If you have heard anything of an epidemic of heroin addiction sweeping Ohio, you will appreciate the law of unintended consequences:
State officials recognized a problem with addiction to prescription painkillers. So to reduce the social and economic costs of addiction, we cracked down on medical purveyors and “pill mills.”
But, as law enforcement and medical professionals now realize, we have ended up with an epidemic that is more dangerous and tougher to control as addicts substitute cheaper and more potent heroin. And all that has flowed from the best of intentions.
Consider how a “good” policy can backfire in this way, and you have to ask whether in a few years we won’t be looking at the hammer of retention that hangs over the heads of 8- and 9-year-olds who can’t read and asking how, with all good intentions, we have created more problems for them than we solved with the Third Grade Reading Guarantee.
There is no telling with certainty how laws and policies will play out once they are released into this complex organism we call society.
There is no way to downplay the importance of reading skills in this day and age. Being unable to read is a real problem that comes with high individual and societal costs —just like addictions. In fact, it would border on criminal negligence to ignore the reams of research findings that tie poor reading skills to low high school graduation rates and fewer economic opportunities, among other disadvantages
Read the many studies, and you also find that reading proficiency closely relates to poverty. Children who live in poor households and neighborhoods and are taught in high-poverty schools often suffer a lag in reading proficiency that progresses through school.
There is, then, a moral and an economic imperative to have children — especially minority children who are disproportionately poor — read well before they leave the primary grades. Gov. John Kasich and state legislators have been at their most persuasive when they have made that case, as they did in enacting the Third Grade Reading Guarantee two years ago.
But the law doesn’t stop at a reading mandate. It requires that schools hold back students in third grade until they are proficient on reading approved tests. “We will not delay any holdback in the third grade if you can’t read,” Kasich said firmly in signing the legislation.
Such resolve in a governor is admirable, but only if there is a solid basis for it. Trouble is, when it comes to the mandatory retention, the research suggests such resolve is misplaced and promises to set students up for unintended consequences. And the majority of these will be the same low-income and minority students the policy is supposed to help.
Nearly one-third of Ohio third-graders failed to reach proficiency levels on state reading tests at the beginning of the school year. If they do not pass the test by this summer, they will be in the first class retained under the guarantee.
When the Ohio Department of Education announced the reading results, a school administrator with years of experience in the classroom shared her frustration. Politicians were running with a policy that sounds good, but there is no good evidence that retention is an effective approach to raising student achievement, she said.
So why haven’t teachers pushed back against a wrong-headed and costly strategy? Protest and be pilloried for favoring social promotion? And be scorned as trying to evade the responsibility to rise to the challenge? It was a weary response.
A stronger advocate for early education and reading proficiency than the Annie E. Casey Foundation will be hard to find. Yet an update to its 2012 report “Early Warning” concluded: “The evidence is not strong enough to support a claim that grade retention is the answer. And the evidence is certainly not strong enough to support mandatory retention for every child who fails a standardized test. …”
The Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy, which examined the extensive research on grade retention in a series of reports in 2005, concluded that students do not benefit academically, socially or emotionally from retention. A study released by the center this winter looked at data from nearly 80,000 students in 334 middle schools in North Carolina. It found that schools that had high percentages of older-than-average or retained students experienced more discipline problems and suspensions across the entire school.
Good intentions don’t always make good policy.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.