Today in the Courier Journal I read an interesting article – New bill could hold many kids back a grade by Mandy McLaren, Louisville Courier Journal, USA Today Network. This article brings out strong emotions on my part. Why? Steam starts to rise when I see – “hold many kids back a grade” and test for deficiencies beginning in kindergarten at the beginning, middle, and end of the year.
Legislators want to stop the cycle of students being deficient in math and reading in the state of Kentucky. Bravo – I’m pretty confident the education community wants the same thing. I find it interesting that House Bill 272 is called the Kids First Act. The bill would focus on the early grades especially 3rd grade. As people consider this bill, it will be important to ask if each component REALLY puts kids first.
If Kentucky students are not proficient in math and reading by the end of third grade they would be required to attend summer school and complete intensive remediation or risk being retained. The first part of the statement could put kids first if done right. Summer school that provides intensive remediation might be a good course of action among other strategies. The second part of the statement concerning retention gives me pause. When the retention piece comes into play, I question if that puts kids first.
This bill is supported by Commissioner Wayne Lewis. According to the article, the Commissioner agrees with the bill. I think most people would be in agreement with the Commissioner when he states that kids who can’t read face many hurdles that are difficult to overcome. So how do we ensure that students can read and be proficient in math and make sure to put kids first? This is the million dollar question.
Mr. Lewis says it’s not OK to socially promote kids. Most educators would agree with you Mr. Lewis. Where I find fault is in the Commissioner’s lack of understanding about teachers and retention. Mr. Lewis obviously believes that we have teachers that say let’s just move these kids on. Actually it is just the opposite. Teachers struggle with how to best remediate students. Some have no trouble holding kids back, even for 2 years. But is retention the answer? What is the best remediation for a student? Is retaining a student in the best interest of the child? Is it putting kids first? Will this strategy actually impact academic achievement? From my experience a student that is retained, does better the next year because they are repeating material they have been exposed to. But if you look at the look term impact – the gains do not hold up. I’m not going to say never hold a child back. But each child needs to be looked at individually and retention should be the absolute last resort. If retention is selected as a strategy, those making that decision should feel confident that this will impact the child’s academic growth. They should also be confident that this will be in the best interest of the whole child, and will not negatively impact the child later in life. If it is not going to have a great impact on academic growth throughout their school career – why is retention a strategy? Is this kids first?
Self-esteem was mentioned in the article in regards to retention. But let’s put that aside and focus only on the academic growth. I want to see the research that says this is a good strategy to improve reading and math instruction. We want the achievement gap closed. Is retention the answer in most cases? The president of the Kentucky Education Foundation suggests funding preschool and full day kindergarten as a strategy – sounds good. The bill’s sponsor suggests supporting struggling students before 3rd grade – also sounds good. Kids first?
The bill has 3 main parts: early intervention, third grade retention, and teacher preparation. The early intervention would focus on screenings in math and reading for deficiencies 3 times a year beginning in kindergarten. Kids labeled as deficient will be put on an academic improvement plan. LORD HELP US! Let’s take away more instruction time. When will politicians ever begin to listen to educators? We should be able to come up with better ways to provide early intervention strategies that put kids first. Screenings three times a year and labeling them as deficient and putting them on an improvement plan – that’s really putting kids first?
The other component of the bill is that teachers will have to be trained in reading and math strategies such as the 5 components of reading. It is hard for me to believe that there are teachers out there that have not received this training. The five components of reading have been around for many years. The danger I see in this is that schools will be given prescriptive teaching with templates to be used with all students. We forget that one size does not fit all even in reading and math. But I have seen this happen in Indiana – teachers will all teach the same way at the same time in the same exact manner. I’m all for teacher professional development, but am strongly against a one size fits all approach and lessons that are developed for teachers to use in the exact same way with no creativity or planning based on their own classroom of students. I am all for looking at data and planning for student growth based on that data. But I have seen administrators only look at those data points and not take into consideration teacher observations and other data points that show the results may not be the best indicator of what the child knows. Is this kids first?
The article mentioned phonics and phonemic awareness. Yes – those are two components of reading. But are those the two main components that kids are lacking when they fail the state test? When I watched some third graders take the state test – they could read the test. They could use phonics and phonemic awareness to figure out words. They could “word call.” But they didn’t always understand the text or the questions being asked or the choices being given for multiple choice answers. People just assume the kids can’t read. Many times, they can read but struggle with the test. Sometimes the tests are not the best. Sometimes kids shut down because they have been told – if you don’t pass this, you will be held back. There are so many variables that go into test taking. Teachers do their best to try and prepare the students for all the variables. Yet, we are also told: Don’t teach to the test. These are kindergartners, first graders, second graders, and third graders. We are constantly testing them. Is this kids first?
And of course the BIG question is – where will the funding come from? This is how we do things in education. We propose bills and have no idea how to fund them. If we are going to implement strategies to improve academic achievement and put kids first, there will need to be funding. Not having funding – is this kids first?
Should we continue to find ways to close the achievement gap? Yes! Should we put kids first? We should! Should we find ways to help students who appear to lack reading and math skills? Of course! Do we accomplish this with test after test after test? No. Do we hold kids back? This is answered with another question: Will this improve academic growth and achievement in the long run?
The million dollar question: How do we close the achievement gap and at the same time put kids first? I don’t think this bill is the answer. Is this bill really Kids First?