Educator concerned about third-grade reader rule

The Third Grade Reading Guarantee has generated considerable buzz. But I am concerned that the guarantee made by our legislators will actually harm student literacy.

It penalizes under-performing students and does not provide the funding necessary for supplemental programs to help them improve their skills.

Manufacturers do not penalize you when a guaranteed product or service fails you. So why will Ohio’s legislators make a child pay when the legislation’s guarantee is set up for failure?

Literacy should be front and center in the public education conversation. Currently, an estimated 30 percent of Ohio third graders read below grade-level. This is a problem, but a virtually unfunded mandate is not the solution.

The impact of those reading below grade level becomes apparent when one realizes that up to third grade, children are learning to read; after third grade, children are reading to learn. A child’s ability to read impacts every area of their education-from reading history textbooks, to understanding word problems, to following instructions in science class.

The Third Grade Reading Guarantee mandates that any child not reading to standard by the end of third grade must be held back. Legislators position the guarantee as a way to help children, but research demonstrates holding a child back does not work. Every educator would agree that reading proficiency is a critical factor in a student’s success, but Ohio’s solution is not informed by current education research or best practices.

On the surface, the language of the legislation sounds appealing. Who does not like a guarantee of successful learners? Sadly, Ohio’s version of the guarantee is virtually unfunded and as a result sets children up for failure.

Florida is often cited as a state that made the reading guarantee work, but they poured money into the program. Since 2005, the state has put more than $500 million toward K-12 reading programs.

Florida was serious about solving the problem; that state invested what was needed to effect change and succeeded as a result. Florida’s legislators backed their guarantee. If we want the same results, we must be willing to face the same financial realities and commit real resources to addressing the issue just as Florida did.

Ohio lawmakers say this mandate shows commitment to bettering public education. However, if their commitment to increasing student reading proficiency is real, Ohio must be willing to financially support it as well as necessary educational interventions.

But where did Ohio find the paltry funding earmarked for the Third Grade Reading Guarantee? By pulling funding from existing, proven intervention programs like preschool.

Studies show that preschool programs lay the foundations for reading. But Ohio has slashed funding to preschool programs for low-income families to support the reading guarantee. There will only be funding to send 6,000 children to preschool, leaving approximately 20,000 without support.

Ohio legislators who supported the mandate acknowledge that even after removing funding from early intervention programs, conservatively an additional $50-60 million is needed to fund the guarantee. The problem is that the bill made no provisions to deliver this needed money. Ohio is not prepared to implement the guarantee, and we are not prepared to deal with its consequences.

What about children who are held back? Studies suggest repeating a grade results in increased dropout rates. Even experts who support retention do not support a blanket policy of its implementation. The most reasonable position is that retention might work for some students, but it must be used judiciously.

The consequences of this extreme step will be felt most by marginalized children. Minorities and children of low-income families are already five times more likely to drop out of high school. The extremely underfunded Third Grade Reading Guarantee stands to increase this serious problem facing our children’s futures.

Upon close examination, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee currently on the books in Ohio unfortunately seems like empty rhetoric. It might be fit for a stump speech, but it’s not something the state can build on. Real commitments require real funding.

Let’s care about all of Ohio’s children and fund programs that enable them to rise up and meet the mark. Let’s assume the responsibility for the guarantees we make.

Join me in writing to your local legislators and say that you want to stand behind the state’s guarantee and expect them to do the same. No child should be left behind because we are unwilling to value and fund their education.

Renee A. Middleton, Ph.D, is dean of Ohio University’s The Gladys W. & David H. Patton College of Education, McCracken Hall 133, Athens.