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V.2 #1 Reading - Failure, Retention, and Graduation Denied

Several months ago, The New York Times published a blog by Will Okun, a Chicago high-school teacher who was worried about Etta, a conscientious, enthusiastic, hard working student whom he might have to fail. His blog was touching, perceptive, and troubling. It dealt with an all-too-common dilemma that affects struggling readers and their teachers. He wrote:

Unfortunately, Etta reads and writes at approximately a 7th grade level…. How have students like Etta reached the 11th grade with only basic reading and writing skills?…. If I fail her, she will have to repeat my class. Because of our school's resources, the class size and my own teaching abilities, there is little hope that I can significantly strengthen her reading and writing skills…. If I automatically fail students who are not performing at grade level, I will be forced to fail Etta year upon year until she inevitably drops out.

I was so moved by his blog and so angry at his dilemma that I sent his blog a quick, superficial response. Here’s a more comprehensive one.

Demanding the Unreasonable

All a school can reasonably ask of struggling readers is that they sustain a good effort to achieve and conscientiously use the knowledge, skills, and learning strategies they've mastered. Schools should not hold them responsible for reading disabilities, language difficulties, impoverished backgrounds, chaotic homes, turbulent communities, and inadequate school resources. Unfortunately, politicians have forced schools to hold struggling readers, especially economically impoverished ones, responsible for these and other factors they cannot control. This is more than unreasonable—it’s disgraceful.

It’s disgraceful that teachers should have to fail hard-working students for below-average or below grade-level work. Not everyone has had average opportunities, not everyone has average abilities, not everyone can be average. By definition, grade level performance means average; it’s a standard based on average performance. Thus, many students will always perform above and many below grade level, above and below average. Take my story. Despite my great effort, despite my determination, despite two encouraging football coaches, I could never run as fast as the average high school student. Some players could speed-walk faster than I could run. But I wasn’t cut; I didn’t fail; I wasn’t punished for what I couldn’t control; I was treated with respect. And so I kept my enthusiasm. I suited up for lots of games, watching from the end of the bench. And despite not getting into a single game, I won a game ball for determination. Some 48 years later, the opportunity and treatment I received continues to serve me well.

Like my sluggish speed, some students—for untold reasons—simply lack the underlying language and cognitive abilities to achieve what’s average, notwithstanding herculean efforts. But often schools—perhaps unwittingly—punish them: Schools fail them, retain them, set them on the path to dropping out. Why? Because their hard work hasn’t produced average academic achievement or acceptable test scores. This is, euphemistically speaking, disgraceful. It punishes hard working students for what they cannot control.

Preventing Problems

Certainly, preschool intervention is one of the keys to preventing learning problems that lead to failure and retention. Another key is comprehensive, sustained economic and health support for impoverished communities. But these solutions receive minuscule, if any political support and are often far too late for high school students who, despite reading problems, work hard in school but continually face failure.

Responding to Failure

So, what should teachers do for struggling high school students who work hard, but for many reasons, like reading and language disabilities, are failing their subjects? The answer: Pass them. After all, they’re working hard. They’re doing all anyone can do—making the effort. Teachers (and parents) should also advocate for the services these students need to succeed, services often unavailable to them. Without needed services, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever function on grade level. The odds for success are against them. Failure and despair may become their frequent companions.

Services might include mentoring, counseling, homework help, tutorials from reading specialists, training in assistive technology (like Flamereader and TextAloud, two excellent, inexpensive text-to-speech software programs), health care, and social work. Let’s look at the last two, as they’re often ignored. Health examinations can identify and help solve common but often invisible problems that sabotage students’ academics and well-being, problems like anemia, poor nutrition, sleep deprivation. Social work services can identify and help solve numerous problems, especially problems that plague students from poor, turbulent neighborhoods. These include loneliness, hunger, exhaustion, excessive after-school work, responsibility for siblings, unrelenting fear of tough, violent neighborhoods.

The argument against passing struggling readers is that that they cannot do grade level work. But failing and retaining them rarely helps them achieve grade level. Often, it destroys motivation, exacerbates academic difficulties, scars them emotionally, and creates social problems. Having a 13-year old student in fifth grade can easily create social and emotional problems for everyone: the teacher, the student, and his 10- and 11-year old classmates. It makes far more sense to promote him, note his instructional levels on his report card, and provide him with the academic and related services he needs.

What should schools do for struggling readers who work hard, but fail their high-stakes “graduation” tests? If legally possible, let them graduate—they’ve done what they could. Denying graduation will tell them that effort doesn’t matter. It will create a gigantic, perhaps insurmountable obstacle to getting a decent job or attending a post-secondary program. It may well create or perpetuate poverty.

