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Ohio Third Graders Face Retention Ultimatum: Learn to Read or Repeat the Year

January 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Ohio is one of 14 states to put in place a retention rule that holds back students who are not reading at grade level. Special correspondent John Tulenko reports on the "reading guarantee," which educators say puts enormous pressure on them, and may not actually ensure educational success or lower dropout rates in the future.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: a controversial stance in education, a guarantee that all students leaving third grade are able to read, and a commitment to hold back those who can’t. Fourteen states have adopted these so-called retention rules, while others are considering such legislation this year.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports from Ohio.

MAN: You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.

WOMAN: The Travelocity guarantee.

MAN: The Chevy “love it or return it” guarantee.

JOHN TULENKO: Lots of products come with guarantees.

MAN: You’re not going to pay a lot.

MAN: I guarantee it.

JOHN TULENKO: What if schools could make guarantees, too? In Ohio, they do.

New legislation guarantees that all third graders will read at grade level by the end of the year. Right now, 30 percent, some 40,000 students, are not.

Linda Hissett teaches third grade in Cincinnati.

LINDA HISSETT, teacher: I have some students who are at a kindergarten level reading, first grade level reading, second grade. I look at it with dismay.

JOHN TULENKO: Ms. Hissett is no fan of promoting children before they’re ready. She first saw the effects when she taught fifth grade.

LINDA HISSETT: Their whole day is made harder because all of our texts are based upon a fifth grade reading speed. Math class is harder because you’re having word problems, science, social studies.

So for them to be sitting in a class that is too hard for them, it’s making their education more of a challenge and an obstacle.

JOHN TULENKO: Ohio’s remedy? Hold those students back. A third grader who cannot read by the end of the year will not move on.

STATE SEN. PEGGY LEHNER, R-Ohio: The third grade reading guarantee is going to be very heart of education, and that is the ability to read.

State Sen. Peggy Lehner introduced the guarantee.

PEGGY LEHNER: Up until third grade, you’re learning to read. After third grade, you’re reading to learn. But if you aren’t well-equipped, reading proficiently at the end of third grade, you are going to struggle throughout the rest of your school years.

JOHN TULENKO: Holding the line at third grade is catching on; 14 states have adopted retention policies, six since 2010.

But it’s controversial. Studies suggest repeating a grade doesn’t pay off and may actually result in higher dropout rates down the line, potentially devastating news for disadvantaged minority students. They’re already five times as likely to be held back.

Still, for states fed up with schools that fail to teach students to read, tough-love approaches like Ohio’s are just about guaranteed to deliver a powerful message.

RUTHENIA JACKSON, principal of Carson Elementary School: Everybody was shocked. The first thing that came out of everybody’s mouth was, oh, my God. OK, how are we going to do this?

JOHN TULENKO: The promise to hold students back has put enormous pressure on principals like Ruthenia Jackson of Carson Elementary in Cincinnati.

RUTHENIA JACKSON: The third grade guarantee. It’s the buzzword for the whole school and also the whole district. That’s all we are going to be talking about this year.

JOHN TULENKO: Roughly half her students in grade K through three read below grade level.

RUTHENIA JACKSON: We have got to buckle down and they have got to read. There is no ifs, ands or buts about it.

KIM KEMEN, reading specialist: I will say the word and you say all the sounds in the word.

JOHN TULENKO: Right away, Carson and most other schools rushed out and hired reading specialists. They have been scrambling to test every student in grades K through three.

KIM KEMEN: We’re taking it extremely seriously. I mean, it is urgent.

Song.

KIM KEMEN: The most severe cases, we need to back way up and teach them their basic phonics and things like that.

JOHN TULENKO: To provide more one-on-one help, the school is asking classroom teachers to tutor struggling readers. High school volunteers have been recruited as well. But all these efforts may not be enough.

Can you guarantee that all your third graders will be reading at the end of the year?

RUTHENIA JACKSON: No, I cannot guarantee that. I really can’t.

