Friday, August 2, 2013

How Many of Our Third Graders Will Flunk this Year? Will Someone You Love Fail?

Yes, Oklahoma has a third-grade flunk law, along with several other ALEC states. Our politicians are very proud of it. Educators are appalled and horrified. We understand NO ONE should have his or her future dependent on one test, one day in April. But, Jeb Bush wants it and Janet Barresi is happy to oblige.

While the law was being debated in the OK House of Representatives, a colleague and I exchanged letters with its author, Representative Sally Kern. She got distracted by another of her foot-in-mouth episodes after one response and didn't write again, but we all knew the bill would become law despite our concerns.

I now share our letter, and Rep. Kern's response in the hopes of bringing this issue to the front of everyone's mind. I'm leaving all the different fonts to help the reader move from one to another letter.

This year, third graders WILL fail. They will be held back despite what their parents, their teachers, their administrators, know is the right thing for them. They WILL fail. And the first child who is labeled as a failure will be OUR failure. Our complacency will create chaos in the schools.

If you are a parent of a third grader, the grandparent, the aunt or uncle...if you are a neighbor of a third grader...if you attend church with parents of third graders, you must act. Contact your Legislators and howl. Long, loud. Our children need you.

Michale Gentry's and my letter to Representative Sally Kern:

Dear Rep. Kern:

When you were writing your third-grade promotion bill, how many professional educators did you consult? Reading specialists? Special education experts? Child-development experts?  In other words, how many teachers did you talk to? Judging from two educators’ concerns, we don’t think you asked any teachers or education experts.  If you had asked, we would have agreed with your very sincere wishes for all students to be successful. But we could have pointed out the serious flaws of your bill, and we could have helped make it realistic, based on what we know about children, their learning, and best practices in teaching young readers.

 Have you studied other states’ success rates with retaining third graders – other states, besides Florida?  Have you researched the long-term outcomes of retaining students? Education experts almost unanimously agree retention leads to behavior problems, achievement difficulties, and higher drop-out rates. Few students who have short-term gains sustain those gains over time. Dr. Linda Darling Hammond, a nationally-known teacher-educator cited the research recently when asked about this bill. Dr. Barresi quoted a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Double Jeopardy, in supporting your bill. Unfortunately she was inaccurate in her belief that poor reading at third grade caused poverty. A close reading of the study shows that poverty is more likely to lead to poor reading, not, as she said, poor reading skills leading to poverty.

You yourself said that about 12% of our third graders are not reading at grade level. We cannot help but wonder about the amount of time and man-hours invested at the Legislature for these 12% of third graders. Oklahoma currently has over 20% of our children living in poverty. If we believe the link between poverty and low achievement, then elementary teachers and students in our state are performing heroically.  Many are overachieving right now, without this bill. We cannot help but wonder what you could accomplish if you spent time addressing the root causes of poverty in our state, helping these children and their parents who suffer poor nutrition, poor health, homelessness. What if you worked to solve poverty in our state, instead of threatening third graders with being retained? 

You tell us there will be no extra costs in this bill – that forcing children to spend an additional year in school will not cost us more. How can that be? How can thirteen years of education cost the same as twelve? Are you sure this law will be funded? This year, funds for RSA have not been delivered to school districts as promised? Last year schools did not receive the funds until February.  At this point in the year, the funds are band-aids...not part of a comprehensive plan.  Additionally, the requirement to keep portfolios with all work for all students falling behind in reading will cost us storage and materials costs as well as staff hours. Schools must provide parents with timely feedback about student progress. This means any portfolio materials would have to be photocopied, giving a copy to the parents, and a copy for the school’s portfolio, adding more costs. Finally, the alternative assessments you suggest will surely cost us money. This bill WILL become another unfunded mandate.

Do you really think you can mandate higher reading scores by threatening retention, adding or changing the structure of the already existing paperwork (Individual Reading Plans), assessments and portfolios, while ignoring the true needs of students, families and teachers? 
Students need support from home and school; parents need information and access to the school and community resources; and teachers need professional development to hone their literacy instruction skills.  Perhaps most overlooked by those outside education, educators need time to collaborate, plan and evaluate meaningful student learning and then plan further instruction from that data.  High quality instruction does not happen by accident; it happens when teachers know students well and when teachers have proper supports to allow the data to drive the instruction.  Look at the models in the high-achieving countries.  Teachers in these countries are treated as professionals and are given time to study their work and make the gains with students that are very much within reach with proper support.  Students and teachers need the support of strong library media specialists and school leaders who will work to inspire a love of reading...not just for a test...but for life.  All of these components are critical to increasing literacy skills which will lead to greater learning and higher achievement.

