Education’s Siren Call

by Dr. Curtis Ivery

Our schools are not an experiment and their problems will not be solved by an ultimatum.

We need to keep this in mind as we seek answers to a dilemma that’s been plaguing educators and parents for decades: A staggering number of elementary school children are not reading at grade level. In response, the state is issuing a siren call. But, this siren should not screech so loudly that it creates more harm than good.

Under a new state law, third graders whose scores fall in the bottom 5% on the reading portion of Michigan’s annual M-STEP exam will be required to repeat the grade. Based on current data, more than half of the students in the state won’t meet the proficiency standard by the time the law goes into effect this summer. At least 5,000 students will be prevented from advancing to the fourth grade.

This could be a disaster. I agree something drastic must be done. However, I’ve been focused on community initiatives and programs that empower youth for the better part of my career, and I don’t see the state’s mandate as a workable solution. My obvious concern is the negative impact of a law that presents failing as the only option.Failing a child is a major decision, one that should be handled cautiously and not done with haste. A young mind that faces rejection too soon has to grapple with feelings of inferiority. The child may begin to see himself or herself as an underachiever or outcast. For the student who actually is struggling to improve, the notion of academic ineptitude could leave an indelible mark on his or her self-image.

Such perceptions are already higher in lower income communities. A rash of failures as early as the third grade will cripple those communities even more. It doesn’t take a double-blind study to prove that discouraged youth probably won’t graduate from high school. It can be a struggle for high school drop outs to achieve financial stability. Hence, the cycle is reinforced and a generational ripple effect is created or continued.

Instead of such extreme measures, shouldn’t the state explore more effective tutoring strategies and enhanced curriculum? Or, it could assist teachers in identifying and supporting students with special needs. For example, consider Carl (not his real name). At the age of six, he was failing first grade, and his teacher already viewed him as someone beyond saving. I was so amazed by his story that I shared it in my recent book, “Wonder of Words, A Parent’s Guide For Raising Children Who Read.” It turns out that Carl could not read because he was an auditory learner. Once his mom discovered his strength, she enrolled him in a special Saturday program that boosted his learning capacity and led him to where he is today – an engineer with an MBA from the University of Michigan.

Before the state rushes to hold children back, someone needs to determine their learning style, check to see if they need glasses, make sure they aren’t experiencing hearing loss and test them for reading impairments such as Dyslexia (where letters appear out of place or upside down) or Alexia (neurological damage).

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), children who are read to frequently from infancy are more likely to write their own names (50% vs. 40%) or read to pretend to read (77% vs. 57%) at an earlier age. The results of being read to are direct and immediate, and it gives children tools to success as they begin their educational path.

We, as parents and educators, should own this problem and not pass it on to our children.

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