The leader of a Florida non-profit group talked to legislators Monday about Florida’s program that holds back third graders who score the lowest on reading tests. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s education reform plan includes a similar proposal to hold back third graders who can’t read.

Mathew Ladner of the Foundation for Excellence in Education in Florida, spoke at a meeting called by the chair of the House Education Committee, and said it’s not an easy thing to implement. “When they retained 13% of students in Florida in 2002-2003, it was not fun. But this is a policy that has been proven to move the needle profoundly, especially for disadvantaged kids,” Ladner said.

Another advocate for the approach is Waterloo Schools superintendent Gary Norris, who worked in Florida from 2004 to 2008. Norris says teachers are working hard. But they haven’t, in his words, been “focused” enough.

“Boy when you talk about being a superintendent and know that you’re going to be sitting across the table from 13-percent of your parents telling them you’re going to be retaining their child, that brings about focus in a school district. Incredible focus, incredible adult behavior changes,” Norris said.

Ladner said retention can help motivate parents to take a more active role in their children’s education. “And that’s really crucial in my view, ” Ladner said, “I mean when you can tell parents (who) have not been involved in the education of their child, Little Johnny is going to be retained unless we see X….that’s a very powerful message.”

Representative Sharon Steckman, a Democrat and retired teacher from Mason City, said Iowa’s reading scores aren’t what they used to be, because the state is changing. “I think you need to look at the demographics of the state. It’s pretty amazing what our teachers have been able to do because, you know, our poverty rates have gone up,” Steckman said. “The school I taught at was years ago maybe 40-45 percent free and reduced lunch. It’s now getting close to 70%.”

Steckman asked Ladner whether retention is getting too much focus. “How can you give retention all that credit when you’ve put in place wonderful literacy programs…tons of money went into professional development? All those things to me would be the key more so than retention,” Steckman said. Ladner replied,”Let me be clear, I don’t attribute all these things to retention.”

But Ladner said he believes other reforms are more effective when students and parents know they could be held back if they don’t improve. Representative Jeremy Taylor, a Republican who is a high school teacher from Sioux City, says he generally supports retaining third graders who fail reading tests. But he says he also worries students who are held back to work on reading may fall behind in other areas like math.