On the floor of the house, you repeatedly assured your colleagues that this bill would save money, because there would be fewer special education students. On what evidence do you base that assertion? We believe it is flawed in two ways. Special education funding comes from the federal government, as part of the IDEA federal law. What kind of savings do you envision for Oklahoma? And our second concern is your belief that learning disabilities or intellectual disabilities can be “prevented” with an extra year in school. In fact, retaining a child whose learning disabilities factored into his or her reading difficulties could be considered malpractice. The least restrictive environment for a child with learning disabilities is not with younger students.

Another deep concern is the practicality of promoting children mid-year. What is your plan to deal with the academic and social fallout that will come from mid-year promotion?  Have you considered what will happen to those students when they are promoted and have missed a semester of math, language, science, social studies?  These students will continue to take standardized tests, based on cumulative knowledge, some of which could be missed as students repeat a semester of third grade, and then move into second semester of fourth grade. There will be social implications of moving children from class to class in the middle of the year, including issues of materials, space, and social dynamics.  If students are proficient in other subject areas why not increase services for literacy instruction instead of holding them back from their peers?  Why not expand the Individual Reading Plans that are already in place for these students, with the promised funding, to hire reading tutors, to purchase materials for targeted instruction and to provide high quality professional development?

You told your fellow lawmakers there would be an "alternative assessment" available to retest students for this mid-year promotion. Is it available now? Will someone have to write, validate, field-test it before we give it to our students? Will we have to buy it, lose more instruction time to administer it, pay to have it scored and returned to us?  Will this be consistent across the state or will there be loopholes for certain students?  These are vital questions that must be answered before we move forward. Every child in this state and his or her parents deserves these answers.  Will they be consistent from student to students and school to school?  How exactly will our current system of placing students on an IRP, Individual Reading Plan change?  Will it be enhanced and further supported or simply be a new testing and filing system?

Either of the signers of this letter would have been happy to sit down with you and tell what will and won't work in the classroom, what we've already accomplished, what others (Texas, for example) have attempted and are abandoning. We would have told you the idea of a portfolio with 'everything' a student produces from kindergarten to the end of third grade is impossible to assemble and store...and doing that for four of five students in a class would be overwhelming, including the time and materials to photocopy all the papers.

We could tell you we already have a system in place where students are placed on an IRP if they are not proficient on the state assessment at the beginning of the year in grades 1-3 and this information travels with them in their cumulative folder.  The teachers meet with parents and sign off on a plan for the year.  Students remain on the plan until they are proficient or until they go to 4th grade.  Does this system need to be improved?  Absolutely!  The initial intent of the Reading Sufficiency Act was that it would continue through eighth grade--each year picking up another year--to be a comprehensive support system.   How will student's reading improve if we are changing paperwork but not addressing the root causes and issues associated with our greatest achievement gaps? 

Please, come spend some time in our schools before you concoct any more magic potions that will ultimately leave scars in the academic and social lives of our students for years to come.  Ask us. We want to be part of the solutions.  We are deeply committed to our students; we are invested in their success. We have experience, knowledge, and a deep understanding of learning...and achievement.  None of us can solve these complicated issues alone.  True reform involves listening, respect and both top-down and bottom-up initiatives. There are thousands of highly professional educators in our state who have the expertise to craft a real solution at little or no cost to the state. There are Master Teachers, National Board Certified Teachers, Teachers of the Year and finalists. There are Staff Development Committee members around the state who need to be part of this discussion. Parents need to be part of this discussion, as well as students. This bill is deeply flawed because you chose not to include those of us closest to the work. Every day, we attend to the issues of our shared literacy concerns.  Please allow us the opportunity to be part of this conversation. Let us show you that educators in Oklahoma are a valuable part of the equation. The solutions we can create together will reap rewards for our students and the future of the great state we have all chosen as home.

Michale Gentry
Madison Elementary
Norman, OK
National Board Certified Teacher

Claudia Swisher
Norman North High School
Norman, OK
National Board Certified Teacher

 And her response to us:


Thank you for your email regarding the third grade retention bill.  I appreciate you taking the time to express your concerns.

Yes, I did talk with some elementary school teachers about the bill as well as look at what Florida has done.  I also looked at what Massachusetts has done.  I even talked with parents who wished their child had been retained and some who said they want their child held back.

