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Excellence in Education Strategy Session: The K-3 Reading Strategy: Cementing the Foundation of Lifelong Success

• Mike Thomas

Retaining third graders who cannot read only works when backed by other initiatives that prioritize literacy in the early grades.

The combination can result in impressive reading gains, said a panel of experts and policy makers at the National Summit on Education Reform in Boston Thursday.

“It’s tough love, loaded with love,’’ explained said Mary Laura Bragg, National Director for Policy and Implementation for the Foundation on Excellence in Education.

In Florida, Bragg said “intervention starts in day one.’’ Kindergartners are screened for reading potential in their first 30 days. Those identified as potentially having difficulty are given individual reading plans. Parents are notified and given strategies for working with their children. Elementary teachers all receive specialized training in reading.

Students who score at the lowest level of the third-grade reading exam, or cannot obtain a good cause exemption, are retained. Districts are required to offer summer reading programs. Students then receive a year of intensive instruction.

Between 2000-01 and 2008-09, Florida saw the percent of third graders scoring at the lowest level in reading almost cut in half from 29 percent to 16 percent. The retention rate was cut from 14.4 percent to 6.6 percent.

Ohio has adopted policies similar to Florida’s but included strict requirements for reading teachers, said State Sen. Peggy Lehner, who is Chair of the Senate Education Committee. These include a K-12 reading endorsement on a teaching license or a master’s degree with a major in reading. Lehner said the added requirements have caused  some problems for schools trying to find qualified teachers.

This will be the first year the state will retain poor readers. But an elementary school that adopted the policy a year ahead of time has seen strong gains in reading scores, Lehner said.

“Kids are starting to learn how to read,’’ she said. “It may be draconian, but it works.’’

Last year Colorado passed the READ Act, which wraps a number of reading initiatives around third-grade retention.

“We had 10 years of flat reading scores, while Florida outdid us by 2½ (grade levels),’’ said Scott Laband, president of Colorado Succeeds, a non-profit, non-partisan coalition of business leaders committed to improving education in the state.

This is how Laband described his strategy: “Gentle persuasion applied relentlessly.’’

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at