Retaining students who lag in literacy pays off

Retaining students who lag in literacy pays off
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This year’s class of Michigan third-graders heads back to school as the state’s first to face real consequences if they have not learned how to read. Some schools may find the change uncomfortable. But embracing the extra pressure, along with the added tools to help educators succeed, can provide a small, sure step toward needed improvements.

One of the most important functions of our nation’s education system is to equip the next generation of literate citizens. Experts on the National Reading Panel recognized nearly 20 years ago how millions of children should best be taught to read fluently and with comprehension. That approach includes a system of phonics that enables students to decode letters and sounds.   

More new teachers today are being prepared to use the scientifically-based method than in the early 2000s. Yet, according to the National Center on Teacher Quality, two-thirds of the nation’s teacher training programs aren’t teaching future educators the best ways to make sure children can read. Perhaps they will be helped along by the recent work of education journalist Emily Hanford. Among her other stories, she highlighted a low-income Pennsylvania school district that equipped teachers with these crucial but overlooked skills and knowledge and saw dramatic gains in student reading scores.

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Michigan could use a similar turnaround. Only 45 percent of third-graders meet state standards for English language proficiency, down from 50 percent four years ago. Over the past decade, Michigan’s performance on the nation’s fourth-grade reading test has stagnated, falling below the national average.

The costs of children not being able to read are high. Students who miss the mark in third grade are four times more likely not to graduate from high school by age 19. In Detroit, the nation’s lowest-performing district, the nonprofit group Beyond Basics is seeking to scale up its effective six-week tutoring course to reach 10,000 district high schoolers who currently read below grade level.

Yet it’s even better to identify and address problems early in a child’s educational career. In 2016 Michigan officials crafted a law to address the challenge of early literacy. The state has set aside extra resources to identify struggling readers early on and support them with more individualized, research-based instruction. Where schools adopt best practices, better results should follow.

The most reported feature of the new law is its requirement that schools hold back third-graders who read a year or more behind grade level. Students will be able to demonstrate their reading abilities either on the state test or by other recognized means. Additionally, the law makes exceptions for students with disabilities and English language learners. Even so, several thousand more students may have to repeat third grade next year. According to the law, schools are to assign retained students to the most effective available teacher and provide supplemental tutoring.

Nearly one in four Michigan teachers surveyed this year said their schools are not prepared to support students who may be retained under the new law. That revelation came more than two full years after the state enacted the law and dedicated millions of dollars to hire more literacy coaches and expand related programs.

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A law that leads more young students to be held back may not be the ideal or ultimate solution for a state’s dismal results. But Michigan is following a well-established and promising path. A rigorous analysis of Florida’s 2002 law found retention boosted academic achievement in third and in eighth grade. It also estimated that the benefits in additional future earnings for students greatly outstrip the extra cost to taxpayers for enacting the reform.

Other states that have adopted similar laws, including Indiana and Mississippi, have seen significant growth in tested reading ability, though it’s hard to know how much the laws have directly helped. 

More recently, Florida has begun providing $500 state-funded scholarships to students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading and apply for extra help. The scholarships pay for tutoring services and instructional materials to help these students make up lost ground. Michigan and other states should consider giving families access to such additional options.

A thorough transformation of teacher preparation is clearly needed. But it’s nowhere in sight. In the meantime, laws such as Michigan’s can reshape rules and resources to give more students the important skill of literacy. The work may not be easy, but the rewards will be well worth reading about.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow.