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How to Prevent Dropouts

Meghan Mathis


Politicians often claim to know what needs to be done to solve the problems facing public education in the United States. In 2012, President Obama made “fixing” our nation’s schools and improving our ranking in world educational testing results a cornerstone of his re-election campaign. Speaking at a rally in San Antonio, Texas, in July 2012, President Obama told the crowd that he was running for re-election “to make sure America has the best education system on earth, from Pre-K all the way to post-graduate.”

How did he claim he would accomplish that?  By hiring “new teachers, especially in math and science.” The President continued by stating that he would make $100 million instantly available for the purpose of training new secondary teachers in these areas and providing teacher resources, and promised to launch a $1 billion program in 2013 to do more of the same.

President Obama isn’t alone in his belief that the way to “fix” education is training and hiring skilled secondary math and science teachers. During President George W. Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address, he proposed a plan to train and hire 100,000 highly qualified math and science teachers by 2015. Two presidents who rarely agree on anything seem to share fairly identical opinions on this matter -- but are they right? 

On the surface, it does seem to make sense. If you want to improve the math and science scores of a nation’s high school students, you make sure they have really incredible math and science teachers in high school (armed with the best teacher resources), which is where they take the tests. Politicians have campaigned on this idea and spent billions on it, but new studies indicate that while the idea may appear logical at first glance, to truly solve the problem of student achievement we have to work with students at a far younger age and in a different skill area – reading.

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But a surprising discovery made by researchers studying high school dropout rates is at the heart of the matter.  They found that a child who was not proficient in reading by third grade was four times more likely to dropout of high school than his or her reading proficient peers.

Upon deeper examination, educational researchers discovered that third grade is the critical year where the focus of reading shifts from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”  It is the first year in most schools where students are expected to read texts to learn vocabulary from context, use texts to gain new information, and utilize background knowledge to better comprehend ideas found in what they read.

If students struggle with this in third grade, it can begin a downward spiral that affects all subjects – including math and science – that worsens as each school year progresses. Students who “get” it continue to gain new knowledge from the texts they read in every school subject while their classmates who don’t fall further and further behind.

The researchers dubbed this phenomenon “The Matthew Effect,” based on the Biblical verse found in the Gospel of Matthew: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”

If that’s accurate, it seems to indicate that many of our politicians have been putting their time and rhetoric (not to mention millions, if not billions, of taxpayer dollars) in the wrong place to enact real, positive change in our students’ success in school.

States and school districts around the country are putting this new data to use, but the debate of what the most appropriate way to respond to this problem has just begun. Several states, including Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Tennessee, have either passed or are considering passing controversial legislation requiring third graders who do not score proficient on state reading assessments to be held back instead of being promoted to fourth grade.

Many parents, teachers, administrators and educational researchers have been quick to point out that retention has never been demonstrated to help the struggling student, but the states considering this are working to create programs that make their mandatory retention plans effective.

In other states, school districts are moving quickly to implement individualized educational plans for non-proficient third graders while promoting them to fourth grade.  While no one seems to have found a perfect solution, it seems obvious that many people involved in education are shifting their focus from the secondary level to the primary grades.

Skilled, professional educators with the best teacher resources are vital at every level of a child’s school experience. We should never minimize the effect a talented high school science or math teacher (or English, history, or physical education) can have on his or her students.  They certainly have the power to reach students and inspire them to achieve great things, including high test scores.

However, if we are to reach all students and help as many students as possible achieve their full potential, we are going to need our policymakers to educate themselves about the importance of proficient reading skills and when those essential skills are developed.

A student who is unable to comprehend texts is more likely to be identified as having a specific learning disorder, more likely to experience difficulties in all subject areas, and – as educational researchers have discovered – is more likely to drop out of high school than if her or she were able to glean information from the readings they were assigned in classes.

The added pressure placed on those always-crucial primary years is daunting, but the benefits of focusing on this integral time could make all the difference in the lives of so many students.

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