Open Letter to State Representative Amanda Price, R-Park Township

Dear Representative Price:

I just concluded reading Monica Scott’s article (West Michigan lawmaker responds to criticism of bill to hold back third graders over reading proficiency) in which you defend your legislation that if approved would retain 3rd graders not reading at grade level. As someone who made a study of literacy during my twenty-two year military career prior to spending the past seventeen years as an elementary, middle, and high school principal before taking on the mission of superintendent, I can empathize with your concern even though I believe your solution is narrowly short sighted.

Let me begin by simply saying, if retention of students solved academic achievement gaps, there are very few school administrators who wouldn’t have already availed themselves of this magic formula. The fact is, we know from decades of research and experience that for most students, retention does not work. Why? Because most of the underlying factors that led to the decision to retain a student do not disappear by another year in the same grade.

What are those factors? I believe you know what they are but your party affiliation makes it difficult to impossible for you to public acclaim them.

  1. Children in general do not enter kindergarten at the same cognitive level and then fall behind in the first four years of school. That’s a ridiculous assertion by anyone.  Children enter school at varying levels often influenced simply by the fact that the youngest entrants are as much as a calendar year behind in cognitive development which represents one-fifth or twenty percent of a lifetime. Some are ready to read and some are not. Some develop reading skills at a faster rate and some do not. There is no magic elixir that will ensure all children will be reading at the same level by the end of their eighth year of life.
  2. A number of developmental setbacks impact those early years. According to the latest statistics, half of Michigan’s children are growing up in poverty and they along with many others are experiencing an ever-widening economic-achievement gap (this is the part of the argument where conservatives and market-based education reformists cover their ears and look the other way). The fact is poverty, which in most cases will follow a student all the way through school, contributes to a significant setback in learning before a child ever sets foot in a school. Just the vocabulary deficit alone is formidable.
  3. A growing percentage of public school students arrive with limited English language skills requiring the use of a large portion of the school year just to address this learning obstacle. According to studies it can take three to seven years for an LEP student to learn a sufficient level of academic English. For a significant majority, particularly Hispanic students, this is combined with living in poverty. Many arrive in our schools at all grade levels years behind in language, reading and other academic skills.
  4. Many of our students have verified cognitive and physical learning disabilities that hamper their ability to maintain the academic achievement pace of their non-disabled peers. They experience learning growth through the help of specialists as well as their general education teachers but should not be considered as “flunking” if they are not reading at the MEAP-tested third grade reading level.

As I stated at the outset, if retention of students solved academic achievement problems, we wouldn’t be having this public debate about retaining 3rd graders based on low reading scores.  A meta-analysis about the effects of retention was conducted several years ago and published in ASCD’s Educational Leadership journal. The link to the full article is

Here are a few “soundbites” from the article (emphasis added):

Recent studies have investigated retention in the context of state and district policies to require students to achieve a certain score for promotion. For example, Roderick and Nagaoka (2005) studied the effects of the Chicago Public Schools policy that bases promotion in grades 3, 6, and 8 on standardized test scores. Using comparison groups of students who just missed the promotion cutoff, these researchers found that 3rd graders struggled during the repeated year, had higher rates of special education placement, and two years later showed no advantage over those who had been promoted. Retained 6th graders had lower achievement growth than similar students who were not retained.

Retention can increase the likelihood that a student will drop out of school. Students who drop out are five times more likely to have been retained than those who graduate (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006).

Studies with the strongest research methods compare students who were retained with similar students who were not retained. They ask whether repeating a grade makes a difference in achievement as well as personal and social adjustment over the short run and the long run. Although individual studies can be cited to support any conclusion, overall the preponderance of evidence argues that students who repeat a grade are no better off, and are sometimes worse off, than if they had been promoted with their classmates.

For most students struggling to keep up, retention is not a satisfactory solution. Nor is promotion. Juxtaposing the two as if these are the only options casts the debate in the wrong terms. The challenge is figuring out what it takes to help failing students catch up. Understanding why a particular student has fallen behind points to the best course of action.

For many students, especially those who start school far behind their peers, intensive intervention, even prior to kindergarten, may be the best path to success. For students who are frequently absent, understanding and addressing the reasons for their absences might be the solution.

Retention usually duplicates an entire year of schooling. Other options—such as summer school, before-school and after-school programs, or extra help during the school day—could provide equivalent extra time in more instructionally effective ways. Without early diagnosis and targeted intervention, struggling students are unlikely to catch up whether they are promoted or retained.

Retention is not the answer. Holding schools accountable while at the same time (for the first time) providing adequate resources to address reading and other achievement gaps is the direction we should be heading. Public education funding from state and local revenue has been on a downhill slide for the past nineteen years, while at the same time we’ve experienced significant growth in poverty, limited English proficiency, special needs, and widening segregation of schools based on race, ethnicity and economics. The schools that need the resources to achieve the results you are seeking have been impacted negatively by Lansing and Washington’s policies of choice, competition, and privatization. It’s time for our Governor and state legislature to realize that those policies are not working and begin supporting and adequately funding public schools in Michigan while at the same time addressing the economic issues that are leading to greater levels of poverty. This is the path to literacy for all.

Please reconsider your bill that will serve mainly to do great harm to Michigan’s young children.


David Britten

Lieutenant Colonel, USA, Retired

Superintendent of Schools

About David Britten

Retired U.S. Army Officer, former elementary, middle and high school principal, currently serving as a public school superintendent.
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One Response to Open Letter to State Representative Amanda Price, R-Park Township

  1. Pingback: Message to Michigan State Representatives Thomas Hooker and Ken Yonker | Superintendent's Notes

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