JOHN TULENKO: How comfortable are you giving us a guarantee that the kids will be reading at the end of the year?

KIM KEMEN: I’m somewhat confident.

JOHN TULENKO: Somewhat is not a guarantee.

(LAUGHTER)

KIM KEMEN: I have a lot of different strategies that I use to help a child learn to read. There’s issues, though, like absenteeism, a child never being exposed to print, a child who only comes to school maybe 20 days in kindergarten, 20 days in first grade, and then they come to me at the second grade. I think teachers in general have so many uncontrollable issues.

JOHN TULENKO: Adding to the challenge is a shortage of seats in preschool. It’s been proven to lay the foundation for reading. But Ohio only provides free preschool for about 6,000 children, leaving an estimated 20,000 others without.

Back in third grade, students needing help may have to wait in line to see the new reading specialists. In many schools, there’s one for hundreds of students.

I did the math. And the reading specialists can meet with each child individually once every 18 days.

PEGGY LEHNER: Not enough, absolutely not enough.

JOHN TULENKO: For some students, the reading guarantee has had harmful consequences. Last year, when 6- and 7-year-old Caylea and Kianesti Williams of Cincinnati were struggling in school, the district sent a tutor to their home twice a week for two-hour sessions.

DARRELL RICE, grandparent: The tutor, she taught with fun, excitement, joy.

JOHN TULENKO: Grandparents Darrell and Pamela Rice are raising the girls.

DARRELL RICE: I noticed that they started liking to go to school. They started asking for the homework. They wanted to do the homework. It was a challenge, and they went for it.

JOHN TULENKO: But with the guarantee came problems for the girls.

Backed by $13 million from the state, about $6,000 per school, the guarantee wouldn’t begin to cover salaries for reading specialists. The state found the funds by eliminating tutoring for the Williams girls and thousands of other students.

DARRELL RICE: And I said, you can’t be real. If I could afford it myself, I would have paid for it, because I thought it was a big help.

PEGGY LEHNER: One of the concerns we have is that not all of that tutoring that people are receiving has been beneficial.

JOHN TULENKO: Following a recommendation from Ohio’s Department of Education, Sen. Lehner supported repurposing the tutoring funds. But, she says, it’s a mistake to think that’s all the money the schools will need to meet the guarantee.

PEGGY LEHNER: I’m hoping that we can put some additional money in.

JOHN TULENKO: How much is it going to take?

PEGGY LEHNER: I think, frankly, we might be looking at $50 million, 60 million.

JOHN TULENKO: Lehner also acknowledges educators’ other concerns about the reading guarantee: lack of preschool and parents who don’t do their part.

There are so many questions around this.

PEGGY LEHNER: Sure.

JOHN TULENKO: Do you ever feel like you are stepping out on a limb on this one?

PEGGY LEHNER: It is a risk. And I think we have to take a risk. We have to change what we are doing, because what we have been doing is not working.

JOHN TULENKO: Can you give us a guarantee that this will work?

PEGGY LEHNER: Of course not. Of course not.

JOHN TULENKO: One thing does appear guaranteed. For better or worse, children will be held back.

RUTHENIA JACKSON: The research shows that, if you retain children over, it doesn’t help them down the line because you just — they are just getting older. And then, eventually, they will get in high school and they will just drop out. Who wants to be 17 in ninth grade? Nobody.

PEGGY LEHNER: I understand that. And I certainly hear it.

The flip side of that, however, is we also know that children who are not reading proficiently in third grade are four times more likely to drop out high school.

JOHN TULENKO: Evidence that holding those students back may be the answer comes from a recent study of Florida, where a third grade guarantee has been in place for years.

PEGGY LEHNER: What they have seen is there have been significant improvements academically in those — in the children who were retained from their peers who moved on. And that has held for up to five years.

JOHN TULENKO: But Florida spent heavily on interventions, including summer school. Ohio hasn’t, betting the threat of holding students back will be enough to guarantee that all third graders will learn to read.