To remove this obstacle and to communicate more effectively to prospective employers and post-secondary programs, high schools can award diplomas that list students’ high-stakes test scores, list their grade point averages in different subjects, specify how to request official transcripts, and indicate students’ positive personal attributes, such as perseverance, reliability, and talents. This will help hard-working students to get better jobs and to get into post secondary programs that challenge but don’t overwhelm them.

If schools can’t or won’t do this, at a minimum, they should do what some California districts are doing: Award a certificate stating that the student has successfully completed his or her coursework.

Creating Opportunities

Education is about showing all students—including those suffering from economic impoverishment or reading disabilities—that schools respect them, care about them, and will do all they can to give them meaningful opportunities. Failing them and slamming doors in their face by denying graduation will harm more than just these students. In all likelihood, stories about retaining hard-working students or denying them graduation will spread to other students and to their communities. Three messages will emerge: Effort means little; test scores trump students’ needs and futures; schools punish, not empower. This will crush the academic motivation of many students and will induce many to drop out, a sad but understandable decision that typically creates irreparable damage.

It will also damage the nation. Repeated exponentially across communities, punishing hard working students for their academic problems will likely add to America’s high poverty rate, increase its high incarceration rate, and further damage its eroding ability to compete globally. Thus, self-interest should have—but has not—compelled federal and state governments to help schools develop and sustain a rich array of alternative programs that create attractive opportunities for hard-working students who struggle, yet fail to pass or gain much from their general education courses.

To succeed, alternative programs must be well-funded, well-staffed, highly-personalized, and have high-status. Their curriculum must match the interests and current abilities of their students and prove to them that with effort and the proper application of learning strategies, they can achieve what they and society value highly. They must show students that success will improve their futures in ways they value. The design of such programs and their status must prevent them from becoming “dumping grounds.”

Taking Political Action

Teachers and other educators must follow state, district, and building policies, no matter their effects. If these policies are destructive, teachers have two options for changing them: Do nothing, and let the students suffer—a legal but morally unsatisfying option—or take sustained political action.

To prevent the negative effects of destructive policies and inadequate budgets, teachers (and parents) must take political action that focuses on both the long and short term. Long term, they must work to develop deep, widespread public support for programs that prevent failure and offer attractive, beneficial options for struggling readers. This involves focusing on policies—including tax, health, and community development policies—and the hidden but powerful driving force behind them: values. Focusing only on what happens in school is insufficient to prevent or remediate many learning problems. Sick, hungry, frightened students from poor, turbulent neighborhoods have far less chance of succeeding in school than do healthy, well-nourished students from neighborhoods with safe parks, good libraries, and good median incomes. (Yes—zip codes count.) Short term, teachers (and parents) must work to develop widespread support for annual budgets that create opportunities for struggling readers to succeed and that quickly give them the extra instruction and supports they need. This involves joining advocacy groups (e.g., Children’s Defense Fund), giving talks, discussing budgets with politicians, speaking to boards of education, campaigning for budgets, and publishing opinion pieces. As part of a group, they can also meet with administrators to discuss the effects of local policies and offer alternatives.

Helping Etta and All the Ettas

Unless Will Okun and all the other Wills can get Etta and all the other Ettas the help they need—in and out of school—it’s unlikely that the Ettas will prosper in school and life. They live in a time of punitive policies cloaked in the mantle of standards and personal responsibility.

So, to get help for all the Ettas, Will and his peers, like all dedicated teachers, will have to ask, cajole and perhaps beg their administrators—who probably don’t have the resources to give. And even if the resources suddenly appear, it will probably take Etta two or more years of intensive, highly knowledgeable, highly skilled reading help to reach grade level and pass her tests, if she has the language and cognitive abilities to pass them. By then, it may be too late—policy may have dictated failure and retention. Nevertheless, Will should try to get Etta the services she needs.

To prevent this depressing, unconscionable problem from continuously destroying lives, Will, and all the Wills who care about all the Ettas, need to engage in focused, sustained political action that advocates for humane, comprehensive, empowering programs supported by high-quality research. To do less is to continually see this dilemma replayed—like “Groundhog Day” with tears, not laughs.


Flamereader. A trial edition can be downloaded from

TextAloud. A trial edition can be downloaded from

Recommended Reading

Bowman, L. (2005). Grade retention: Is it a help or hindrance to student academic success? Preventing School Failure, 49(3), 42-46.

Howard Margolis, Ed.D. is Professor Emeritus of Reading and Special Education at Queens College of the City University of New York. He is former editor of the Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation and for the last 17 years has edited the Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties. He and Dr. Gary G. Brannigan, a Chancellor's Scholar at the State University of New York-Plattsburgh, discuss this and related topics in their forthcoming book, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds.

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