Reading, by any means necessary

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 3, 2013

So far this year, local lawmakers have filed education-related bills in the General Assembly that would allow employees at private schools to carry guns (Sen. Andrew Brock of Mocksville), permit Bible studies as an elective (Sen. Stan Bingham of Denton), allow an income tax credit for home schooling (Rep. Carl Ford of China Grove) and require children to learn cursive writing and memorize multiplication tables (Rep. Harry Warren of Salisbury).
Brock also wants students to learn in health education that abortion can lead to premature birth in later pregnancies.
With all due respect to the lawmakers’ noble motives, here’s a place where they could more effectively focus attention and energies regarding education. Let’s do everything humanly possible to ensure students can read by the end of third grade. That would do more to carry North Carolina forward than all those measures and many more, combined.

Third grade is a pivotal year. After working since kindergarten to learn to read, children in third grade transition to reading to learn. If they don’t master the skill by then or soon after, they’ll face increased difficulty in trying to learn throughout their school careers.
That’s why Gov. Pat McCrory advocates ending “social promotions” of third graders who have not reached a minimally acceptable score on a state reading test. He takes the tough love approach. Keep the kids back, he says, until they can read.
That common-sense-sounding approach could lead to overflowing third-grade classrooms. In 2011-12, only 68.8 percent of North Carolina’s third-graders were proficient in reading on their end-of-grade tests — meaning more than 30 percent of the children lacked adequate reading skills. In Rowan County, the numbers are even more dramatic: Only 60.7 percent reached that goal, meaning nearly 40 percent would be held back.
That could happen next year. Mandatory retention is not just a proposal; the General Assembly approved it last summer; the law goes into effect this fall.

North Carolina has been down the “no social promotion” road before, starting in 1999. Whether a child passes or fails seems deceptively simple, but students aren’t widgets moving down an assembly line. The state’s public school superintendents say the new law needs to be refined so they can work with principals to look at each student’s circumstances. Before “tough loving” struggling children to repeat third grade, schools should offer tutoring and other services to — by any means necessary — get students to this critical goal.
This is as much a local issue as a state one. In 2009, a civic researcher gave Salisbury City Council an assessment of how the area looks to an outsider. She sounded an alarm about low reading and math scores in Salisbury schools. “Somewhere this has got to stop,” she said. “… Everyone in Salisbury is responsible for teaching these kids.” City leaders took that to heart.
The school board and educators can’t let the noise of current politics distract them from their all-important mission — nor can the community. High-quality education, with third-grade reading as a critical goal, has to be our top priority — the best boost we can give our children and our community.