There are numerous studies showing that social promotion is harmful to children and making sure they can read is the best thing you can do for them.  You state that “education experts almost unanimously agree retention leads to behavior problems, etc.  There are just as many experts who disagree.  ”I was a teacher in high school for close to 20 years and was always amazed at how many twelfth graders I would have that could not read well at all.  These were the ones who had discipline problems, could care less about school, and were totally unengaged with anything to do with education.  What kind of education have they received sitting in class all those years and not being able to learn?

Concerning the mid year promotion, no student can be promoted past October 31.  Yes, they will have to take a test and it is already in place.  No funds will need to be expended for purchasing new tests.  Regarding an extra year in school, that will be a lot less expensive than a few years in prison.  Statistics show that over half of the male prison population cannot read at a fifth grade level.

This program will be phased in beginning with next year’s first graders.  That will give teachers three years to provide extra reading instruction to those students found as having a deficiency in reading.  Given this intensive reading instruction, there should be fewer students who will need to be retained.  Your argument about portfolios seems to be just an excuse to oppose the bill. Doing something on a day by day basis is always easier than looking at the whole task all at once. 

Obviously, we will never agree on this issue.  I appreciate the time and effort you give your students.  Teachers touch the future as few others do. 

Again, thank you for your email.  I hope you’ll pass mine along to your colleague who also wrote me.

God bless,

Sally Kern

Mine to her: 

Dear Rep. Kern
Thank you for responding quickly and personally to our note. I would have appreciated a more thorough response, but I know you’re busy, and we can begin a dialogue at least.
I was interested by your characterization of parents you talked with: “parents who wished their child had been retained and some who said they want their child held back.” So, parents felt that was the correct thing for their children and didn’t do it? I’m aghast. They knew their child needed an extra year, and they didn’t do it? I have taught every grade level in public education and I have sat in meetings where teachers and parents had these hard conversations. Never has a parent’s wish been ignored. Parents are the final word, or at least they are until your law passes. Then, the decision will be out of their hands for good. But until that happens, I must wonder about the motivation of parents who do not make the correct decision for their own children.

I find it ironic that you feel you’re supporting those parents by taking the rights of other parents away from them. Your bill will make it impossible for parents and teachers together to make the right decision for each child. Now, all children who struggle with reading, for whatever reason, will be forced to bow to the will of the state Legislature who will never set eyes on the children, or know the ramifications of their action.

I guess we could trade expert opinions forever, but I stand firmly with the National Association of School Psychologists and the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research in their findings that this political move may be harmful to children. A quick google search finds Oklahoma is firmly on the bandwagon of other Republican state governments beating up on teachers and blaming students for their difficulties. That does not make this bill right for children; it just makes it politically popular – at the moment. I would be interested in reading the studies you’re basing your work on.
You decried the students in your twelfth grade classes for their ‘unengaged’ attitudes. I, too, have taught seniors: English 4. And I must say, if my students were disengaged, then I wasn’t doing my job. If I knew a student needed materials at a different level, or a different method of lesson delivery, it was my moral obligation to make sure I engineered my classroom so that every student could learn. Will they all learn, even in the best of classrooms? No. Not until their basic needs for health and security and food are met. Not until their lives are free from other distractions. But it is my moral obligation to give students the opportunity to succeed. My experience and training give me the tools to see every student in my class and find the right way to teach each one. Discipline problems? Not if I’m doing my job. If I am, I’m anticipating problems and planning ways to avoid them. I do not blame my students for my lack of professionalism, for choosing not to do the hard work of teaching.
So, mid-year promotion will be at the first nine weeks? My concerns remain. And what about the child who’s strong in math and science whose development in reading lags? Will that child’s other skills stagnate while he or she spends more time in third grade?

I find your remark about an extra year of school costing less than being in prison highly offensive. Are you saying children are destined to prison if they’re not retained in third grade? What about addressing, as you chose not to in our first letter, the underlying factors of incarceration and poor performance in school? What about the elephant in the room? What about poverty? Sub-par health care? What about children who take home back packs of food every Friday, but don’t eat because they’re making sure their younger brothers and sisters have food over the weekend? Yes, many people who are imprisoned have low reading levels. Many are mentally retarded. Do you have the figures that show these prisoners come from strong middle-class backgrounds, or is poverty the underlying factor, as it is with poor reading? Your remark is not worthy of a political discussion.
You say this program will be phased in over three years, giving ‘teachers three years to provide extra reading instruction.’ Do you honestly believe early-childhood teachers are twiddling their thumbs now, doing nothing? Are you aware of the interventions in place at this time? Are you aware of the Reading Sufficiency Act that has tracked children who are lagging behind, giving them all kinds of extra attention? Are you also aware of the fact that the Legislature has not funded RSA for this year at all? We are already giving students ‘intensive reading instruction,’ and in many ways we’re winning the fight for literacy: over 20% of Oklahoma’s children live in poverty, and only 12% are not proficient readers at the end of third grade. Are we satisfied with that? Of course not, but we understand child development and we know students do not progress equally in all aspects of their education. 

