Golfing legend and Buckeye alumnus Jack Nicklaus once said that concentration is a fine antidote to anxiety. As with any new legislation, Ohio’s requirement that students be able to read by the end of third grade is causing anxiety for some school administrators, parents and teachers. Having helped Florida and other states implement similar policies, the Foundation for Excellence in Education encourages Ohioans to stay the course and concentrate.
To be sure, the new law will require some hard conversations – most notably around funding. Elementary schools will need to decide that reading is their top priority and then organize their budgets and staff accordingly. When pressed for more funding, voters and policymakers will need to ask schools how existing dollars are being used. When faced with the need to adjust class and building schedules to accommodate reading interventions, districts must ask whether failure to do so will feed the dropout problem and hurt the community’s tax base.
Ample evidence supports what common sense already tells us: the connection between reading ability and success in life is real. The Annie E. Casey Foundation has found that students who cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school. Not all reading policies are created equal, however. The key difference in the Florida-born policy is that retention is a last resort, embedded within a strategy that identifies reading-deficient students early and provides intense help to those students. Research shows Florida’s policy produced tangible gains that students carry into the later grades.
This intervention-plus-retention approach is the strategy Ohio now has in place. But schools obviously cannot do it alone. Businesses and community groups should be involved, for today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce and leaders. Parents will also need to keep an open mind. If Florida’s experience is any guide, many more students will be retained these first couple years as everyone adjusts to the policy. The effort will be worth it, though.
In the past decade, the illiteracy rate for Florida’s third-grade students has been cut in half and the number of retentions has dropped by almost as much. This is no coincidence. Florida schools are identifying struggling readers earlier and intervening with needed services, preventing the need for retention. And all of this in a state where over half of the students are low-income.
A former governor once said that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Implementing a meaningful law to help students read is most definitely the latter. But when it comes time to open their textbooks, we believe Ohio’s policies will allow students to be fluent in both.
This op-ed was originally posted on Cincinnati.com September 18, 2012
About the author
Neil serves as a Regional Advocacy Director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He came to the Foundation after 3½ years with the Indiana Department of Education, first as legislative liaison and policy advisor and most recently as director of the Hoosier state’s new school voucher program. Neil has also served as a policy analyst for Educational Testing Service, and began his career on the staff of then-U.S. Senator George Voinovich. A native Ohioan, Neil is a proud graduate of Notre Dame and holds a Masters degree from Johns Hopkins. He is also a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan. Neil serves as the Regional Advocacy Director for the Central region and his portfolio of states includes: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Contact Neil at Neil@excelined.org