Iowa City teachers upset with proposed changes to state reading requirements


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Local education leaders are siding with Democrats on whether to hold back third-graders who fail proposed reading exams.

Republicans and Democrats in Des Moines are at odds over the issue. Republicans have been pushing to hold those students back, but that measure is gone from an education bill advanced in the Democrat-controlled Senate this week.

The Republicans want a bill that will set a standard level of reading required for third-graders to progress to the fourth grade. It will be implemented gradually so the new requirements will be known at the beginning of a student's education.

Iowa City School Board member Sarah Swisher said that singling out a child at a young age can have a very negative effect.

"They would be old enough to recognize that they were separated from their peers but too young to understand the rationale," she said.

Third-grade teacher Steve Sproule of Shimek Elementary shares Swisher's view that holding students back harms them emotionally and academically.

"What they don't take into account is that a lot students who can't read well are just auditory learners, and even though they may have difficulty reading their materials, they just need to be approached in a different way," Sproule said.

He believes the attention of the state should be shifted to early education instead of the third-grade ultimatum.

"We need state-funded preschool," he said. "It should be available to everyone. They should also make [reading-aid] programs such as Head Start accessible to everyone."

Kindergarten and first-grade classes need smaller sizes so teachers can better identify which students need extra help, Sproule said.

Iowa City School Board member Jeff McGinness said he agreed that statewide preschool programs should become a priority.

"One argument that the House has behind it is that by third grade, you shouldn't be learning to read, you should be reading to learn," he said. "But instead of pulling students out completely, you should pull them from one class or put them in a program to catch them up to speed."

Some state legislators staunchly support the third-grade reading policy.

Rep. Linda Miller, R-Bettendorf, said the plan will ensure that all third-graders — no matter their background — are able to read at a third-grade level.

"The reason why you do third-grade retention is to make the parents realize that their student needs help and that it's not optional," she said. "It puts a pressure upon the parents and lets them know that there is a deadline."

Miller said that if a student is struggling with reading, teachers need to pursue many different methods of teaching.

"What research showed is that there needed to be a stitch in the system that said, 'If your child is not at this level, then you must do something,' " she said.

Rep. Curtis Hanson, D-Fairfield, said parents must become more of a partner in their children's education.

"The bill should be thought of as a complete program, the third grade retention being the final act," he said.

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