Several years ago, The New York Times published an essay by Chicago high school teacher Will Okun. He was worried about Etta, a conscientious, enthusiastic, hard-working struggling reader whom he might have to fail.

His blog was touching, perceptive and troubling. It continues to resonate strongly with me. It dealt with an all-too-common dilemma that affects struggling readers and their teachers.

"Unfortunately, Etta reads and writes at approximately a seventh-grade level. ... How have students like Etta reached the 11th grade with only basic reading and writing skills?" Okun writes. "If I fail her, she will have to repeat my class. Because of our school's resources, the class size and my own teaching abilities, there is little hope that I can significantly strengthen her reading and writing skills. ... If I automatically fail students who are not performing at grade level, I will be forced to fail Etta year upon year until she inevitably drops out."

I was so moved by his essay and so angry at his dilemma that I sent him a quick, superficial response. Here's a more comprehensive one.

Demanding the unreasonable

All a school can reasonably ask of struggling readers is that they sustain a good effort to achieve and conscientiously use the knowledge, skills and learning strategies they've mastered. Schools should not hold them responsible for reading disabilities, language difficulties, impoverished backgrounds, chaotic homes and communities, inadequate school resources or any combination of these.

Unfortunately, politicians have frequently forced schools to retain struggling readers, especially economically impoverished ones, responsible for these and other factors they cannot control. This is more than unreasonable — it's disgraceful.

It's disgraceful that teachers should have to fail hard-working struggling readers for below average or below grade-level work. Not everyone can be average, not everyone can perform in the middle of the group, not everyone has developed average abilities, and not everyone has had average opportunities.

By definition, grade level is average. This means many students will always perform above or below grade level, that many students will perform better and many worse than students around the middle.

Here's a story about one such below-average performer. I know him well. Despite my great effort at Brooklyn's Tilden High School, despite my determination, despite two encouraging football coaches, I never ran the 100-yard dash nearly as fast as the average high school student.

But I wasn't cut; I didn't fail; I was treated with respect. And my enthusiasm never waned. I suited up for all of the games, watching them from the end of the bench, knowing I did my best, knowing I'd never get into a game. And I never did.

Similarly, it should not be surprising that some struggling readers — for unknown reasons — currently lack the underlying language and cognitive competencies to achieve what's average, despite herculean efforts by them and their teachers. To fail them, to retain them, to set them on the path to dropping out of school because their hard work hasn’t produced average academic achievement or acceptable test scores is, euphemistically speaking, disgraceful.

It punishes them for what they cannot control.

Responding to failure

Certainly, preschool intervention is one of the keys to preventing learning problems that lead to failure and retention. Another key is comprehensive, sustained economic and health supports for impoverished communities.

But these solutions receive minuscule, if any, political support. They are often far too late for struggling readers in high school, who work hard in school but continually face "failure."

So, what should teachers do for struggling readers who work hard, but for many reasons like reading and language disabilities fail their tests? The answer: Pass them.

After all, they're working hard. They're doing all anyone can do — making the effort. Teachers (and parents) should also advocate for the services these readers need to succeed, services often unavailable to them, especially in poor minority neighborhoods.

Without needed services, it's unlikely they’ll ever function on grade level. Often, the odds for success are stacked against them. For many, failure and despair will become their frequent companions.

Essential services might include mentoring, counseling, individualized homework assignments, tutoring by reading specialists, training in assistive technology (like inexpensive text-to-speech software), healthcare, social work and optional after school recreation, reading and writing programs that stress effort, enjoyment, learning strategies, and other evidence-based approaches.

Let's look at healthcare, social work and after-school-programs, as they're often ignored.

Healthcare. Examinations can identify and help solve common but untreated problems that sabotage students' academics and well-being. Common problems, like poor nutrition, sleep deprivation and tooth decay can easily cause havoc.

Social work. Social work services can identify and help solve numerous problems, especially problems that plague struggling readers from poor neighborhoods. These include excessive loneliness, hunger, exhaustion, sibling responsibilities and fear of tough, violent neighborhoods.

After-school programs. Voluntary participation in after-school programs, often ridiculed by opportunistic or poorly informed politicians, can be enormously helpful. Relatively speaking, they’re inexpensive and may well decrease the high costs of disciplinary problems, special education and grade retention. The best research available shows such programs can prove effective, if, and only if, they emphasize evidence-based approaches.

One prominent argument against passing struggling readers is that they cannot do grade-level work. But failing and retaining them rarely helps them achieve grade level. Rarely does more of what hasn’t worked work. Often, it further arrests academic progress and creates social problems.

Having 14-year-old struggling readers in sixth grade classes creates social and emotional problems for everyone: the struggling readers, their families, their classmates and their teachers. It makes far more sense to promote them, note their instructional levels on their report cards, and provide them with all the academic and related services they need. In the long run, this is less expensive for schools and better for the struggling readers, their families and their peers.

So, what should schools do for struggling readers who work hard, but fail their high-stakes "graduation" tests? If legally possible, let them graduate — they've done what they could. Denying graduation will tell them that effort doesn't matter. It will create gigantic, perhaps insurmountable obstacles to getting decent jobs or attending post-secondary programs.

It may well warn other struggling learners that trying doesn't help, that they’ll never graduate, that it’s best to give up. And what will this do for motivation and learning? Severely dampen them.

