Third Graders in Iowa cannot read

Did you know that third graders in the state of Iowa will now be forced to repeat the third grade if they cannot read?

This summer our neighborhood is bustling with elementary aged boys, including two of my own. One of whom is entering the third grade. They boys’ sun-kissed shoulders and bare feet bustle around the cul-da-sac from a game of kickball,to the slip-n-slide, to endless rounds of knock out. Last night, they systematically organized themselves youngest to oldest before they started shooting. After my sweaty boys showered off and were in bed resting for tomorrow’s match up, I watched the news. After listening to the story of third grade literacy law being enforced this coming school year, my mind flashed forward to next summer’s game of knock out;

“Line up youngest to oldest. What grade are you in?”




“Wait, weren’t you in third grade last year?”


“Well won’t you be in fourth grade?”

“No. I have to do third grade again.”


“Because I’m dumb….”

I mean, how else would a repeat third grader answer that question?

Before I get serious here, let us all consider, “Have we thought this through?” Like past the third grade through?

This retention agenda is nothing new. Such threats were done in Chicago and the state of Texas. Cheating, high dropout rates, increase disparity among race and SES all ensued. Here in Iowa, this mandate was proposed in a fancy little document called the Education Blueprint in 2011.

I was a fourth grade teacher that 2011-2012 school year.

In the early spring of fourth grade, we learn about government and Iowa history. In literacy we also study persuasive writing. Through my own education, I was well aware that authentic and applicable lessons are the most meaningful to students. So this current event fit perfectly into our units of study. Over the course of a couple weeks, we discussed the role of government and how laws are established. Eventually, I shared that laws impact us as elementary students and put the Blueprint on the projector for the kids to read.  I sat back and waited for their reactions.

In my fourth grade class that year, like all the years prior, I had students ranging from first grade reading level through a middle school level.  Even with the discrepancies amongst each other, they ALL understood concepts of “testing,” “retention,” and “summer school.” It was sad really, to hear the gasps, and see their eyes widen and turn to me for reassurance.  “Mrs. Douglas,” Tyler broke the silence. Tyler was a boy of few words. He immersed himself  in historical fiction and books on war. He loved strong, heroic characters. Tyler was the oldest in a family of four. He was very protective by nature. “If they didn’t learn it in third grade, how are they going to learn it by doing the same exact thing for another year?” Profound right? He was 9.

We decided to write letters, and put our persuasive writing to the test. We wrote to Governor Branstad. We wrote to Jason Glass, the State Director of Education (who has since left). We wrote to the legislators in our district. The students worked together in groups. They were inspired. They were empowered. They were exhibiting their citizenship. I was incredibly proud. Letters to Governor

Here are a few statements pulled from their letters:

“We hope you realize that if you hold back a 3rd grader they are going to lose their friends and think, then believe that they are stupid.”

“What about math, social studies, and science?”

“It’s not fair.”

“They will already know what to do and won’t pay attention.”

“It’s like you’re saying if you’re the best running back but you cannot block, you would be cut from the team. But that wouldn’t really happen!”

“We feel a better solution would be to put them into a summer school before you hold them back.”

“It is very rare to not read. But I think maybe you can make a class for reading in fourth grade instead of holding them back.”

“We like the idea of summer school but we would make some changes; We would have all subjects not just reading. One on one time not just group time. 5 minute break every half hour.

“As President Rutherford Hayes, ‘the expert in anything was once a beginner.'”

So we waited for our responses. We even took our field trip to the Iowa State Capitol that spring and the House was in session. Up in the viewing deck I had kids whisper chanting, “Write us back! Write us back!” This was serious to them.

Towards the end of the school year we received a letter back from Governor Branstad’s secretary. After I read it, my students were disappointed. “Sounds like a form letter!” One girl pointed out. “Yeah, they didn’t even talk about our letters.” You’re right buddy, they didn’t. It was disheartening, but at least we tried.

I also received two email replies which I didn’t share with my students. One legislator, simply thanked us for our letter. The other email is below;  (Please note that I blocked out the legislator’s name as I am not on a witch hunt at this particular person. It is more the generalizations our legislators believe regarding education that I am concerned about.) 

Email third grade literacy

There’s a lot to dissect in that email. First of all, I am certain he didn’t realize he was writing to a former two-time NCAA Division I Academic All-American, or he may have rethought that stereotype on student-athletes! I am just going to bullet a few other false statements:

  • Yes, my class had students that would have fallen below reading grade level in third grade and therefore should be concerned. (Important to note that I had several below grade level readers that were also at or above level in math. Can vs. Can’t is not easily clear cut).
  • Writing and Reading are not correlated directly. Just because a student can read does not mean he can write well. Just because a student cannot read well does not mean she cannot write.
  • “The question is whether they can read at all.” What does that mean exactly? Like seriously, what does that mean?!

I realize I am being a bit snarky. I realize that I am slightly obsessed passionate. Mostly, I am just frustrated. Frustrated this is still a thing. Frustrated my students were not listened to four years ago. Frustrated that there is no clarity on HOW this will be done to OUR kids, to OUR teachers, and in OUR schools. I am frustrated that with all the research against retention, we are still going here.

I am frustrated we are choosing to not do better for our kids.

Please understand that I am thankful our legislators are talking about our kids. I am certain they are not intentionally trying to damage them or their teachers. However, I wish they would listen a little harder. I wish THEY WOULD READ and educate themselves on retention, reading interventions, education best practices, and the social-emotional development of adolescents. If they did, I think they would change their minds.

I became an educator because I believed with all my being that I could change the world even through just ONE student. I know that belief does not make me unique. I also know that those students that wrote those letters are about to enter high school. I see their parents post pictures of them on Facebook, I follow them on Instagram and they look happy. This makes me proud.

Please, let’s have a vision beyond third grade for these kids. I am still fighting for my former fourth graders, for the kids in my neighborhood and the four kids under my roof. There has to be something we can do for them!

I’m open to all ideas. Please share with me on HERE on Facebook. Thank you for listening,

XO Erica





5 thoughts on “Third Graders in Iowa cannot read

  1. It seems that this person whom wrote the email is just cycling through stereotypes and misinformed ideas of education than actual facts, which is scary that these misguided beliefs is what will influence modern education😩

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

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