One of my students from years ago struggled in reading as a third grader, a fourth grader, and a fifth grader. We promoted him, with supports from our reading lab and a fantastic library, because we knew developmentally it was the right thing to do. This decision was made by the people who knew him best – his parents, his teachers, and his administrator. Right now, that young man is a junior high social studies teacher, and a National Board Certified Teacher.

I shared your letter with my colleagues and they raised other concerns:  will students be retained multiple times? Will we have 12-year-old third graders under this plan? Are we ready for the intimidation of other students by such students? What about the alternative assessments? You did not address this here except to say a test is ‘already in place.’ Do you know about Stephen Krashen’s research pointing to strong school libraries as a significant factor in student performance? But HB3029 last session froze library funding for years.  You’ve weakened a program that could be helping every public school student in our state. One colleague wondered about the first grader who could pass the third grade reading proficiency…would he or she be promoted to fourth grade?

We teachers have repeatedly reminded policymakers that we have expertise, we have experience, and we have a huge stake in the success of our students. We deserve to be included in policy decisions. We deserve to help form the policies we live with, the policies we are charged with carrying out.
This discussion goes deeper than ‘we will never agree on this issue.’ We all have the same goal: we want every child in Oklahoma to be a successful student, every year of his or her school career. There is common ground. We want to find that common ground. Do you?


Claudia Swisher


  1. Well put, Claudia. This issue is far more complex than many of our legislators acknowledge or understand.

    I recall looking around the room a couple of years ago at the 12 of us who were finalists as state Teacher of the Year. Even then it saddened me to think about this esteemed group of educators, whose knowledge, experience, and wisdom in our field, would not be tapped for input on crucial state decisions such as the one you eloquently described above.

    Having attended public schools does not automatically make one an expert decision-maker for public school policies and practices.

    Dr. Jill E. Steeley, NBCT

  2. I am curious as to what will happen if a really good 3rd grade teacher can get 50% of her class to pass the 3rd grade reading test and they are promoted at the end of October. She will be left with 15 plus students and some poor 4th grade teacher will now have an additional 15 plus students that missed the first 3 months of the year!!! In my building we joke about there being 15 third grade classes and one split 4th/5th grade class with about 20 students. Maybe it isn't so funny after all.

  3. What, if any, consideration is given to the child in an IEP? My son is in 3rd grade now. Has been in an IEP for 2 years, and was held back already in 3rd grade. He STILL is not reading up to a level that will allow him to be promoted to the 4th grade. He has been tested for a learning disability and IQ. He is above average in IQ and has no learning disability. He does have RAD, ADHD, and recently depression/anxiety that is well controlled. It is heartbreaking to know he will be held back, something I thought his IEP, remedial work, special reading lab, and other programs would protect him from. He simply sees reading as a horribly daunting task that gets worse each year as his peers progress and he barely progresses. Encouragement, practice, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and everything else in between has done NOTHING. Buying books he likes, telling him he can't order until he reads the menu, telling him he has to read the instructions for an awesome new toy to play it...NOTHING. This law offers even less hope for him and me!

    1. Tiffany, I BELIEVE the efforts you and your son's teachers have made will be noted and used in his favor. Talk to them NOW!! Talk to your Legislators. Until we put a human face to the consequences of their actions in OKC, they'll think everything is running swimmingly...and you and I know IT'S NOT!! Talk to your teachers, and then if you feel comfortable, tell your story. I'll help with the logistics if you like! Thinking good thoughts

  4. I continue to find your observations that overpower thoughtful opposition. The trick is getting people with standing to read and act.Rep Doug Cox ( R ) M.D. might appreciate your approach. He will probably not support your argument outside the Republican Caucus. You might try with a 500 word piece.Your writing will establish your expertise.No need to introduce your self. Looking through 100 e-mails is like scanning a big newspaper to see which articles you will read. He is the smartest person in the House. The Ok Observer is another option,letters to the editor. Thank you. Joe Eddins

  5. Good to know...Is he a member of the Ed Committee? You seem to be an experienced lobbyist...any other tips?