Commentary

Taking Michigan’s Literacy Challenge Seriously

Tackling teacher prep, social promotion key to helping kids learn

Gov. Whitmer intends to weaken a 2016 law that could hold back thousands of third-graders with serious reading struggles. This ignores a promising approach to getting these students the resources they need that doesn’t rely on socially promoting kids who can’t read. State leaders should stick with the law, while also focusing on another major piece of the literacy puzzle: teacher preparation.

The law is pretty simple: Michigan third graders need to show they can read at least at a second-grade level before being passed on to fourth grade. There are plenty of exceptions to this — for those with special needs, from low-income households, still learning English or even if a school leader thinks they should be moved on. Still, Bridge Magazine reported on Jan. 29 that the governor is working with nonprofit groups to urge parents to take advantage of these exemptions and prevent as many students from being retained as possible.

Parents should know their rights and options. But they should also be aware of the rigorous evidence from Florida that shows retained students went on to gain in achievement while those in similar circumstances who were moved on to the next grade fell further behind. Also noteworthy are the highly encouraging results from Mississippi, where the most struggling readers are kept out of social promotion, and also where reading achievement has grown more than any other state.

These states’ experiences don’t guarantee success in Michigan, but there are other reasons to be hopeful. Michigan’s 2016 law is geared toward improving student reading services on the front end so there are more literate students who don’t need to face a difficult parental decision about holding them back. If these programs are successful, the number of third graders facing retention should shrink.

Plus, there’s another promising way to improve reading instruction that’s just waiting for schools to act. It involves improving how well the state’s elementary teachers are prepared to teach reading effectively. That requires an emphasis on what research has widely demonstrated to be the five pillars of reading instruction.

For decades, teacher colleges across the country have ignored these best practices. A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality finds that, for the first time, just over half of the nation’s teacher prep programs are giving their students most or all of the tools of scientifically based reading instruction. That’s still not great, but definitely a step in the right direction for many institutions that have been slow to adopt widely recognized best practices.

Credit: National Council on Teacher Quality

The good news is that the report credits Michigan as one of six states where teacher prep programs have shown the most significant improvements in adhering to scientific reading instruction. Even with that progress, though, Michigan’s performance is still lagging. Only three of the state’s 24 programs evaluated earned the highest grade, and the percentage of Michigan programs that got Fs was nearly double the national average. Schools that recruit instructors from these programs ought to be concerned about their effectiveness as the teacher workforce changes over the long haul.

In the meantime, state officials can put pressure on teacher prep programs to improve by promoting better results from literacy dollars. Districts could follow the successful example of Bethlehem, Penn., which systematically trained and empowered educators in the science of reading instruction. Nonprofit programs like Beyond Basics and the Children’s Choice Initiative have achieved great results with struggling readers. Michigan could also follow Florida’s lead, and put reading scholarships in the hands of parents to choose the services and materials that will help them best.

It may seem easier to avoid the tough decisions and disregard the daunting challenges. But that would only undermine Michigan’s best chance to provide more children the vital skill of literacy.