Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Stitch in Time

The St. Petersburg Times (Florida) ran a story last week about the effects of the Florida policy that has mandated that thousands of third graders repeat third grade after failing to meet the standards the first time. Apparently, minorities are more likely to be held back and that those students who are held back tend to do much better in school as a result of their retention. If you just read the first two (or even 12) paragraphs, it seems like a solid blow against that unspeak bugaboo, the dreaded social promotion.

For the purposes of this post, let's set aside the issues of minorities being more likely to be retained. This is apparently true even when you compare students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds and academic performances. That's interesting, but not what I'm looking at today.

Instead, I want to draw your attention to the 13th paragraph of the story which slips in that Florida law mandates that retained children get extra help including 90 minutes of extra reading instruction each day. No wonder the kids do better as a result. They get an extra hour and a half of reading instruction every day.

First of all, this is retention done right. Forcing kids to repeat a grade without providing extra help just proves that old definition of insanity (repeating the same action but expecting different results). If you're going to retain kids, you have to do something different to try to help them. An extra 90 minutes of reading instruction would do that trick.

If we were serious about educating kids instead of just showing how tough and "accountable" we're being, we might even say that it makes sense to try to be a little proactive about this stuff. Every school has a pretty good idea of who the kids are who aren't going to pass the test. Teachers know who's struggling in the classroom. So instead of waiting for the kids to fail and then retain them with the extra help, why not just give them the extra help. Intervene earlier to help close the knowledge and achievement gaps before they're really able to open. It just makes sense.

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