Nancy Flanagan takes issue with the reformer idea of failing kids who can’t read by the end of third grade. Holding them back will not help them, she writes, and will almost certainly hurt them. Children learn to read at different ages. Some start reading before kindergarten. Others read later. Years later, it doesn’t matter.

She writes:

Michigan’s third grade mandatory retention legislation is a dramatic but useless remedy to the problem of children who struggle to read when they’re eight or nine years old. We’re not doing kids favors by flunking them. Says educational psychologist David Berliner, regents professor of education at Arizona State University:

“It seems like legislators are absolutely ignorant of the research, and the research is amazingly consistent that holding kids back is detrimental.”

What about the oft-repeated platitude that until third grade, students learn to read—and read to learn afterwards? Perhaps that was true in classrooms 50 years ago, when instruction was solely dependent on textbook knowledge.

Students today learn from an array of media: podcasts, images, hands-on experience, dialogue. The one thing that demands independent reading facility? The standardized tests that pigeon-hole children.

What to do about children who are not confident readers in third grade? We could begin by taking the resources it will cost to retain them for a year (minimally, $10K per child) and spending it on supplemental instruction: in-school tutoring, libraries filled with easy, engaging books, after-school programs, summer reading clubs and books for children to take home.

We could offer smaller instructional groupings. We could stop the merry-go-round of silver-bullet ‘solutions,’ from emergency managers to charter schools to one-size-fits-all scripted curricula.

We could genuinely invest in our children, believing in their capacity to master not only the skill of reading, but to become an informed, productive citizen.