Locals decry Branstad's reading plan


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Some Iowa City residents said they are worried Gov. Terry Branstad's Third Grade Literacy plan won't be effective.

The Third Grade Literacy Plan — released Oct. 3 as part of Branstad's Education Blueprint— would stress reading at a preschool level and require third graders to pass a literacy test or risk being held back. The plan is intended to improve reading early so students can perform better in other subjects.

But during a town-hall meeting hosted by Iowa Education Director Jason Glass in Iowa City on Sunday, some teachers and community members said the grade-specific plan, modeled on a Florida program, might not work to the benefit of students.

"[The program] is like comparing apples to oranges as far as I'm concerned," said Gary Sanders, a substitute teacher. "There isn't a magic formula to make kids do better in math or science."

Renita Schmidt, a University of Iowa associate professor of elementary education, said Branstad's blueprint isn't very different from Former President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind policy, which requires states to assess student basic-skill performance through testing to receive federal funding.

"Branstad has suggested every child deserves the right to read, but that's a difficult concept to point it on a specific grade level," she said.

Schmidt said that while the intent of the program is good, the actions being taken are illusive because students learn at different levels, and being a good reader doesn't necessarily depict a student's success level.

Glass said though students are learning to read up until third grade, after third grade they are utilizing their reading skills to learn. The plan would also push for students to spend 90 minutes outside of school reading each day.

Because this plan involves collaboration among faculty, staff, parents, and students, Glass said, the creation of a reading research center — possibly on a university campus — is being discussed.

Teachers could get help on different reading strategies at the center, he said.

"As we make a professional judgment of whether or not the student should be held back, we consider input from the teachers, administrators, and parents," Glass said.

The literacy program is based on Florida's third-grade literacy plan partly because of its success.

After Florida launched the program in 2002, its fourth graders' reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress increased 12 points between 2002 and 2009. In the same time period, Iowa fourth graders' scores increased only two points, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Some were also concerned that the plan is modeled after Florida, a state with the fourth highest dropout rates in the country, while Iowa's graduation rate increased 1.5 percent in recent years.

But Linda Fandel, Branstad's special assistant for education, said officials will continue to keep an eye on dropout rates.

"We want to keep [the dropout rate] as low as possible for every student," she said.

Officials said they focused on picking out pieces of the Florida program that fit for Iowa.

Glass said officials will hold a parent focus group later in November to get specific parent feedback for the plan overall.

"Schools cannot promote children who aren't reading at a sufficient level and hope something happens," Glass said.

The meeting was one of many, which took place across the state this fall to gain feedback and express concerns about the plan. A final proposal will come together before the 2012 Legislature convenes.

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