Brownback reading initiative questioned by education experts

Money should stay focused on early-childhood development instead of later grades, specialists say

0 | Children, Legislature, Social Determinants of Health

Melissa Ranson reads to children at the Topeka-Shawnee County Public Library. Experts say youngsters benefit from early exposure to books and reading. "She enjoys it," Ranson said of her three-year-old daughter, Landry, right.

Melissa Ranson reads to children at the Topeka-Shawnee County Public Library. Experts say youngsters benefit from early exposure to books and reading. "She enjoys it," Ranson said of her three-year-old daughter, Landry, right.

— Some experts at Kansas universities are questioning Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to cut spending on established early childhood development programs in order to fund a proposed new initiative aimed at improving the reading scores of the state’s fourth-graders.

Though the governor hasn’t yet provided much detail on how the new Kansas Reads to Succeed program would work, he has said he favors requiring third graders to pass a reading test before being advanced to the fourth grade.

‘Irresponsible and cruel’

“Passing children up the grade ladder when we know they can’t read is irresponsible and cruel,” Brownback said in his State of the State speech to the Legislature last month.

But reading specialists at two Kansas universities said research has shown that holding children back a year often does more harm than good.

“Children who are retained, typically, are more likely to not graduate from high school,” said Suzanne DeWeese, a reading recovery specialist with the Jones Institute for Education Excellence at Emporia State University. The university trains many of the state’s K-12 teachers.

“Children who aren’t learning to read need better instruction, not a repeat of a curriculum that’s already failed them,” she said. “And the sooner they have access to that instruction, the better.”

Early intervention

Diane Nielsen, an associate professor of education at the University of Kansas, said waiting until students were in third or fourth grade to address reading deficiencies was shortsighted.

“To do what it appears the governor wants to do, it would need to be done in the grades below fourth, beginning with support in preschool,” said Nielsen, a specialist in reading instruction.

“The emphasis should not be on a single year’s test results,” she said. “It should be on early intervention because there are so many things that need to be in place before a child reaches the fourth grade. Reading is not the simple process that people tend to think it is. It can be very complicated.”

Brownback, who campaigned for governor promising to boost 4th grade reading skills, told KHI News Service that he has been disappointed by the proficiency ratings.

“They’ve been fairly level for a long time,” he said. “We need to do better.”

Sherriene Jones-Sontag, the governor’s chief spokesperson, said details of Brownback’s new initiative would be made public in a bill that would be introduced by a legislative committee probably sometime this week.

“We reviewed models for potential legislation from several other states, including Florida,” she said. “Some aspects will be similar, some will be different and some completely unique to what other states have done to help struggling readers.”

‘Soup-to-nuts’

The governor’s plan has been endorsed by the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank based in Wichita.

“What we’ve seen in places like Florida, which has had practices like this in place for over a decade, is that when you set up the (reading) test in third grade, the (school) districts and teachers see the significance and start building in interventions early on,” said James Franko, the institute’s director of policy.

“So instead of waiting for students to reach the third grade, they’re taking a soup-to-nuts look at how they do reading for (kindergarten) through third grade, identifying those students who are struggling, and getting them the help they need so there isn’t this rude awakening when, all of a sudden, they get to the third grade and can’t read with their peers,” Franko said.

Requiring third graders to pass a reading test before entering fourth grade, he said, would have to be “structured properly.”

“Being held back would be difficult for those children,” Franko said, “but studies have shown that kids who drop out of school or who become disciplinary problems in many cases it’s because they failed to grasp the opportunity to learn early on.”

Franko said students who were held back would “get the help they need” rather than simply repeat the previous year’s coursework.

Already doing that

Brad Neuenswander, a deputy commissioner at the Kansas State Department of Education, said third-graders statewide already are tested for reading skills and that the students’ reading skills are monitored and assessed even before that.

“The third grade is the first time that there’s a statewide reading assessment and it’s the first time that the statewide public gets to see the results,” Neuenswander said. “But on the local level, it’s not the first time. Every child is assessed very early in the school year and there’s a lot of progress monitoring. This isn’t a wake-up call for teachers or principals. They know.”

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Some books popular with Kansas fourth graders.

