"The top priority of elementary schools, everywhere, should be teaching students to read," he said. "We're setting kids up for failure when we send them into middle school with bad reading skills. That story does not end well."
Retention policies are also relatively inexpensive, he said. Florida's literacy program is mostly paid for with existing federal school improvement dollars, he said, and since 1990 Florida has seen the second-highest increase in student proficiency scores despite the smallest increase in costs per pupil.
"They mostly were just repurposing existing funding streams," he said.
Ladner was sympathetic to parents who worry about the social and self-esteem ramifications of holding a student back. He said schools obviously don't want third-graders who need to shave, but added that most states put limits on how many times a child can be held back and there's no reason why schools can't customize a student's education to eventually promote them back to grade level.
He also said that whatever qualms parents hold about having their student repeat a grade are outweighed by the negative effects of falling further and further behind.
"In my opinion, there's nothing cruel about this at all," he said. "It's cruel to allow an illiterate third-grader to go into fourth grade and fifth grade."
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