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'Politically-driven' reform

The Indiana State Board of Education voted today to approve rules requiring schools to hold back third-graders who don't pass the reading exam portion of ISTEP+. In doing so, they ignored the plea of the one board member most qualified to judge the wisdom of the noxious rule. Michael Pettibone, superintendent of North Adams Community Schools, couldn't attend the weather-delayed meeting today but sent comments expressing his serious concerns.

The only superintendent on the state board, Pettibone rightly points to the complete absence of data supporting retention. He told me today that he supports holding a student back in some rare cases, but only when it happens very early in a child's school experience and only with a parent's approval.

"I'm not convinced retention is going to solve our problems," he said. "Who are the kids who get retained? They are kids from less fortunate situations. … They are great at dodge ball when they get to middle school, but they are out of place in the classroom.

He also said he wondered how people outside Indiana would view the state if it took this step in adopting policy that is clearly not research based.

Pettibone also questions new reading curriculum requirements placed on schools, which is contrary to the lip service the administration is giving to school deregulation.

Here are his on-target comments about the rule, read into the record of today's board meeting:

Dear Board Members,

-In my years of educational leadership I have come to the understanding that the quality of the work force generated by education may be the single most important factor for economic development included with infrastructure of a state or community and fair taxes. Secondly, I am fully committed to the concept that for a student to have an opportunity to a successful life, a basic education is the most important factor. In the educational world we have evolved to the idea that All Children Can Learn and we continue to climb to the next plateau that All Children Can Learn at a High Level.

-I have appreciated the work of Dr. Bennett and this board to deregulate the bureaucracy of the IDOE.

-I am in agreement that letter grades to schools is not a negative attack and I voted against this measure because I was not convinced that a fair rubric of assigning grades would be or could be created. I am hesitant of this action because there is a doubt if AYP can be separated from the assigning of categories to schools in Indiana.

-I admire the courage of this group to address schools that have consistently not served the needs of the children and admire the work of Lee Ann Kwiatkowski and her team. I also admire the effort to create an Academy at Marian University and the efforts to build leadership for the most difficult and challenging school settings.

Yet, today, I find us considering taking steps in the wrong direction. I fully believe that 100 percent of our students should be at grade level in reading at the conclusion of third grade is a necessary goal. The idea that the legislative body and the IDOE is addressing this goal is admirable. However, the Reading Framework steps beyond the scope of the purpose. The information consistently references that the material and recommendations are research based. Yet, the concept of retention and especially double retention is not supported by research. Again, I would like to emphasize and caution that material coming from the State Board of Education and the IDOE be educationally based and not politically driven. I am suggesting that we are painting with a brush that is too broad. The extent of the rules being suggested for all schools is not deregulating. We would be taking steps to increase government and bureaucracy. Please allow me to make some suggestions.

If retention must be kept in the language, we must remove any mention of double retention.

If a child does not pass a 60 minute reading portion of a standardized test, ISTEP+, the professionals and parents should be able to provide other evidence and alternatives to address the concern. A waiver needs to be part of the alternatives after the school and families have convened. Let summer school be part of the plan; however, this must be a parent supported decision.

-The political discussion is about choice, vouchers, local control, and then for us not to leave the very important decision of retention at the parents hands is contradictory.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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