Watson: Students should be held back if they fail to master basic skills


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Students who do not learn basic skills should be held back.

Scott Watson

I was staring intently at the clock on Mr. Boehnke’s fifth-grade classroom wall, watching the seconds tick by as my beloved recess came unbearably closer. One of my “neighbors,” as elementary teachers like to call the surrounding classmates, leaned over and asked me what time it was. “The clock’s right there,” I said with a nod of my head to our right. “I can’t read that kind,” he said, referring to the analog (not digital) clock on the wall.

I was blown away that this classmate of mine couldn’t tell time on an analog clock. I vividly remember spending the rest of that class period with my mind no longer on the adventures to unfold during recess but instead on why and how this boy had missed that pivotal lesson and how much else he was certainly not learning now.

Gov. Terry Branstad is proposing an education reform for Iowa called the “Third Grade Literacy” plan, requiring third graders pass a test declaring them proficient readers before they are passed on to the fourth grade. In essence, this would put a greater focus on the development of reading skills from an earlier grade, allowing progress in all subjects, sooner.

The proposition has been kicking up quite the dust-storm of controversy, with the opponents declaring the lesser intelligent run the risk of being trampled underfoot in an education system that values the intelligent. Perhaps more troublesome, are the indisputable similarities between the Third Grade Literacy plan, and George W. Bush’s infamous ‘No Child Left Behind.’ Some teachers and advisers to Branstad feel that structuring a program, geared around the success or failure of an individual in an early age will undoubtedly affect the rest of their lives, perhaps for some, in a negative way.

Many parents feel they are protecting their children from the injustices of segregation by intelligence, but all they are accomplishing is instilling a lesson in the acceptance of mediocrity. Our skills and talents are built off lessons learned. It would be impossible for a calculus student to solve logarithms without an earlier lesson in algebra, and before that, basic math. A guitar player cannot nail an impeccable solo without first learning simple scales. And a fourth grader cannot hone their spelling and grammar skills without first being a competent reader.

If a student is falling behind, they need extra attention to learn the taught material. Separating these students in need is not harming their education but enhancing it. They are provided focused instruction, allowing them to work at their own pace so the material is learned by the student.

A failure to learn does not necessarily indicate a lack of intelligence, there are more than likely outside factors in play as well. At this age, much of the responsibility falls to the parents to hold their children accountable for learning what is being taught. Perhaps the teachers before the fourth grade are doing a poor job teaching. Part of this reform was written with the intention of incentivizing parents and teachers to take an active interest in the education of the students. When the pride of an individual is being questioned, they will often respond in a face-saving manner, leading to more focus on the student’s education.

It is no secret our American education system has been on the decline in the international arena for some years now. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a 34-nation organization, which tests everything from reading to science to math, places the test scores of the United States in the middle of the pack at best, in nearly every subject. The countries that scored higher than the United States range from Korea to Poland. Giving specialized instruction allows many of these leading countries’ education systems to prosper. Separating the students by intellect, allows the more advanced students to continue to advance at a quicker rate, while the not-as-gifted students get the attention they deserve. This makes the national test scores much higher throughout the nation, even in the two intelligence groups.

This proposition for education reform was modeled directly after a similar legislation in Florida. Rewind the hands of the clock back to 2002: Iowa third graders out scored their Florida counterparts, today we see the opposite results. Florida recorded an average reading score of 225 (up 19 points) compared to Iowa’s 221 (up 1 point).

Opponents may attribute this jump in test scores to undeterminable, outside factors, but the comparisons of the test scores are irrefutable. Florida faces many more obstacles than Iowa mostly because of a high immigrant population. Low-income neighborhoods, poverty stricken schools, along with students whose first language is not English, presents an overwhelming challenge for Florida schools.

Today more so than ever before, we are constantly reminded that we live in a time where the other side of the world is in our back yard. If we cannot compete intellectually on the global realm, we are surely doomed as a nation.