Some experts at Kansas universities are questioning Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to cut spending on established early childhood development programs in order to fund a proposed new initiative aimed at improving the reading scores of the state’s fourth-graders.
Though the governor hasn’t yet provided much detail on how the new Kansas Reads to Succeed program would work, he has said he favors requiring third graders to pass a reading test before being advanced to the fourth grade.
‘Irresponsible and cruel’
“Passing children up the grade ladder when we know they can’t read is irresponsible and cruel,” Brownback said in his State of the State speech to the Legislature last month.
But reading specialists at two Kansas universities said research has shown that holding children back a year often does more harm than good.
“Children who are retained, typically, are more likely to not graduate from high school,” said Suzanne DeWeese, a reading recovery specialist with the Jones Institute for Education Excellence at Emporia State University. The university trains many of the state’s K-12 teachers.
“Children who aren’t learning to read need better instruction, not a repeat of a curriculum that’s already failed them,” she said. “And the sooner they have access to that instruction, the better.”
Diane Nielsen, an associate professor of education at the University of Kansas, said waiting until students were in third or fourth grade to address reading deficiencies was shortsighted.
“To do what it appears the governor wants to do, it would need to be done in the grades below fourth, beginning with support in preschool,” said Nielsen, a specialist in reading instruction.
“The emphasis should not be on a single year’s test results,” she said. “It should be on early intervention because there are so many things that need to be in place before a child reaches the fourth grade. Reading is not the simple process that people tend to think it is. It can be very complicated.”
Brownback, who campaigned for governor promising to boost 4th grade reading skills, told KHI News Service that he has been disappointed by the proficiency ratings.
“They’ve been fairly level for a long time,” he said. “We need to do better.”
Sherriene Jones-Sontag, the governor’s chief spokesperson, said details of Brownback’s new initiative would be made public in a bill that would be introduced by a legislative committee probably sometime this week.
“We reviewed models for potential legislation from several other states, including Florida,” she said. “Some aspects will be similar, some will be different and some completely unique to what other states have done to help struggling readers.”
The governor’s plan has been endorsed by the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank based in Wichita.
“What we’ve seen in places like Florida, which has had practices like this in place for over a decade, is that when you set up the (reading) test in third grade, the (school) districts and teachers see the significance and start building in interventions early on,” said James Franko, the institute’s director of policy.
“So instead of waiting for students to reach the third grade, they’re taking a soup-to-nuts look at how they do reading for (kindergarten) through third grade, identifying those students who are struggling, and getting them the help they need so there isn’t this rude awakening when, all of a sudden, they get to the third grade and can’t read with their peers,” Franko said.