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K-3 Reading Policies Should Not Stop at Identifying a Problem

• Matt Minnick

My fiancé, Chrissy, is a nurse. Over the last few years I’ve learned nurses are not only wonderful, caring people, but due to the nature of their job they have many fantastic stories. Whether they are stories of triumph, stories of heartache, or just stories of some fancy procedure, it is always a nice change of pace from the education policy world my brain most often resides in.

The other day Chrissy was excitedly telling me about a new treatment plan they were trying on a patient with a fairly uncommon illness. As she described it, my mind started to make its inevitable connection back to education policy. K-3 reading was the ultimate destination.

It is now accepted that students who cannot read on grade level by the end of third grade typically enjoy much less success in their academic and career endeavors than their strong-reading peers. This is largely due to fourth grade being the year where students switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” and a child who is behind at the start of 4th grade almost always falls further and further behind as they progress through middle and high school—if they even make it to high school.

Knowing that fourth grade is such a pivotal year, a number of states—starting with Florida in 2002—have implemented policies that require students who cannot meet basic reading standards by the end of third grade, and absent any good cause exemption, to be retained for another year. And despite loud cries from critics, a decade later the research shows Florida’s policy works; quite well in fact. So, what does any of this have to do with nursing? I’m glad you asked.

Like a doctor diagnosing an illness in his patient, a teacher determining a student cannot read on grade level is the identification of an issue that should be addressed. However, simply identifying the issue is only half the battle. The other half is actually developing and implementing a strategy to appropriately address the issue.

Imagine your child being diagnosed with strep throat and instead of prescribing an antibiotic, the doctor decided to just have your child tested again a month later, hoping the infection would somehow clear up on its own. I’m betting you would change doctors, right? Well, that’s all a third-grade retention policy is if it does not also provide for strategies and infrastructure to address the deficiencies of the struggling readers—and not just in the “retained year” either. Any good nurse or doctor would tell you that early detection, followed by early treatment, makes the success rate much higher. Similarly, good K-3 literacy policies should put procedures in place to start identifying struggling readers well before the critical third-grade deadline. Early identification of struggling readers— as early as Kindergarten—allows the deficiency to be addressed before the child falls behind and gives more time for instruction that works best for the individual learning style of that child.

Chrissy was excited about the new treatment plan they were implementing with her patient is because she believed it would allow the patient’s body to start getting better. They were not just identifying the illness, but also working to fully address it. Identifying a child as “below grade level” in reading and then making that child take another reading test one, two, or three years later, without offering additional literacy services to the child, does not fully address the issue. This is why Florida’s policy works so well— it goes beyond just identifying the problem and implements a treatment plan that allows the struggling reader to start getting better.


*Editor’s Note:

The Foundation supports performance-based promotion and rigorous interventions, particularly for third-grade students who can’t read. You can find out more by watching this video:

About the author

Matt Minnick

Matt Minnick is the Regional Advocacy Associate for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He is a Teach For America alumni, joining the corps in 2007 and teaching courses in English and Public Speaking at the D.M. Therrell School of Law, Government, and Public Policy, in Atlanta, Georgia. A native Floridian, Matt attended Florida public schools from Kindergarten through 12th grade. He graduated cum laude from North Carolina State University, earning a B.A. in Media Communication with a double minor in Creative Writing and Political Science. Following his years as a teacher, Matt earned a J.D. from the Florida State University College of Law, graduating cum laude. While at Florida State, Matt won a Mock Trial championship and spent a summer working for the General Counsel of the National School Boards Association. Contact Matt at