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What’s the secret to teaching kids to read? Many New Mexicans have been seriously pondering that question for well over a year. And even though nothing has passed the legislature, the focus on the problem is beginning to produce some good ideas. But some mysteries remain.
The reason for this focus is the effort by Gov. Susana Martinez and Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera to not allow students to advance beyond the third grade level unless they read proficiently.
The idea seemed rather extreme. The thought of 15-year-old third graders is scary. Guess who is going to be the class bully and the most disruptive student.
Over the past year, that idea has been refined by limiting retentions to two years, beginning remedial work in kindergarten or earlier and allowing parents to override retentions if they have actively participated in remedial work with their child.
Parental responsibility finally is getting the attention it deserves. It long has been the most ignored factor in a child’s school success. Problem parents come in two categories. Those who can help a child but won’t and those who can’t help because they hold more than one job, they are a single parent, they have many children or they canít read English themselves. Even those parents can encourage a child to succeed because it is their only way out of poverty.
New light also has been cast on social promotions. Until Martinez and Skandera started the conversation about social promotions, the education establishment was being blamed for not retaining students until they could read adequately.
Now the realization has come that the problem is parents who override the school district’s recommendations. It also may be that schools largely have given up on retentions because parents almost always disregard the recommendations.
Martinez and Skandera want to take away parental consent and force the retentions. But the school establishment now seems to be fighting the grant of the new power. And the Martinez supporters, who often object to government control, are advocating it in this case.
Retentions will cost money. Additional reading specialists will have to be hired. Every time a student is held back a grade, the state ends up paying for an extra year of schooling for that student. If large numbers of students are held back every year, it becomes an expensive proposition.
Figures as high as 80 percent of third graders, who canít read adequately, are being bandied about. Consider a school district with 100 students in each grade. If 80 third graders remain in third grade the next year, that grade will have 180 students and there will be only 20 fourth graders. Do the math to extend that out to future years and you have quite a mess.
As we said before, early identification and remediation is the answer to reading proficiency. It is expensive but, along with parental involvement, it may be the answer to pulling our state up from its low ranking in student achievement.
We hear figures saying that we are as low as last place in education and that New Mexico’s education system is a disaster. A measure was defeated this year to take some money from one of our large permanent funds to pay for increased reading assistance. It was defeated because we must save those funds for a rainy day. If the claims about our education ranking are true, it is raining.
One of the defeated legislative measures was to reduce the amount of money legislators divert from the Severance Tax Permanent Fund for their pork projects and use that to help children read better.
Gov. Martinez has been scolding the Legislature ever since she was elected for preferring pork to pupils. This gives her an additional big load of ammunition.
Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Santa Fe.