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Opinion | Once again, politicians win and educators lose

“So here we go again. A dog chasing his tail.”

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The phone rang about 8 p.m. on Thursday night, May 27.  The person on the other end was dejected and discouraged.  I immediately recognized the voice of Hope Zeanah, a 40-year veteran educator, assistant superintendent of the Baldwin County school system and a former Alabama Elementary Principal of the Year.

In my book, Zeanah is one of the best educators anywhere.  She has learned a lot in her 40 years and knows how to convey her knowledge in a way that makes sense and is guided by what is best for children.

“I just wish politicians WOULD NOT make educational policies and leave educating children up to educators,” she said  “It makes us feel like they are saying we are not smart enough to make a decision for our students whether or not they should be promoted to the next grade. I feel like these type decisions are the reason we are seeing fewer young people going into education.”

I immediately thought of the line we’ve all laughed about, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Zeanah was upset that earlier in the day, Governor Ivey killed a bill that would have delayed implementation of the Alabama Literacy Act by two years.  Under this bill, sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins, any third grade student who can not pass a test on reading proficiency will have to repeat that grade.

The legislature passed a bill calling for a two-year delay on the final day of the recent session.  The bill received strong bipartisan support in both the House (68-27) and Senate (23-9), however the governor’s veto on May 27 killed it

The merits and demerits of third-grade retention have been studied for decades and are a mixed bag.

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Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University is one of the best-known names in education.  She is the author or editor of 25 books and a former president of the American Educational Research Association.  She is also president of the California state board of education.

She says, “We have had dozens and dozens of studies on this topic.  The findings are about as consistent as any findings are in education research: the use of testing is counterproductive, it does not improve achievement over the long run, but it does dramatically increase dropout rate.”

Mississippi passed their own literacy law in 2013 and has been often referred to by Alabama proponents of third-grade retention  However, it appears that folks in Alabama did not dig very deep into what is going on in Mississippi.

The so-called “Gold Standard” of all testing is the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).  This test is given across the country every two years to a random selection of fourth and eighth graders.  Only about 5,000 students in both grades are tested in each state.  This is probably the most misunderstood and abused test in the U.S.  (Especially by politicians who constantly want to break education down into only numbers).

(Go bask to 2016 for a great example of misusing NAEP scores.  The state school board picked a new state superintendent that year.  Governor Robert Bentley had a vote and used it to be the deciding vote to hire Mike Sentance, a Boston attorney who had never been a teacher, principal or local superintendent.  His reason?  Massachusetts had the highest fourth-grade NAEP  scores on math in the country.  Sentance was a disaster and lasted only one year).

Truthfully, while no one pays much attention to retention info, they do like to compare NAEP scores.

And Mississippi has done very well on NAEP in the last few years.  In fact, they have made larger gains, particularly for fourth-graders, since 2013 than any other state.  But it should be pointed out that Mississippi retains a higher percent of third-graders than any other state.

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So Mississippi is making sure its poorest performing kids are not taking the fourth-grade NAEP tests.  It’s just like you told the third-grade teacher that you wanted to weigh all her students and get the average weight–but you can’t weigh the fat kids.

Reporting on Mississippi, the Fordham Institute says that “…simple modeling suggest it (retention) may be a significant factor” in NAEP score improvement.

Another of my go-to folks on education issues is retired Mobile County superintendent, Martha Peek, an educator of 46 years.  She tells me that about 30 years ago the Mobile County school board put a third-grade retention policy in place.  But it was abandoned in a few years due to problems that arose with overage students in classes, lowering self-esteem and increased dropouts.

This is in line with something else Linda Darling-Hammond says.  “Almost every place that has put this kind of policy in place since the 1970s has eventually found it counterproductive and has eliminated the policy.  Unfortunately, policymakers often are not aware of the research and they come along years later and reintroduce the same policies that were done away with previously because of negative consequences and lack of success.”

So here we go again.  A dog chasing his tail.  Listening to politicians who are as qualified to write education policy as they are to write a game plan for coach Nick Saban.  And all the while ignoring the only real experts we have who are teachers, principals and local school chiefs.

“We are testing our kids way too much now,” says Zeanah.  “So let’s add another one.”

She points out what all educators know, not all students learn at the same pace.  Not all children test well.  “So a third-grader works hard and is an A-B student, but we’re going to give them just ONE  test to decide if they go to the next grade?  It makes no sense.”

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Plus, you have to wonder if third grade retention for reading proficiency is the best thing since sliced bread, why do less than half of all states do it according to the National Conference of State Legislatures?  Mandatory retention was first introduced in California in 1998.  So in 23 years, less than 50 percent of all states have adopted it.

And what will we learn from this test?  Something we already know.  That the majority of students who are retained will be minorities and those in poverty.  Don’t believe so?  Then look at the schools that get an F on the school grading system or those considered “failing” by the Alabama Accountability Act.

What should we do to stop this merry-go-round?  My suggestion is that Governor Ivey get five or six experienced educators to be her “kitchen cabinet” and have them review any legislation dealing with education before she acts on it.  I will be happy to give her some names.

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