As they retreat from their ill-conceived educational reforms on testing students, evaluating teachers, chartering schools, and implementing Common Core, Governor Martinez, PED Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandara, and others who have a business-oriented political agenda but know little about education advance the ill-conceived proposal to retain third-grade students not reading at grade level. The situation is indeed dire: recent test scores based on national, not state, scales, reveal that a large majority of New Mexico’s fourth graders cannot read at grade level. The implication remains ominous: those who have not learned to read cannot read to learn.
Advocates of this proposal offer a punitive, not a pedagogical, approach to this situation. They believe that a glut of retained students will pressure administrators and teachers to improve student reading abilities. But pressure cannot improve reading instruction. Teachers who have failed to teach reading in four years are unlikely to magically teach it in one more year. Adding more reading specialists, a once-favored but decades-long failed approach to assist teachers failing to teach reading, will again increase staff and salaries, without achieving success.
State officials and legislators know little about the situation or the consequences and costs of their response. Which teachers at which grades fail to teach reading effectively? Why does social promotion occur at any K-3 grade level? How many third-grade students would be retained? What are the costs—staff retraining, additional staff, and administrative costs—of third-grade retention? What percentage of retained students would become capable readers? Would retained students who did not become capable readers after one more year be retained for a second year or socially promoted?
Teachers admit, and state officials and legislators know, little about the causes or conditions of this situation. Children go to school, become students, and do not learn to read. Some blame the parents or poverty; they think progress impossible until parents get involved in their children’s education or make more money—responses which await the Second Coming. Meanwhile, teachers must teach their students, whatever their backgrounds, as they are, not as teachers wish they were. Given the results, neither teachers nor state officials and legislators are honest or knowledgeable, and daring, enough to suggest the obvious: K-3 teachers do not teach reading because they are not competent to teach reading.
This teacher incompetence is the problem, to which I suggest two legislative solutions focusing attention on the training of elementary school teachers. One, require state-funded college programs of education to ensure teacher mastery of the subjects which elementary school teachers must teach, according to the requirements implicit in state curriculums. Two, create an independent agency (1) to develop, administer, and score subject-matter tests as a sufficient standard of certification of all new in-state, and all out-of-state transfer, teachers; and (2) to develop, maintain, and audit the integrity of, a second, higher salary scale to attract or promote and retain the best and the brightest teachers; and, for this salary scale, to develop, administer, and score rigorous subject-matter tests; and to conduct personnel evaluations of candidates which rely on records and interviews, and disregard seniority.
These solutions do not constitute a quick, easy, or cheap fix. However, putting subject-matter competent, confident, and committed teachers in the classroom is the best assurance of high academic performance. Students respond to such teachers with respect and enthusiasm. So do their parents. And teachers who know that they can do, and are doing, the right job the right way will be gratified by their professional success.