Commentary

Helping More Michigan Students Learn to Read

Campaign promises are likely not enough

In Michigan it's not just the season for falling leaves, chilly winds, and warm cider and doughnuts. It's also a time for bold campaign promises to address significant challenges, including the state's dismal academic record.

Both Gretchen Whitmer and Bill Schuette want to preside over a state government that spends $13 billion a year on K-12 education and is slated to implement a law that could hold back thousands of third-graders who read poorly or not at all. State test results have stayed stubbornly low, prompting questions about the magnitude and the effectiveness of the remedies called for in state law.

Many parents, educators and business leaders are rightly concerned about equipping more students with the important tool of literacy. Thus, the two major candidates have addressed the issue with a variety of proposals, as recently reported by The Detroit News. While some of their proposals may work better than others, none get to the heart of the matter.

Schuette wants to build on the third-grade reading law that passed in 2016. It's hard to say exactly how many students will be held back when the law’s sanctions take effect in 2020. The law allows students several ways to prove proficiency and provides exceptions for those with disabilities, English language learners and others. But there is reason for optimism, as the Florida law on which it's based has brought clear short-term benefits for students. As with many education interventions, though, the longer-term effects have been modest and mixed.

Whitmer is a skeptic of the law. She instead champions enrolling all 4-year-olds in tax-funded preschool, saying it is "the first step to ensure Michigan becomes a fully literate state." Yet most at-risk children already have access to the state's Great Start Readiness Program, which Michigan funds at more than $240 million a year. Ninety percent of current slots are reserved for lower-income students, including anyone who comes from a family of four making up to $62,700 a year. Expanding the program would require additional tax dollars to serve those with higher incomes.

Both major party candidates have found common ground in making the pitch to dramatically increase the number of literacy coaches in elementary schools. Schuette qualifies his vision for these coaches as helping teachers to use "the most effective literacy methods."

It isn't clear how many of Michigan's elementary teachers have been trained in the best-known way to help kids learn to read, but it may not be a lot. A recent national survey found that only 23 percent of education schools prepare would-be teachers in "scientifically based reading methods," including phonics. (That low number is trending up from 17 percent four years earlier.)

If solving the massive literacy challenge were as easy as flipping a switch, the billions spent last decade on the Reading First program would have brought about more success. Years of federal grants to local schools, funneled through state education departments, yielded more teachers using the best methods to help students decode words, but failed to help more students comprehend what they were reading. Building vocabulary and content knowledge is important, too.

Still, switching to research-based instruction can make a huge difference. That has proved to be a revelation to teachers in Pennsylvania's majority low-income Bethlehem Area School District. Three years ago, only 47 percent of the district's kindergartners met literacy standards. After the district trained principals and teachers to use scientifically based reading methods and installed a new phonics-based program in classrooms, that number climbed to 84 percent. Teachers and administrators haven’t solved every problem, but at least they have shown how to get many more students off to a great start.

Michigan leaders should keep a close eye on the Bethlehem district's progress. They could also look at scaling up successful efforts that have developed closer to home. For example, research has shown the literacy tutoring program operated by Beyond Basics, a nonprofit group working with students, mostly in Detroit, has had a tremendous impact.

Leaders may find lessons for how the state could support local changes to curriculum, teacher training, and classroom practice. But that may require other, more fundamental reforms. In other words, even if the candidates for governor could fulfill all their campaign promises, they may not do much to fix the state’s problems with early childhood literacy.