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Though the governor in his State of the State address said “29 percent of Kansas fourth graders can’t read at a basic level,” Neuenswander said the figure was closer to 11 percent and that only 4 percent are in the “academic warning” category.

“I’m not saying that’s an insignificant figure because every kid in that 11 percent has a name. Every one of them is a real person,” Neuenswander said. “But they’re also some of the most challenging and most at-risk kids we have.”

The numbers cited by the governor were from the National Center for Education Statistics. The numbers cited by Neuenswander were drawn from the state’s annual reading assessments of students.

The National Center for Education Statistics measures reading proficiency differently than the state assessments and its annual report is widely used to compare one state to another.

‘Do the most good’

Kansas in 2011 ranked as good or better than most states in the category of fourth grade reading. Massachusetts – with 17 percent - had the lowest percentage of 4th graders reading below basic level. The District of Columbia – with 56 percent – had the highest. The national average in 2011 was 34 percent.

The state education department, which is independent of the governor’s office, would support the Brownback initiative, assuming the Legislature approves it, Neuenswander said, but “we’d just want to make sure that the resources are targeted on where they’ll do the most good.”

Neuenswander said he had recommended that much of the initiative’s funding be set aside for pre-school programs for children known to be at-risk.

“These programs have long waiting lists,” he said, “and that’s unfortunate.”

Shifting funds

As proposed by the governor, Reads to Succeed would cost $6 million a year for two years. Most of the money would be taken from the early childhood development block grant program within the Children’s Initiative Fund, which is financed by dollars from the state’s master settlement agreement with the nation’s tobacco companies.

Funding uncertainties

Many of the state’s early childhood development programs are underwritten by the Children’s Initiative Fund, a repository for much of the state’s annual receipts from a 1998 settlement of a lawsuit against the nation’s major tobacco companies.

For the past two years, Brownback administration officials have warned that a legal dispute with the tobacco companies over how Kansas and several other states had enforced the agreement likely would result in the cigarette manufacturers being allowed to withhold tens of millions of dollars previously thought due to the states.

But in late December, both the administration and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced that the state was part of an arbitration agreement that allowed the tobacco companies to hold back $4.3 million in payments next year.

The governor has proposed $51.8 million in CIF spending next fiscal year – a $4.3 million reduction in current fiscal year funding.

“When I heard that, my first reaction was ‘Hallelujah!’ because it was just a few months ago that we were talking about going down to $12 million CIF,” said Leadell Ediger, executive director at Child Care Aware of Kansas, a nonprofit agency dedicated to improving the quality of state’s child care programs. “So we’re very pleased with that,” Ediger said, “but I have to say I’m troubled by the notion of spending more on a reading program for children who are already in school at the expense of ensuring quality child care for kids who aren’t in school yet.”

The governor’s plan also calls for setting aside $1 million a year for two years to reward 100 elementary schools that show marked improvement in their fourth-grade reading scores. The Department of Education would be in charge of quantifying the schools’ improvements.

“When you look at the governor’s budget, it’s pretty clear that the bulk of the reading initiative’s funding — $9.2 million over two years — comes out of the early childhood development block grants,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, chief executive of Kansas Action for Children and a member of the Children’s Cabinet, a state advisory panel that makes recommendations to the governor and Legislature on children’s programs.

“It’s the only thing that’s being cut,” she said.

Historically, the grants have been awarded to school districts, childcare centers, Head Start programs, and a range of services infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers.

The Children’s Cabinet expects to spend $18.1 million on the grants in Fiscal 2013, which ends June 30. Brownback has proposed spending $13.5 million in Fiscal 2014.

Cotsoradis said Kansas Action for Children would oppose the reduction.

“We all know that literacy begins at birth,” she said. “So it doesn’t make sense to shift funds from some of our most vulnerable children in their earliest years to a later intervention after they’re in school. The results won’t be as good and they won’t be as cost effective.”

Rep. Kasha Kelley, an Arkansas City Republican and chair of the House Education Committee, said she expects to hold hearings on Kansas Reads to Succeed next week. Like some of the reading experts, she expressed concern about holding back third-graders because of reading problems.

“I think it’s pretty obvious — when we have kids moving through the system who can’t read — that we need to take a deeper look at our reading proficiency efforts,” she said. “But I have some concerns about the retention issue. I think there are different ways to handle that.”



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