March 14, 2013

Thank you for the thoughtful March 10 news article “States issue third-grade ultimatum on reading,” on mandatory retention laws for third-graders reading below proficiency levels.

There are important differences in how states have approached this issue. Some have implemented retention requirements as part of a comprehensive early-reading plan that includes identifying students at risk and staging interventions to help them. Others have required these preventative measures but have provided no funding for them, or they have provided funding but through enrollment-based formulas that allow schools to spend dollars on other activities.

Congress and the Obama administration have so far been silent on this issue. The federal government needs to play a role in incentivizing states to take the most effective approach. Congress is already investing $160 million each year in the Striving Readers program with little to show for it. Why not repurpose these dollars as a matching fund for states that provide both a carrot and a stick in their retention laws? Or create a Race to the Top competition for the best early-reading improvement plans?

Holding third-graders back is tremendously expensive, not just in dollars but also in the social trauma it creates for children. Without leadership from the federal government, states are left to experiment on their own, with kids paying the price if they get it wrong.

Michael Lombardo, Oakland, Calif.

The writer is chief executive of Reading Partners.

Education policy establishing a “hard line” on grade retention as a solution for poor reading scores defies both logic and research. Logic would question that another year of the same instruction would work, and retention correlates strongly with dropping out. Early in first grade, teachers know who needs more help to read, but few children get the help in time. State education leaders should rely on best practices for teaching all to read. Neither grade retention nor social promotion teaches reading. Both are excuses for not providing effective, intensive individualized instruction.

Kevin Dwyer, Bethesda

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