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Michigan’s Illiterate Children

Sep 7, 2017 by

Tom Watkins –

It is simply unacceptable.

Imagine your child or grandchild going though life, without the ability to read. In the 21st Century, where ideas and jobs can and do move around the globe instantaneously.

Does unacceptable – with a huge dash of anger – wash over you? It should!

Michigan is breeding illiterate children.

Nolan Finley, editorial page editor for The Detroit News, was worked up this past week and penned a scathing editorial last Sunday, blistering the sheer unacceptability of this state of affairs in Michigan saying, “New statistics on reading achievement were released for Michigan last week, and they should sicken us all. We can look away from the failure, but we can’t pretend not to know what it will mean to children who don’t develop adequate reading skills.

The number of state third-graders who passed the English language arts test (reading, writing and comprehension fell to 44.1 percent this year, down nearly six percentage points over the past three years.

More than half of our youngest students are not proficient in reading.

Think about that for a minute, and ask yourself what return Michigan is getting on its more than $14 billion annual investment in public schools? We shouldn’t rest until every kid can read.”

Finley went on, calling this failure “disgusting.”

We must attack these unacceptable reading score statistics now with blitzkrieg abandon or they will be an anvil on these children and our collective future.

The greatest predictor of the likelihood of a student dropping out of high school is the failure of a child to be able to read as they exit third grade.

The individual, city, region, state and nation with an educated population will thrive, all else will wither.

A child without the ability to read becomes an adult without a future. If you don’t care about what is happening to these children we are not educating, shrugging your shoulders and saying, “not my kid, not my problem”, think again. These illiterate kids will be coming to your place of business in the future as a potential employee, customer or with some other nefarious ideas in mind. They don’t simply disappear.

More Than Schools

While our public schools (traditional and charter) where these failures are perpetuated must accept a significant part of the blame, there are other culprits as well including parents and policymakers. There is much blame to go around when it comes to the educational failure in Michigan.

Simply pointing fingers at the state superintendent, state board of education, governor, legislature, teachers and the unions that represent them is not going to help a child learn to read.

We need to embrace the collective vitality of our local public schools and invest wisely in them to get the results we want and our children deserve.

Statue Of Liberty

Our public schools are the true Statue of Liberty of the great nation of ours; taking the tired, hungry, the poor, the huddled masses, children who speak English as a second language or children with disabilities and give them hope and a future. Yet, we disparage public education today as if it is to blame, when we as a society have a collective responsibility to lift up our kids.

And if you believe as I do, that our public schools are the true Statute of Liberty, than you know our great teachers are the torch lighting the way for us all.

Yet, ask a teacher today if they feel supported and appreciated and your likely to hear, “I feel as appreciated as a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe.”

We need to stop the historical ideological fights around public education and get dead serious about fixing the problem. Casting blame will not take us where we need to go.

Education Trust – Midwest

Their are few honest brokers in the public education debate. One is the EdTrust-MidWest.

As described in their March 2017 analysis of the Governor’s executive budget recommendations, the state budget provides important opportunities to advance equity and educational excellence.

Money alone, however, will not improve our schools. As leading education states have shown, bringing about extraordinary improvement in student learning requires strategic investments in sustained, transformative and systemic changes. This is missing in Michigan today.

There is no shared vision, nor common agenda to lift up our reading scores, let alone our schools, teachers and most importantly, our students.

The state’s superintendent of schools Brian J. Whiston is quite capable. He spelled out an agenda. Obviously it has not not been embraced by the legislature who control the purse strings and the education policy for Michigan.

The legislature seems to have multiple heads when it comes to education policy and ideology.

Education Trust – Midwest has its vision and a plan too, yet the players that need to buy in haven’t. They paint an ugly picture for Michigan that “if we don’t get our act together our public education system will not rebound.”

Michigan’s student learning rankings, compared to the rest of the country, has plummeted over the last decade. Since 2003, Michigan has fallen from 28th in the nation to 38th in fourth-grade reading.

If Michigan stays on its current course, we will be ranked 44th nationwide for student learning in fourth-grade reading by 2030, according to a new analysis conducted by The Education Trust-Midwest. Within five years, if nothing changes, Michigan will be trying to catch up with what had been America’s chronically low-performing education states like Arkansas and South Carolina.

There ought to be a plan. Tragically, there’s isn’t one.

Without a vision the people will perish. As Nolan Finley so eloquently stated its “disgusting.”

Tom Watkins served as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools 2001-05 and as the special assistant to the President of Wayne State University 1990-96. He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88

Source: Michigan’s Illiterate Children

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