When Texas governor George W Bush was running for president, we heard a lot
about "compassionate conservatism," but rather less about what it
actually meant. The one thing which did emerge from his handlers’ interference,
however, was that Bush was particularly committed to, and interested in, education
policy. It was something he’d spent a lot of time on in Texas, and was also
an area where open-minded liberals could be disappointed with the Democrats,
who were generally more interested in doing whatever the teachers’ unions told
them to do (ie, nothing) than they were in coming up with innovative solutions
to very difficult problems.
But as we all know, Texas governors are very weak in terms of what they’re
actually able to achieve. And the Bush administration has quite deliberately
sidelined any issues except for wars and taxes, so it’s hard to tell what the
present education policy is. All the same, there is one Bush education policy
which has just come into force: Florida’s. The governor of Florida has a lot
more power than the governor of Texas, and the present incumbent, who happens
to be George W Bush’s younger brother Jeb, has pushed through a major new reform.
It’s a complete and utter disaster.
If you only read one article about education policy this year, it has to be
Winerip’s magisterial column from May 21 in the New York Times. I know I’m
coming to this a bit late: I plead deadline pressures and then a wedding I had
to go to in Germany. But really, it’s not time-sensitive (unless or until the
Times blocks access to it, of course). It’s one of those columns which starts
off with a human-interest hook but then gets deep into the real facts, and it
more or less singlehandedly demolishes Florida Republicans’ claims that their
latest policy is a good idea.
The policy is simple. Every third-grader in Florida has to take a reading test
at the end of the year. If the kid doesn’t pass, he or she is held back, and
takes third grade all over again. This year – the first year of the new
scheme – a stunning 23% of third-graders failed the test. That’s 43,000
children stigmatised in the service of a policy which almost everybody agrees
As a letter
to the New York Times today attests, holding children back can damage them
for life. And the evidence is far from simply anecdotal. As Winerip writes:
Hundreds of studies in the last two decades have concluded that holding children
back has no long-term academic benefit, that within two years retained students
once again lag behind classmates, and that retained students are more likely
to drop out of high school.
Florida’s own Department of Education issued a report in the early 1990’s
warning against retention: "Research on the subject is clear. Grade level
retention does not work. Further, it would be difficult to find another educational
practice on which the research findings are so unequivocally negative."
But the policy was pushed through by Republicans who dismiss scientific research
as "gobbledegook," presumably on similar grounds as those used for
denying global warming and/or evolution.
What’s more, children who have been held back in the past at least were held
back because of exceptional circumstances. It might not have worked for them,
but at least the teachers in the school felt that those kids had failed to understand
what they were meant to have learned in that grade, and needed to be taught
it again. That’s not the case in Florida: children with A grades in spelling
or mathematics still get held back if they fail the reading test for whatever
reason, including simply nerves on the day. And it’s not a handful: the new
third-grade class size will now be 23% bigger, thanks to this policy.
Holding a child back is a harsh punishment, especially when the kid concerned
hasn’t done anything wrong. The stigma never leaves: Winerip writes about one
pair of twins, one of whom is now going to be two years behind the other at
school. That difference will never go away: Cheyanne, who is now, according
to her father, a better student than her twin, is going to know that all her
friends think that she’s the stupid one of the two.
If you visit the
page on "3rd Grade Reading Promotion and Retention" on Florida’s
official website, it gives you lots of whats and hows, but nothing about the
whys. This is one of those policies which simply doesn’t make any sense: while
decreasing student illiteracy is surely a good thing, there’s absolutely no
reason to believe that holding back 40,000 students a year is going to help
in the slightest. Winerip again:
Of Lake Silver’s 101 third graders, 23 failed. Stephen Leggett, the principal,
said that long before the test results, all 23 had been identified as lagging
in reading. All were getting extra help, with some seeing three specialists
a week, he said. "That test told us nothing we didn’t know," Mr.
Mr. Leggett, who has been principal for 21 years, and his five third-grade
teachers believe none of the 23 should be held back. For reading, Lake Silver
students are grouped by ability, with the slowest readers placed in the smallest
group that gets the most individualized attention. Third graders are pushed
to read the most challenging books they can; some read sixth-grade books,
while others read second-grade books.
Mr. Leggett said next year, whether those 23 sit in a fourth-grade classroom
or third-grade classroom, they would do the same reading work — the
highest level they could. And they would get the same reading help in either
Maybe not all Florida’s schools have the same system as Lake Silver: maybe
some still force all fourth-graders to read exactly the same books at exactly
the same time, with a devil-take-the-hindmost attitude to anybody who hasn’t
reached that level yet. Or maybe – and this is what I think happened in
Florida – that’s what Republican legislators think happens in
the public schools, since that’s the kind of rigid process which they feel comfortable
with. Maybe even that’s what they think should happen in public schools:
taking a lesson from Asian educational practices, with vast numbers of kids
reciting the lesson together. It’s a nightmarish mindset, but it’s the only
one I can think of which would produce this destructive policy.
I think that the most interesting thing about this legislation is the way it
assumes that all principals and teachers are liberal do-gooders who must be
prevented by law from letting children who fail a reading test remain in the
same class as their friends. The individuals who know these children best –
even their parents – have no control at all over whether they’re held
back or not. This goes against the parent-centered rhetoric of the Republican
party, but no one seems to have seen the contradiction here. The Florida legislature
believes one thing; the scientific literature, the school principals, the third-grade
teachers, and the third-grade parents all believe another. Yet the policy gets
signed into law, and tens of thousands of lives are seriously damaged as a result.
There’s Bush’s compassionate conservatism for you.