State must educate first, retain when needed

Never let it be said that Gov. Susana Martinez quits on a favored initiative. With her Department of Public Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera, Martinez has been pushing education reforms based on policies tried in Florida — and the drive to hold students back in third grade if they can’t read well enough will be back in 2014.

Before going into another partisan battle between the Legislature and the administration, let’s try to remember that everyone in the state wants to help children become better readers.

On one hand, we have the governor and Skandera, statistics in hand, bemoaning the sad state of reading proficiency among third-graders in New Mexico.

Armed with a new study out of Florida (put together by a University of Colorado assistant professor who just happens to be a Senior Fellow at a right-leaning think tank), the two are not backing down that flunking kids is the best solution to improving reading.

Marcus Winters’ research, presented at a Legislative Education Study Committee, indicates that students held back in third grade made substantial progress through the seventh grade in Florida schools. He compared students held back with those who barely passed their third-grade reading tests and still moved along. It’s important research.

However, retention is but one part of the story. The key part of Florida’s success doesn’t seem to be in retention, but in interventions — mandatory summer school, an additional 90 minutes of daily reading instruction, individual academic improvement plans and high-performing teachers for students who were held back.

Heck, if such strategies started in first grade, perhaps no students would have trouble on their third-grade tests.

The other perspective on the issue comes from those who don’t want state-mandated rules about who passes and who doesn’t. Many Democrats in the Legislature, educators and parents want decisions about education made closer to the child. We have said before, and still believe, that decisions about education work best closest to the student — a position that is quite conservative.

Mandates from on high often have unintended consequences.

We believe the governor and her secretary-designate are correct that reading is fundamental. Some children should be held back. But rather than pitch retention as the primary solution, we would like to see a collaborative approach.

The policy goal shouldn’t be retention. It should be helping children learn to read.

Improving reading proficiency is something New Mexico can do. But it doesn’t require a one-size-fits-all, state-mandated solution. Improved reading skills must be the target.


— The Santa Fe New Mexican

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