05/20/2014 09:25 am ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

Rigorized Reading for Eight Year Olds

Deborah Pendell via Getty Images

One of the most odious policies to emerge from the Reformster swamp is the mandatory retention of all third graders who don't pass the Big Test in reading. And now Mary Laura Bragg, the director of Florida's program, has popped up to help us all understand just how anti-child this policy is.

She has popped up in North Carolina (motto: Strapping schools to a rocket and shooting them back into the 19th century) where such a program is being definitely considered (I would say "seriously," but nobody who is serious about educating children would ever consider such a policy). She is responding to an op-ed by Janna Siegel Robertson and Pamela Grundy laying out why the politics-driven Read to Achieve program is an educational mistake; their piece explains (with like, actual facts from experts in the field) why Read to Achieve is a dumb idea. But Bragg (who is also the National Director of Policy for FEE, a prolific generator of anti-public-ed nonsense) questions the rigor of their work, and wanted to make her own point. So what is her point?

Florida's program is called "Just Read, Florida!" and that name really captures the cluelessness of the whole approach. Like many Reformster programs, this one starts with the assumption that these little eight-year-old slackers just aren't being sufficiently threatened and browbeaten. They could read, dammit -- they're just holding out on us! Don't tell me about your problems or your challenges or your background or your use of English as a second language or your cognitive impairments or how your life gets in the way of your school -- Just Read, Dammit! Just do it! Because there is no better pedagogical technique than Insisting Strongly.

Bragg says the proof of her programs success is that the NAEP scores went up. This, too, captures what is so screwed up about this approach. Because remember, Moms and Dads, the school is not here to serve the students by providing them with an education. The students are here to serve the school by cranking out the scores the school needs to make its numbers.

The biggest complaint against retention is the use of test scores in making decisions. But good tests objectively measure real reading skills. A score is not simply a number on a piece of paper but a reflection of actual ability.

Well, that's sort of true. Sometimes a score isn't simply a number on a piece of paper. Sometimes it's a number in a computer. But either way you cut it, it's simply a number. Do good tests objectively measure real reading skills? Here you're just making a definition, and if that's your definition, then no good tests exist, and they never will. (Also -- is that really the biggest complaint against retention. Because the biggest complaint might actually be that retention does more harm than good.)

There is no such thing as an objective concept of "real reading skills." A reading test will always -- ALWAYS -- measure the biased picture of reading skills promoted by the people who wrote the test, based on what they believe is important. Always. We could break the internet launching into that argument, but if you want to shut me up, just provide an objective picture of Real Reading Skills that all educational experts agree on. I will not be waiting.

Children who enter fourth grade as struggling readers are four times more likely to drop out of school. The vast majority of teenagers who wind up in the juvenile justice system are illiterate. In other words, the most important indicator of whether a child will succeed in life is whether he or she is a strong reader by the end of third grade.

Is there some sort of requirement that all Reformsters must skip Basic Statistics class? Maybe you missed this when it was going around the net, but here are some great charts showing, among other things, that the lower the divorce rate has dropped in Maine, the less margarine has been sold.

Your "most important indicator" is a correlation; it tells us nothing about causation. At the very least, the correlation door can swing both ways -- a student unhappy enough with school to eventually drop out is less likely to try at his reading lessons (even if someone shouts, "Just Read, Dammit!" at him). What is most likely is that dropping out, getting in trouble with the law, and failing in school are all related to a separate factor.

But Bragg is STILL not done being ridiculous!

Retention policies are badly needed tough love.

Yes, because all those elementary teachers are in classroom saying, "Yes, reading's okay and all, but I would rather give Pat a cookie and sing Kun-Bay-Yah" because if there's anybody who DOESN'T understand the value of education, it's the people who decided to devote their adult professional lives to education.

Yes, these damn kids just need a kick in the pants. Bunch of slackers!

Children should hit developmental milestones when they are told to. The average height for an eight year old boy is 45 inches. I propose we hold all boys in third grade until they reach that height. If they won't reach that height, let's just use tough love and yell "Just Grow, Dammit!" Because children should grow as they are told to grow, and they should all grow exactly the same way at exactly the same time. And if they won't behave and conform and obey, they must be punished until they will.

Bragg's closing shot is as anticlimactic as it is obnoxious: "This debate obviously will continue. It is important to ensure all relevant information be included. One would hope those in academia would not rely on others to do basic research." This despite the fact that she has not offered any relevant information or basic research.

Look, North Carolina (and all other reading retention states) -- this is a bad, bad, dumb idea for which there is no good argument. It assumes that children can be punished into excellence and achievement, and while that is a logical extension of the NC policy towards teachers, there isn't a lick of support to suggest that it creates smarter, healthier, happier grown-ups. And taking education advice from Florida is like taking diplomacy advice from Iraq. Just Say No, Florida!