Taking Michigan Literacy Challenge Seriously – Mackinac Center

Governor Whitmer plans to weaken a 2016 law that could hold back thousands of third graders from serious literacy struggles. This ignores a promising approach to providing these students with the resources they need that does not rely on the social advancement of children who cannot read. Heads of state should obey the law while focusing on another important piece of the literacy puzzle: preparing teachers.

The law is pretty simple: third graders in Michigan must prove they can read at least second grade before advancing to fourth grade. There are many exceptions – for people with special needs, from low-income households who are still learning English, or even if a school principal thinks they should move on. Still, Bridge Magazine reported on Jan. 29 that the governor is working with nonprofit groups to urge parents to use these exemptions and prevent as many students as possible from being retained.

Parents should know their rights and options. But you should also be aware of the rigorous evidence from Florida showing that retained students continued to gain in performance, while those in similar circumstances who were promoted to the next grade continued to lag behind. Also of note are the extremely encouraging results from Mississippi, where the most disadvantaged readers are excluded from social advertising and where reading performance has grown faster than any other state.

The experiences of these states do not guarantee success in Michigan, but there are other reasons to be hopeful. Michigan’s 2016 law aims to improve reading services for students on the front end so there are more educated students who don’t face a difficult parental decision to hold them back. If these programs are successful, the number of third graders exposed to attachment should decrease.

Plus, there is another promising way to improve reading teaching that is just waiting for schools to act. The point is to improve how well prepared the state’s elementary school teachers are to teach reading effectively. This requires an emphasis on what research has widely shown to be the five pillars of teaching reading.

For decades, teaching colleges across the country have ignored these best practices. A new report from the National Council for Teacher Quality finds that, for the first time, just over half of national teacher preparation programs provide students with most or all of the tools for teaching science-based reading. This is still not great, but definitely a step in the right direction for many institutions that have been slow to adopt generally accepted best practices.

Credit: National Council on Teacher Quality

The good news is that the report names Michigan one of six states where teacher prep programs have shown the most significant improvements in academic reading adherence. Despite this advancement, Michigan’s performance is still lagging. Only three of the state’s 24 programs rated received the highest grade, and the percentage of Michigan programs that received Fs was nearly double the national average. Schools hiring instructors from these programs should be concerned about their effectiveness as the teacher staff changes over the long term.

In the meantime, state officials can put pressure on teacher prep programs to get better results by encouraging better outcomes from literacy funds. Districts could follow the successful example of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which systematically trained and qualified educators in the science of reading teaching. Nonprofit programs like Beyond Basics and the Children’s Choice Initiative have had great results with difficult readers. Michigan could also follow Florida’s lead, placing reading scholarships in the hands of parents to choose the services and materials that will best serve them.

It may seem easier to avoid the tough choices and ignore the daunting challenges. However, doing so would only undermine Michigan’s best chance of teaching more children the vital skills of literacy.

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