Reading tips for MLK Day weekend

Snowed in for a three-day weekend? It’s a good time to re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s unflinching expression of faith in the power of love and nonviolent direct action.

Ella Baker

Ella Baker

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in 1963, in a message that’s as timeless as it is powerful. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

But readings on race, justice and civil rights shouldn’t stop there. Here are a few other suggestions – a list based on books that I’ve had a chance to read:

  • “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” by Barbara Ransby. This book belongs at the top of the list. It changed my understanding of the civil rights movement. Yes, King’s leadership was important, but even more essential was the patient, fearless behind-the-scenes work done by Baker and others like her over decades.
  • “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson. Six million African-Americans left the rural South for the Northeast, Midwest and West in the early 20th century, fundamentally reshaping America. Wilkerson tells the story with grace and intimacy, weaving it around the experiences of three individuals who made the journey to freedom and opportunity.
  • “The Wall Between,” by Anne Braden. Braden and her husband, Carl, acted as intermediaries in 1954 to help a black couple buy a house in an all-white Louisville suburb. The house was bombed and Carl Braden was imprisoned for sedition. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that Louisville couldn’t desegregate its schools, because the school segregation reflected housing segregation that was voluntary. This book shows the court was wrong.
  • “On the Laps of Gods,” by Robert Whitaker. In 1919, black sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas, met at a church to organize a union. White authorities showed up, shots were fired, and white militias and federal troops hunted down and killed over 100 African-Americans, including women and children. Over 200 local blacks were jailed; 12 were sentenced to death but were saved from execution by the heroic work of black attorney Scipio Jones. It’s one of the real tragedies of American history, and a continuing tragedy that so few know about it.
  • “Stamped from the Beginning,” by Ibram X. Kendi. The American University historian traces attitudes toward race from the first white settlement, framing them as segregationist, assimilationist or antiracist. It’s a wide sweep of American history seen through a critical, unsparing lens.
  • “The Negro in Indiana before 1900,” by Emma Lou Thornbrough. This 1957 book by the late Butler University historian and activist may seem dated, but it’s eye-opening for folks like me who have lived for decades in Indiana without knowing a lot about the state’s racial past.

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State board balks at reconsidering Indiana’s fail-the-test, flunk-the-grade rule

School Matters asked last week if the State Board of Education was ready to drop the rule that Indiana schools must retain third-graders for failing a reading test. We got a quick answer: Not yet. The board turned back a request Friday by Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz that it initiate the process of revising the state reading rule.

Ritz had just started explaining her proposal when board member Dan Elsener cut her off. “It looks like we’re changing horses too often here,” he said. Board member Tony Walker told Ritz she was wasting her time because no one would make a motion to reconsider the rule. (See Scott Elliott’s Indy Star story for more).

Ritz argued that starting the lengthy rule-making process would trigger a conservation in which the board could refine the rule and improve reading instruction – a topic about which the superintendent is passionate. But the board wasn’t hearing her. Instead it agreed to discuss the issue informally prior to its Aug. 7 meeting. Members could signal then if they’re ready to revisit the reading rule.

Oddly, the word “retention” wasn’t used in the somewhat tense exchange Friday between Ritz and the board. But grade-level retention is at the core of Indiana’s reading rule – and retention has been, for years, a contentious topic in education policy.

Research is mixed, at best, on whether forcing struggling students to repeat a grade is likely to help them catch up academically. Continue reading

Will Indiana drop third-grade retention rule?

Arguably the most egregious policy pushed by former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett was the requirement that third-graders be retained for failing a reading test. Now it looks like his successor, Glenda Ritz, is trying to get rid of that rule.

As of now, the posted agenda for Friday’s State Board of Education meeting includes a proposal to start revising the state rule governing reading instruction. The revision would strike the part that, with some exceptions, mandates retention of students who don’t pass the third-grade reading exam, called IREAD-3. Instead, the proposal says that, if a student doesn’t read at grade level by the end of grade 3, the school “shall, in consultation with the parents, determine if retention, as a last resort, should be implemented.”

The proposal also would drop a requirement that schools provide 90 minutes of uninterrupted, daily reading instruction. They would still have to provide at least 90 minutes of reading instruction a day, but it could be broken up. This seems to make sense. For a lot of young children, 90 minutes of uninterrupted anything can be tough medicine.

Daniel Altman, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said eliminating the third-grade retention requirement will align the reading rule with what state legislators intended when they passed a law, in 2010, calling on the Department of Education to create a plan for improving early reading instruction, including retention “as a last resort” and with “appropriate consultation with parents or guardians.”

“It’s important to have this conversation,” he said. “We want to have the best reading instruction in Indiana that we can possibly have.”

