Nothing succeeds like failure

On the New York Times op-ed page, teacher Marlene Heath eloquently defends Chicago’s policy of holding back students who can’t read. Heath, now a reading specialist at an all-poverty school on the South Side, was skeptical when Mayor Richard Daley ended social promotion in 1995. Now she says it’s been a boon to students and teachers.

Only 26 percent of our elementary students were able to meet national norms on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in reading in 1995. That number is now 41 percent. At Beethoven (School) alone, reading comprehension jumped to 46 percent last year from 22 percent in 1997.

About 48 percent of Chicago public school students tested in the lowest quarter nationally before social promotion ended. Now that number is half of what it was. The high school drop-out rate, which was nearly 17 percent in 1995, is now at 13 percent, while the graduation rate has steadily climbed.

But the students who have come through my classrooms over the last 14 years offer the most convincing evidence that retention is one of the best things we can do for a child who needs that extra year to develop literacy skills. I began teaching sixth graders in 1992, and shortly after social promotion ended, I began to see students who were much better prepared. This new caliber of students allowed me to do what I should have been able to do all along Ñ teach sixth-grade-level work to all my students. That hadn’t been possible with the two or three nonreaders who had passed each year through my class before.

Students who can’t read fluently become deeply frustrated. Not only do they drop out, they can ruin the learning environment for other students.

About Joanne


  1. and this is a surprise to whom?????????

  2. Mark Odell says:
  3. The best thing you can do for a child is to hold them accountable early on. It’s a hard world out there and we don’t do them any favors by pretending otherwise.

  4. Perhaps not just the children should be held accountable. There’s a slew of teachers and administrators in school systems who allow these children, who may have an actual learning disorder-not just laziness, to slip through the cracks. There have been cases where 8th graders have been found to be reading at the 2nd grade level. There’s really no excuse.

  5. I went to school on the reservation in Arizona so I am all too familiar with the consquences of a poor education. I agree that literacy is the key to keeping students in school and on the path to hope. But literacy can’t just be defined in reading, it should also include mathmatics and writing.

  6. Excellent point about including mathematics as well. It is possible, but unlikely, that a student with very weak skills in particular mathematics subject matter will gradually strengthen them over time; the student is more likely to be hamstrung ever afterward.

  7. Funny, but this morning a coworker forwarded this to me. It’s something attributed to Bill Gates; I don’t know if he really said this or not, but the content is meaty. Apologies in advance, since it is a fairly long post:

    To anyone with kids of any age, here’s some advice.
    Bill Gates recently gave a speech at a High School about 11 things they did not and will not learn in school. He talks about how feel-good, politically correct teachings created a generation of kids with no concept of reality and how this concept set them up for failure in the real world.

    Rule 1: Life is not fair – get used to it!

    Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

    Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won’t be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

    Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

    Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping – they called it opportunity.

    Rule 6: If you mess up, it’s not your parents’ fault, so don’t whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

    Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent’s generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

    Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they’ll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

    Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.

    Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

    Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.

  8. I’d almost agree with the Katie’s comments, except I’d add that if a kid is in high school and reading at a second grade level, ALL the adults in that child’s life have dropped the ball: teachers, administrators, and the parents. If you can’t see that your student or child is reading below grade level, you’ve got a problem.

    And even with the strongest interventions, I still wring my hands over some kids. I’ve had students for whom I’ve pushed for special education testing, only to find that they fail to qualify. The kid can’t read. He/she doesn’t do any classwork. Doesn’t bring pencils or paper. Parents don’t return phone calls and the kid won’t come for help.

    Kids who fall through the cracks aren’t invisible, heaven knows, but there is a real limit to what one teacher can do.

    And please spare me the lecture about self-sacrifice and excuses. I’m talking about real human beings who care about kids, but who also have real lives and families to care for, too.

  9. “If you can’t see that your student or child is reading below grade level, you’ve got a problem.”

    Indeed. The parents may be marginally literate, as well.

  10. SusieQ — yep, those are the ones that eat up so much emotional energy and real time, and it’s almost always a losing battle. But you have to try. I’ve had 4 dropouts this year, with a 5th only coming to school enough so that his mom can collect payments for him. Kills me. But I have had some kids turn around this year, too. I try to keep them in mind.

  11. Claire,

    Bill Gates didn’t pen that list, Charles J. Sykes did. He wrote Dumbing Down our Kids, a good, depressing book.

    See the Snopes page on this list, which includes the full fourteen items from Sykes’ original.

  12. I know this is an older discussion, but I just found this site. I’d like to respond to SusieQ. I have a son who is nearly 19, and can probably read at a 5th grade level. I say probably because all his reading tests were done on understanding. I’ve heard this kid read outloud, and miss every second or third word, yet understand the story well enough to answer almost every question correctly. Missing every second word on an advanced assigment, a job application, or a driver’s test, just does NOT cut it! I started talking to his teachers about this when he was in 5th grade. FIVE years later, someone finally gave me the info that I could force his school to test him. I spent weeks calling, 2 or 3 times a week, and finally got the testing done. The result? Surprise! He is an extremely intelligent kid, with a severe reading problem!! (Duh!!) The school’s answer to this? I should have him read to me at home every night. My son was 15 at the time, in the midst of his worst rebellion against me. Forcing him to read to me was impossible. When I explained this to the personnel at this meeting, his teacher actually told me that they have no responsibility for his reading problems because he was the product of a single-parent home. So, after 5 years of doing everything I could, including helping him read his assignments and do homework every night, and trying to get the school to do ANYTHING to help, it was all my fault anyway. Just for the record, his 2 older siblings and 2 younger siblings all read wonderfully, despite being products of a single parent home. This child was the only one who became a discipline problem in school, also. I moved out of this school district, in part to keep the younger kids from the same fate. My son eventually got his GED, with grades high enough to win a scholarship to college. He did not get a college education, however, and now flips burgers to support his son. I am sure there were other steps I could have taken to help him more, but I am convinced that the most important one would have been to get him out of that school system. (A couple of other facts about that system, my son flunked 6th grade…along with nearly 20 of his classmates, out of a class of about 140. This school system was very proud of its guarantee for high school graduates…that they could read at an 8th grade level and count back change. I’m serious!! The school board had a huge write-up in the local paper about their wonderful guarantee!) I have heard many, many people blame parents for raising undisciplined kids, but the school that has my kid for most of his day MUST carry some responsibility! I guess I should be grateful that I do have a reasonably good education, or all my kids might have failed this way.
    Thanks for letting me vent!


  1. Dumbing Down Our Kids–Charles J. Sykes

    Rule No. 1: Life is not fair. Get used to it. The average teen-ager uses the phrase “It’s not fair” 8.6 times a day. You got it from your parents, who said it so often you decided they must be…