Michigan’s proposed third grade reading mandate

Jan 8, 2014 by

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – There are few things members of the Education Establishment dislike more than when “outsiders” such as taxpayers, parents and lawmakers attempt to shape educational polices.

Establishment members consider themselves the experts in all things education-related and resent having amateurs set the rules and expectations of their profession. They’re quick to put down any policies they don’t like – such as merit pay or standardized testing – as sophomoric or “unworkable” ideas that appeal only to non-educators.

The Establishment even jeers when the “laypeople” push for policies that transcend mere common sense and are validated by decades’ worth of educational research.

Such is the case in Michigan’s Grand Rapids school district, where the local school board has come out against new legislation that would require third-grade students to have adequate reading skills before being allowed to advance to the next grade.

The proposed “read-or-flunk law” – as some are calling it – is sponsored by Republican state Rep. Amanda Price. The bill is based upon the widely accepted premise that third-graders who lack proper reading skills get left behind in the learning process once they transition to fourth-grade. That’s the grade in which students go from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

According to USA Today, researchers have known for decades that third grade is a “critical milestone” in a student’s development as a reader. And if a child doesn’t have the necessary literacy skills by fourth grade, some research indicates he will disengage from the learning process and become much more likely to drop out of school when he gets older.

As a result of such findings, 15 states and Washington D.C. have already passed third-grade reading mandates. Nebraska state Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh has pledged to push for a third-grade reading mandate in the Cornhusker State when the new legislative session begins later this week.

Opponents of Michigan’s proposed mandate – such as the Grand Rapids school board – argue that decisions regarding whether or not a student passes a grade should be made at the school level, not the state level.

The Grand Rapids board could have passed a resolution stating their opposition to the bill, as is their right, and left it at that. But instead, the chronically cash-strapped district has directed its lobbyist (yes, you read that correctly) to pressure lawmakers into opposing the bill and supporting other efforts that would “focus on early identification (of struggling readers), early intervention, preschool funding and teacher training,” reports MLive.com.

Communications Director John Helmholdt tells MLive.com that Grand Rapids school officials “generally support” the goal of having third graders be proficient readers, but they “absolutely oppose” any kind of mandatory retention policies.

Grand Rapids school board members are joined in their opposition to the third-grade reading mandate by other stalwarts of the state’s Education Establishment, including the Michigan State Board of Education, the state-level associations for school board members and school administrators, and the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

The high cost of failure

Part of the Education Establishment’s opposition to the reading requirement stems from how much it would cost.

The Detroit Free Press reports that in 2012, one-third of Michigan third-graders failed the reading portion of the state’s standardized test. If the mandatory retention law had been in place then, some 36,000 students would have been required to repeat the third grade.

In reality, less than 1 percent of those students were held back, according to the Free Press.

Analysts estimate that extending the school career of struggling readers by one or two years – and providing them with various interventions – could cost the state of Michigan anywhere from $50 million to $500 million annually.

That might strike some as a reasonable concern, given that many Michigan schools struggle to balance their budgets every year. But Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, notes that taxpayers “spend $4 billion on K-3 education now.”

“Reading literacy is the most important priority for K-3 education. One might argue that for $4 billion, expecting third-graders to read (shouldn’t be) an additional responsibility,” Naeyaert tells MLive.com.

Others have observed that if creating better third-grade readers ultimately leads to more students graduating from high school and even college, then the long-term economic benefits of a reading mandate dwarf the initial costs.

‘An enforcement mechanism’

Florida has been the trendsetter in this area. Since adopting its reading requirement in 2002, the percentage of Florida third-graders who test at the lowest reading levels has decreased from 23 percent to 18 percent.

While the policy obviously isn’t a “silver bullet” to the reading problem, it’s clearly putting scores of Florida students in position for a brighter future.

And Florida’s success certainly stands in stark contrast to the reading proficiency rates in most other states. USA Today reports that “only 35 percent of fourth graders across the country are proficient in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released (late last year).”

That helps explain why even those states that aren’t comfortable with the concept of mandatory retention have adopted policies that require the identification of – and intervention on behalf of – struggling young readers.

A 2012 report from the Education Commission of the States concedes those policies are more effective at helping struggling students, but adds that mandatory retention often serves as “an enforcement mechanism” to ensure the other policies are faithfully implemented.

Some members of Michigan’s Establishment support a companion bill to Price’s reading mandate that would require state education leaders to identify and implement programs that increase third-grade reading proficiency.

Despite the predictable opposition from Michigan’s Education Establishment, state Rep. Price isn’t backing down on her bill, which she describes as a “line in the sand.”

“I don’t see this as punitive (against students),” Price tells MLive.com. “The point isn’t to retain students, it’s to improve literacy. It creates a laser focus on improving skills.”

Michigan’s Education Establishment comes out swinging against state’s proposed third grade reading mandate – EAGnews.org powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    How much it would cost? If they use my programme it is FREE and they would SAVE £/$ billions.

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