The State Board of Education in early 2012 adopted a rule that said kids who failed the third-grade test should be held back Continue reading

Senator agrees: Indiana education board overreached with reading retention rule

Sen. Luke Kenley has affirmed that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and the Indiana State Board of Education went beyond the bounds of state law when they adopted a rule that requires third-graders to pass a reading test or face grade-level retention.

“I would just put the Department of Education and the State Board on notice that they’re clearly not in line with the words in the statute so they’re opening themselves up perhaps to a lawsuit or a complaint by somebody on those grounds,” the Noblesville Republican tells NPR’s StateImpact Indiana.

Kenley’s words echo what Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, told School Matters last month: that Bennett and the state board “essentially usurped” what lawmakers put in the 2010 legislation that called for ensuring children develop strong reading skills.

Both Kenley and Porter were members of the House-Senate conference committee that agreed to a compromise version of the bill, so if anyone knows what it was supposed to mean, they should. Kenley’s words could arguably carry even more weight because, like Bennett, he is a Republican, a member of the party that controls both the House and Senate.

And not just any Republican. He chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee as well as serving on the Education and Career Development Committee. By virtue of the latter appointment, he’s also part of the Select Commission on Education that the legislature created to review policies adopted by the state board and the Indiana Department of Education. Continue reading

State board about to decide on third-grade retention rule

A proposed rule that would force schools to retain students who don’t pass a third-grade reading test could face a vote by the State Board of Education this week. The board meets Tuesday at 1 p.m. in Indianapolis.

The rule, which was the subject of a previous post on School Matters, also requires elementary schools to implement reading plans that include goals for student achievement and interventions for students who fall behind. Schools will have to devote 90-minute uninterrupted blocks of time to reading instruction in grades K-3 and use research-based reading programs.

The state board accepted comments on the proposal at public hearings on Jan. 20 and Jan. 25. The hearings, video of which can be viewed online, brought comments from reading specialists, principals, superintendents and representatives of the state associations of teachers and school administrators.

Thirteen people testified. And while some praised certain aspects of the rule, all 13 said unequivocally that it’s wrong to hold kids back based on results of a single test.

Speakers cited research showing that the academic gains children make after being retained don’t persist; that students are two to 11 times more likely to drop out of school if they are held back than if they aren’t; and that forcing students to repeat grades costs the nation $14 billion a year.

“There is no research that retention benefits children,” said Whitney Witkowski, principal of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School on the south side of Indianapolis. “There is a substantial body of research about the negative effects … Retention is not only ineffective but it punishes children.”

Several speakers suggested that, if Indiana wants to help kids learn to read, it should require kindergarten attendance and fund pre-kindergarten programs. And some pointed out that the retention mandate goes considerably further than the 2010 state legislation that called on the Department of Education to develop a rule to make reading instruction more effective.

Department of Education staff members are suggesting some changes to the proposed rule. One spells out that students should get a second chance to pass the yet-to-be-developed reading test, possibly after remediation in summer school, before they are held back. Another makes clear that the rule applies to charter schools as well as regular public schools.

But the pass-the-test or fail-the-grade language remains – the only exceptions are for special-needs students, non-English speakers and children who have already been retained twice.

Interestingly, when the State Board of Education has a hearing, members apparently don’t need to show up. Who knew? Not a single board member was present on Jan. 20, when weather was apparently an issue. On Jan. 25, David Shane was the only board member on hand.

Presumably the other board members can watch the video of the hearing and read testimony submitted in writing. Let’s hope they do, and that they consider the issue with an open mind.

Proposed rule would retain third-graders if they fail state reading test?

Last year the Indiana legislature considered a proposal to retain students in third grade if they failed the reading section of the ISTEP-Plus exam. But lawmakers decided not to approve the proposal, citing cost concerns.

Now the State Board of Education is about to adopt the same requirement as an administrative rule. If there are costs, the Department of Education says, they will fall on local schools, which will just have to reallocate funds in order to pay them.

The state board will conduct a public hearing on the rule at 10 a.m. Thursday (Jan. 20) at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis. It could then adopt the rule at any future meeting. The proposed rule can be read online, as can a DOE summary and FAQ.

In addition to retention, the rule requires schools to implement reading plans that spell out goals for student achievement and interventions for students who aren’t on track. Schools will have to provide 90-minute daily uninterrupted blocks of reading instruction in the primary grades, and most will have to use a research-based core reading program certified by the state.

There are logistical issues to implementing these plans, but it’s the hammer of mandatory retention – arguably punishing kids for failing a single test – that causes concern for some educators.

“I totally agree with the goals, and that we need to have students reading by third grade,” said Cameron Rains, director of elementary instruction for the Monroe County Community School Corp. “But looking at retention and what that does, I don’t know why that is the solution you want for students.” Continue reading