LINCOLN — Fresh off his success in revamping the Omaha Public Schools board, an Omaha state senator now wants more changes in education.
Included on his new agenda: a law requiring that third-graders in public schools statewide be held back if they struggle with reading.
The proposal by State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh would make Nebraska the latest state to take a stand against social promotion in elementary school.
Iowa passed a law last year aimed at ensuring that third-graders can read before moving up to the next grade.
But the idea of mandating that schools hold back children based on reading tests would face stiff opposition from educators, including a top administrator in the Omaha Public Schools.
ReNae Kehrberg, assistant OPS superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment, said such laws hurt students rather than help them.
“It's an easy fix that, if you're not informed, has appeal,” she said.
Both social promotion — the practice of advancing students based on age, rather than achievement — and its opposite — retention, or making students repeat grades — generate controversy nationally.
On the one side are those who say that advancing students without basic skills sets them up for failure in higher grades and after graduation.
Lautenbaugh argues that it is critical that students be able to read at the third-grade level before going into higher grades, which rely on a students' ability to read so they can learn other subjects.
“They cannot learn and perform in higher grades without this foundation,” Lautenbaugh said. “We are doing them harm by passing them along without requisite reading skills.”
On the other side are those who say holding students back harms them psychologically and leads to higher dropout rates.
“Damage is done to the child's social and emotional well-being, and repeating a grade level does not ensure a child will get the instruction they need at their individual level of development,” said Robin Dexter, associate superintendent of the Grand Island Public Schools.
A social promotion ban is one of several education proposals Lautenbaugh plans to introduce in the 2014 legislative session.
Among his other ideas are incentives for board-certified teachers in high-poverty schools and bonuses for teachers of students who pass Advanced Placement examinations.
He also plans to continue pushing Legislative Bill 593, which would authorize charter schools in Omaha.
It's unclear what kind of reception his new proposals may get from Nebraska policymakers.
Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, the Education Committee chairwoman, said she isn't ready to discount any idea without a public hearing.
But she also said that some of Lautenbaugh's proposals might be better considered by the State Board of Education, which sets rules and regulations for Nebraska schools.
State Board President Pat Timm of Beatrice said board members won't take a position until they see actual legislation.
She said the board would want to see how Lautenbaugh's ideas fit with accountability efforts underway within the State Department of Education.
Currently, Nebraska leaves promotion policies up to local school districts. Timm said parents typically have a chance to weigh in on decisions about holding a child back.
Lautenbaugh has not drafted legislation yet but said he is looking to Florida's “promotion gate” law as his model.
In a 2002 education overhaul, Florida required third-graders to achieve a certain score on a statewide reading test to advance. Those who do not advance are required to get intensive help.
Iowa's promotion gate law, which takes effect in 2017, will require third-graders to pass a reading test or take an intensive summer reading program to advance.
However, it also will allow students to demonstrate their reading abilities using alternatives to a standardized test and allow exemptions for some students — those just learning English, some in special education and those who have been held back previously and given intensive reading help.
Following those states' lead would represent a major change for Nebraska. It would put promotion policies in state law, rather than leave them to control by local districts.
It also would establish a test as the door to advancement. Nebraska education officials have been reluctant to create high-stakes tests, despite their popularity in other states.
“This would represent a significant change from how it's currently done,” Lautenbaugh said.
In general, OPS advances students if they show that they know grade-level material at a passing level, Kehrberg said.
But unlike promotion gate laws, students are judged using a variety of measures, not a single test, she said. She also noted that passing level is not the same as “proficiency” on state assessments. Students can pass with a D grade, while proficiency would be akin to a C grade.
Kehrberg said OPS has many ways to help students who are struggling with reading or other grade-level material, such as summer school or extra help during the school year.
OPS holds back students only if parents, teachers and administrators agree that is the most beneficial path for the student, she said, noting that research shows that, from a child's perspective, being held back at third grade and beyond is as traumatic as losing an arm or a leg.
The OPS promotion practices are similar to those used by the Grand Island district, which advances elementary school students based on their age and development, while providing academic support to help them learn.
“Retention is proven to be one of the worst strategies to improve learning,” said Dexter, the district's associate superintendent.
The Ralston district has no specific policy on third-grade promotion but advances students as they complete each grade, said Kristi Gibbs, assistant superintendent for learning.
Gibbs said a child's parents, teacher and principal are involved in deciding whether to retain a child.
Lautenbaugh said he offered his education proposals out of concern about student achievement within the Omaha district, the same concerns that prompted his bill to shrink the OPS board. Lautenbaugh's bill, which was passed by the Legislature earlier this year, shrank the board from 12 to nine members and required a new election.
“When I propose these things, I always have OPS in mind,” he said. “That's where I live, that's where my kids go to school.”
State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha plans a six-part package of education measures next year. His proposals would:
» Provide state-funded incentives for teachers to get national board certification and teach in high-poverty schools.
Teachers in districts with more than 50 percent of students getting free or reduced-price lunch would have their tuition paid while seeking certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In return, the teachers must stay with the district and teach in a school with more than 70 percent poverty-level students for five years.
In addition, board-certified teachers at high-poverty schools within large, high-poverty districts would get 10 percent in additional pay.
The stipend would be available in eight districts with more than 2,000 students and more than 50 percent poverty. The eight districts that appear to qualify would be Omaha, Grand Island, Fremont, South Sioux City, Hastings, Scottsbluff, Ralston and Lexington.
The Omaha Public Schools have 55 schools that would qualify as high-poverty under the proposal. The Grand Island district has 11 schools, and Ralston has two.
» Give bonuses to teachers based on performance grades assigned to schools. The grades would be based on standardized test scores and graduation rates. Bonuses would go to teachers in top-graded schools and those showing significant improvement.
In addition, teachers would receive bonuses if their students passed Advanced Placement examinations, with larger bonuses when the students come from schools with low performance grades.
» Ban social promotion from third grade and raise graduation requirements. Ensure that all 10th-graders take the PSAT college preparatory exam.
» Require principals at both sending and receiving schools to approve teacher transfers. The goal is to keep poorly performing teachers from transferring without addressing performance problems.
» Change teacher tenure rules to eliminate layoffs based on seniority and end administrator tenure altogether.
» Change pension rules to prohibit teachers from drawing a pension while taking a new teaching job.
» Provide alternative routes for teacher certification so people with college degrees in other fields can enter the field more easily.