Opinion | Amend third-grade reading law, U.P. school superintendents urge

Michael Adams, a third-grade teacher in Holt, looks out over a sea of waving hands earlier this school year as students vie to answer a question during a reading lesson. Adams’ class has a mix of low-income and more affluent students. (Bridge file photo by Dale Young)

As educators and child advocates, we believe that in order to create the best outcomes for our students, the third-grade reading law signed by Governor Snyder must be amended. Although we agree there are tangible benefits from the focus on early literacy generated by the law, nearly all educational leaders are united in the belief that the retention requirement is counterproductive and should be removed. 

As superintendents, we believe that the best way to improve literacy rates in Michigan is to ensure all students have the necessary resources to learn how to read. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has made it clear that she shares this belief in her fiscal year 2021 executive budget recommendation, which puts a heavy focus on literacy and includes the largest increase in school funding in decades. Last year, the governor tripled the number of literacy coaches in Michigan, keeping a promise she had made to all of us on her campaign. These initiatives focus on positive ways of supporting learners, instead of punishing them. 

The cost of retention is dynamic. When a student is retained, the student will spend an additional year in the system and therefore incur all the additional costs for educating him or her for another year. The greatest cost is paid by the significant number of retained students who become dropouts. Students who drop out of school realize fewer job opportunities, lower salaries, and a higher probability of involvement with the criminal justice system. It’s been found that being retained one year almost doubled a student’s likelihood of dropping out while failing twice almost guarantees it.  Retention is the second greatest predictor of school dropout. Rather than creating legislation to mandate literacy by third grade, we should be using the research to address the variables that impact a child’s inability to read.

In an era when so much attention and effort has been made to minimize the effects of trauma experienced by our students, one should question why we would knowingly create legislation that will result in increased student trauma. Flunking a student is immediately traumatic and is more likely to be experienced by those students who are categorized as poor, male and/or minority. It’s even been found that retained students experience similar effects to students who experienced corporal punishment in the home, those who were clinically depressed, and transient students. One would be hard pressed to find another educational practice where the research is so unequivocally negative yet continues to be embraced.

Governor Whitmer, in her recent State of the State Address, announced plans to help families navigate the third-grade reading law and decide what the best path is for their children. The third-grade reading law is in effect for the 2019-20 school year, and several families will see the negative impact it has on their children. The Governor’s expressed intent is to help parents make the choice that’s best for their kids. 

Superintendents in the Upper Peninsula are committed to practices that are grounded in research and are designed to move our students, our schools, and our communities forward.  To that end we request the Legislature reconsider the retention provision of the third-grade reading law and use resources to address the barriers to literacy known to contribute to this critical facet of learning.

Bryan Tyner, Superintendent, AuTrain-Onota Public Schools
Wilfred Cwikiel, Superintendent, Beaver Island Community School
Greg Nyen, Superintendent, Burt Township Schools
Robert Vaught, Superintendent, DeTour Area Schools
Sandra Petrovich, Superintendent, Gwinn Area Community Schools
Carrie Meyer, Superintendent, Ishpeming Public Schools
Robert Lohff, Superintendent, Mackinac Island Public Schools
Deborah Veiht, Superintendent, Marquette-Alger RESA
William Saunders, Superintendent, Marquette Area Public Schools
Pete Kelto, Superintendent, Munising Public Schools
Dan Skewis, Superintendent, Negaunee Public Schools
Bryan DeAugustine, Superintendent, NICE Community Schools
Andea Ballard, Superintendent, North Star Montessori Academy
Kevin Luokkala, Superintendent, Republic-Michigamme Schools
Bill Valima, Superintendent, Superior Central School District
Luann Lohfink, Administrator, Wells Township Schools
Thomas McKee, Superintendent, Whitefish Township Community Schools

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Clark Culver
Thu, 02/27/2020 - 1:43pm

What the proponents of repealing this law do not want to talk about is the effect a "just pass them" mentality has on other students. Word gets around very quickly, and they see that students do not need to be proficient to pass, so why bother working hard. By the time they get to middle school, the only lesson they have really learned is that they don't have to do anything and they will pass anyway. I taught in a school that had students "graduating" that skipped half of their senior year.

One only needs to look at the deteriorating performance of our students over the last 50 years to understand the effects of permissiveness in our schools. If it is the goal of these superintendents to make a high-school diploma meaningless, mission accomplished.

Chuck Jordan
Fri, 02/28/2020 - 1:23pm

I agree. But flunking kids based one flawed test is not the way to do it.

Fri, 02/28/2020 - 2:37pm

If we actually had creditable public school policy representatives, like our largely ignored and frequently countermanded elected State Board of Education, maybe we'd buy into state public school policy judgements at the state level.

Instead, public school policy is being made by a hodgepodge disjointed dystopia of policy makers in the state legislature, the governor's office and multiple state departments. Policy radically changes from year to year, is rarely based on science and tested good practice, and hasn't been effective for decades as evidenced by our kids' declining performance on standardized tests.

Nothing improves in public schools until we fix this problem.

Our constitution specifically assigns public school policy making authority to the elected State Board of Education and no other entity in state government. This elected body has been marginalized and overruled for decades. Obey our constitutional law, let our legitimate elected policy making representatives do their job and we'd be having many fewer public school problems in Michigan.

Sun, 03/01/2020 - 10:49am

In my opinion, we are looking at the "flunking" backwards. If a child is unable to attain the necessary skills to advance, the child has not flunked, the school has. the stigma should be on the school, not on the child. Reading is the most important skill people need to succeed. Everything, even at the detriment of other subjects, needs to be done to help a child be able to read.

Bob Hoff
Thu, 03/05/2020 - 3:54pm

I think reading needs to be taught at home and reinforced and tested at school. Most people don’t understand the “home” part, and then again , quality of home life is always a matter of discussion

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Ken Eisenberg
Thu, 05/14/2020 - 9:49pm

Why do children of Asian Immigrant far surpass even many middle-class students? Parental expectations! I grew up in the South Bronx. I graduated in 1964 during the nastiness of the late 60's early 70's. I have looked at 50 years of blundering education professionals, bureaucrats, apparatchiks and assorted hangers-on. Folks, more money hasn't worked. Pandering to "activists" hasn't worked.

The irony of ironies, test scores of Asians are higher than Euro-Americans. Don't cry racism! Now Asians face negative affirmative action, anti-Asian quotas! Look at the mirror, the road to has been paved with good intentions, virtue signally by elites and most significantly by the elites; elected officials etc who all send their own children to private schools. (Sidwell Friends ring a bell?)