Thursday, February 10, 2005

Hold Them Tomatoes Back!

HB 84 has gone to the floor of the Utah House. It's a bill that would require schools to hold students back a grade (in 1st through 3rd grades) if they're not reading at grade level.

The Salt Lake Tribune has an article about the bill:
Schools would be required to notify parents by the middle of the school year if their students were not on track for promotion. In addition, the bill mandates that schools offer services such as personalized tutoring, before- and after-school programs and summer school for those struggling students.
I don't like the idea of requiring schools to offer specific programs, but I didn't find any language like that in the bill, so I don't know where the Tribune got this notion. I'll just excuse this as a bit of hyperbole.
The measure would be phased in beginning with next year's kindergarteners. English learners and students with disabilities would be exempt.
As they should be. Also, current students are grandfathered in, which is a good idea that will do an end-run around any objections that districts might have to doing some extensive remediation.
Morgan said she sees the bill as the accountability piece to 2004 legislation that made $30 million available for school districts to beef up their reading programs in kindergarten through third grade.
That money should be targeted to students who have a hard time with reading, she said.
"I believe this is the next step," she said. "We must ensure our struggling readers get the help they need."
In other words, "We already gave you the money. Now we want to make sure we get what we paid for." I don't know about everybody else, but I'm sick of schools demanding more and more money for providing the same crappy services. I can see the other side of the argument, which is the "unfunded mandate" argument ("You're requiring all this stuff from us, but you're not ponying up the cash it'd take to give it to you!"). But in this case, if it's already been funded, it's incumbent upon the school districts to give the public the goods.
One Davis School District official warned that a state policy to hold kids back could do more harm than good.
"I agree with the intent, but my concern is that the decision to retain a child is a painful, complex one best made by a teacher who has worked with the child . . . and parents," said Sandy Peterson, an assistant superintendent in Davis School District.
Several studies show that students who repeat a grade suffer lower self-esteem and are more likely to drop out.
I haven't done any formal studies, but I sure as hell have seen students who ought to have been held back suffer when they get into college. They have to choose a different career, which affects the rest of their lives. The kids who were held back are entirely indistinguishable from their fellow college students who didn't need to be held back, and go into their chosen careers. I'd trade several years of embarrassment for a lifetime of earnings any day.

Also, Sandy Peterson doesn't seem to be considering the possibility that low self-esteem and dropping out are caused by something other than being held back. Something like, I don't know, the frustration of being in a system where kids are regimented by age and ridiculed for being out of line with the average.
As a mother of a struggling reader, Polly Tribe said she supports the bill - as long as it emphasizes helping students.
"I just want to make sure we don't penalize the child for the inadequate training of teachers," she said.
Polly, honey, if your kids' teachers are so inadequate that they can't teach reading, this bill isn't going to make that any worse than it already is.

Here comes the money quote:
Asked whether it was possible for all children to read by the end of third grade, state schools Superintendent Patti Harrington said: "Not all tomatoes ripen at the same time, even if they're on the same vine." [emphasis mine]
Yeah, but they all better ripen by the first frost, or they're sure as hell gonna be toast.

While I don't much like the idea of the legislature passing laws telling schools how to do their jobs, the schools aren't doing their jobs and are taking a "just try and make me!" attitude toward it. I was absolutely shocked a few years ago when an official from Cache school district bragged on the radio, for everyone to hear, that half of the district's elementary school students were reading at or above grade level. This was evidently something to brag about, that you're only doing a half-@$$ed job. Because, you know, you could be doing a three-eighths-@$$ed job for the same money.

I'm sorry if I offend anyone, but any "educator" who thinks reading levels are some sort of loose guideline that can be ignored half the time is much deluded. Reading levels are supposed to be a minimum standard. Reading is THE essential skill to be taught in school. None of the others matter if you can't read. I think this bill is well-written and much-needed.