, and THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER. His weekly column appeared for more than a decade in ROLL CALL, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in such journals as THE YALE REVIEW, THE TEXAS QUARTERLY, THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW, ORBIS and MODERN AGE.
Mr. Brownfeld served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and was the author of that committee's 250-page study of the New Left. He has also served as Assistant to the Research Director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to such members of Congress as Reps. Phil Crane (R-Il) and Jack Kemp (R-NY) and to the Vice President of the United States.
He is a former editor of THE NEW GUARD and PRIVATE PRACTICE, the journal of the Congress of County Medical Societies and has served as a Contributing Editor AMERICA'S FUTURE and HUMAN EVENTS. He served as Washington correspondent for the London-based publications, JANE'S ISLAMIC AFFAIRS ANALYST and JANE'S TERRORISM REPORT. His articles regularly appear in newspapers and magazines in England, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands and other countries. You can write to Allan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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