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Sunday, June 16, 2024 - 12:45 AM


First Published in 1994


Failing Schools Frustrate Everyone

I once hired a young lady who was in the 11th grade, but once on the job she had multiple problems following directions. I finally realized that she could not read, so I contacted the principal of her high school to get this student help. The principal's answer shocked me: "I know that she cannot read." Yet, this student had been promoted every year to the next grade level despite her school knowing full well that she could not read and thus was unable to learn at a high school level or to perform the tasks of an entry-level job. This school did the student a disservice and was not preparing her for life. For the school, it is easier to promote the slow student every year than it is for the educators to solve the problem.

I was reminded of this sad story with a recent news article: "More States Threaten to Hold Back Third-Graders Who Struggle to Read" (Wall Street Journal 8/18/23). The shutdown of schools for Covid has left many students scholastically behind. Only 33 percent of American 4th-graders scored "proficient" or higher on reading tests in 2022. Tennessee has a new law that requires students entering the 4th grade to pass a reading test or be held back and repeat the 3rd grade. This spring, 60 percent of Tennessee 3rd graders failed to pass that reading test. After the parents scrambled for summer tutoring for their children, only 1 percent of the students will be repeating 3rd grade.

No one wants to hold back students for an extra year, because although the difference in age may seem minor in elementary school, a year difference in age in middle and high schools can cause a host of social, athletic, and academic problems.

The politicians in Tennessee and 14 other states are trying to hold schools accountable for not teaching the basics by using the threat of forced retention. These new laws are unlikely to work because parents do not want their child to repeat a grade. But if the child cannot read, then early intervention is key to success. Third grade is already too late; children should know how to read at the end of first grade. If a child does not learn how to read, the school has wasted precious time and has failed the child.

My former employee did eventually learn how to read, but only because I shamed the school into taking action.