Our kids can’t read.

Not as well as they should, anyway. Not how they need to if they want to succeed in higher grade levels, college, and the workplace. And definitely not as well as they would be if more public schools had kept their doors open longer during the pandemic.

Despite an unprecedented infusion of additional resources in the form of pandemic relief funds, national data on reading achievement remain alarming. Unlike math, where there are at least some signs of progress, reading scores don’t seem to be bouncing back, and we shouldn’t expect them to unless something changes.

So, what’s the solution?

For better or worse, the reality is that additional resources won’t be forthcoming for the foreseeable future. Realistically, policies such as public charter schools (with a strong track record of boosting low-income students’ reading achievement) can’t be scaled at a rate that will make a difference for the COVID-19 generation.

Still, there is one policy that seems worth trying.

For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that holding kids back did more harm than good. But the last decade of empirical research paints a very different picture, as a new brief — by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and written by the Rand Corp.’s Umut Ozek and Lou Mariano — argues in significantly greater depth.

More recent and rigorous research shows that holding back kids who can’t read in elementary school (as opposed to middle school or high school) actually benefits them. On the flip side, the authors find that holding students back in higher grade levels really does seem to cause more harm than good. What’s more, students who aren’t held back also seem to benefit when retention policies are in place, perhaps because the threat of retention tends to focus the minds of parents and educators.

In response to this new research, “third-grade reading guarantees” that mandate grade retention for third graders who aren’t decoding words with the expected fluency have been gaining traction in statehouses nationwide.

Realistically, these bills don’t intend to hold back every student reading below grade level. (Almost every law that has been passed has exceptions for students who are English learners who are eligible for special education services or who have already been held back once.) Of course, a policy needn’t solve every problem to be worth pursuing. And the alternative — letting kids who aren’t strong readers flounder in the face of increasingly complex texts — isn’t as humane proponents of “social promotion” like to believe.

Yes, there are times when passing a kid along is the only practical solution. But reading is fundamental to all else that follows. If a child can’t read, he or she can’t possibly succeed in fourth through 12th grade English, or history, or science — much less the job market. And yet, despite the obviousness of such points, the requisite urgency and focus don’t seem to be there without some mechanism for holding a system where responsibility is inevitably shared accountable.

That’s why, in 2024, we need a tougher and more honest approach if we genuinely want to help a generation struggling to find its footing. Because, in the long run, success isn’t a product of self-confidence.

Self-confidence is a product of success.