Well before 2016, the importance of motivation an often ignored but powerful force in learning was well understood.

"Unmotivated students will not receive the full benefit of increased instructional time, careful teaching and a well-designed program. Without motivation ... the student will continue making the same errors and will perform poorly on new skills," according to Douglas W. Carnine et al.

"Motivation is perhaps the indispensable element needed for school success," Robert J. Sternberg writes. "Without it, the student never even tries to learn."

Not surprisingly, the poor motivation of many struggling readers, caused or aggravated by "failure," trepidation and the imagined certainty of grade retention and legally denied graduation, may add to the likelihood of long-term emotional distress and poverty.

To remove this obstacle and to communicate more effectively to prospective employers and post-secondary programs, high schools might award diplomas that list struggling readers' high-stakes test scores, list their grade point averages in different subjects, specify how to request official transcripts, and report struggling readers' positive attributes, such as talents, reliability and determination.

This will help hard-working struggling readers to get better jobs and to get into post secondary programs that challenge but don't overwhelm them. They may begin to realize they're more than test scores. Many may learn that when their challenges match their achievement, effort, persistence and correct use of learning strategies, they can succeed.

If schools can’t or won’t do this, at a minimum, they should do what some are doing: Award certificates stating that the struggling readers have successfully completed their coursework.

Creating opportunities

Education is about showing all students — including those suffering from economic impoverishment or reading disabilities — that schools respect them, care about them and will do all they can to give them meaningful opportunities. Failing them, denying graduation and slamming doors in their faces, will harm more than just these struggling readers.

In all likelihood, stories about retaining hard-working struggling readers or denying them graduation will spread to other struggling readers and to their communities. Three messages will emerge:

  • effort means little
  • schools view students as test scores, not people
  • schools punish, not empower

As previously mentioned, this will crush the academic motivation of many struggling readers and will induce many to drop out a sad but understandable decision that often creates irreparable damage.

It will also damage the nation. Repeated exponentially across communities, punishing hard-working struggling readers for their academic problems will likely add to the high price of grade retention, increase America's high poverty rate, increase its high incarceration rate and further damage its eroding ability to compete globally.

Thus, enlightened self-interest should have compelled federal and state governments to help schools develop and sustain a rich array of high-quality alternative programs, ones that create attractive opportunities for hard-working struggling readers. For the most part, it has not.

To succeed, alternative programs must not be "segregated dumping grounds." Instead, they need high status. They need to be well-funded, well-staffed and highly-personalized. Teachers, support staff and administrators must be highly caring, knowledgeable and skilled in helping struggling readers.

Their curriculum must be matched to their interests and current independent and instructional levels and prove to them that with effort, persistence and the proper application of learning strategies, they can achieve what they and society value highly. It must show struggling readers that success will improve their futures in ways they value.

Taking political action

Teachers and other educators must follow state, district and building policies, no matter their effects. If these policies are destructive, teachers have two options for changing policies: do nothing and let the struggling readers suffer a legal but morally unsatisfying option or take political action.

To prevent the negative effects of destructive policies and inadequate budgets, teachers (and parents) must take political action that focuses on both the long and short term.

Long term, they must work to develop deep, widespread public support for programs that prevent failure and offer attractive, beneficial options for struggling readers. This involves focusing on policies, including taxes, health and community development policies, and the hidden but powerful driving forces behind them: values.

But focusing only on what happens in schools is insufficient to prevent or remediate many learning problems. Generally, sick, hungry, frightened students from poor, chaotic neighborhoods have far less chance of succeeding in school than do healthy, well-nourished students from neighborhoods with safe parks, good libraries and good family incomes.

Yet poverty has failed to garner adequate attention and sets of well-coordinated programs. Instead, it has garnered lots of undeserved, condescending condemnation, perpetuated by destructive myths.

Short term, teachers (and parents) must work to develop widespread support for annual budgets that create opportunities for struggling readers to succeed and that quickly give them the extra instruction and supports they need. This involves joining advocacy groups (e.g., Children’s Defense Fund), giving talks, discussing budgets with politicians, speaking to boards of education, and publishing letters and opinion pieces in newspapers.

As part of a group, they can also meet with administrators to discuss the effects of local policies and offer alternatives.

Helping all the Ettas

Unless all the Ettas get the in-school and community help they need, to the degree it’s needed, it’s unlikely the vast majority of them will prosper greatly in school and life.

Why? They won’t have the opportunities I had. They live in a time of punitive policies cloaked in the disguise of morality, accountability and personal responsibility. In a perverse sense, to prosper, so many of them have to keep carrying loads heavy enough to crush weightlifters.

So, to get help for all the Ettas, all dedicated teachers will have to ask, plead and perhaps cajole their administrators for resources, which they may not have. And even if the resources suddenly appear, it will probably take Etta two or more years of intensive, highly knowledgeable, highly skilled reading help to reach grade level and pass her tests, if she’s developed the language and cognitive competencies to pass them.

By then, it’s probably too late. Policy may have dictated failure and retention. Nevertheless, Etta’s teachers should try to get her and all her peers the services they need. They deserve them.

To prevent this depressing, unconscionable problem from continuously destroying lives, teachers who care about all the Ettas, need to engage in focused, sustained political action that advocates for humane, comprehensive, empowering programs supported by high-quality research. To do less is to continually see this dilemma replayed — like "Groundhog Day" with tears, not laughs.