Opinion | Don’t flunk lagging Michigan third-grade readers – reduce class size

Barbara Gottschalk

Barbara Gottschalk has taught English language learners of all ages in five states, including 18 years in Warren Consolidated Schools.

It’s back-to-school time and this is the first year Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law will take effect for our state's third-graders. It’s estimated that between 2 percent and 5 percent of them are in danger of being retained if they fail to meet the required reading score on the third grade M-STEP.
Three years ago, I testified before the Michigan Senate education committee to oppose this proposed law because it didn't align with research on second language acquisition or retention. After seeing the law in action for nearly three years (in preparation for this year’s implementation), I still oppose it.
What’s wrong with Michigan spending significant sums of money to improve early elementary students' reading? Nothing in general, but a lot in particular. I welcome the focus on early literacy, but I did — and still do — think the spending priorities are misplaced. 

The law identifies students reading below grade level early and gives them support. That’s the good part. The bad part is that it also requires additional assessments and mountains of paperwork to establish facts teachers already know. 

In addition, what's especially concerning about the Read by Grade Three law for English language learners (ELLs) is that it perpetuates the view that achieving English language proficiency, and thus grade-level reading ability, is easily done in a few years. 

It’s not. Widely-accepted research says it can take from five to seven years. The law gives students in an ELL program for less than three years a good cause retention exemption, but still it encourages damaging deficit views of ELLs.

As a teacher of English as a second language, I attended many data meetings to plan “interventions” for young ELLs singled out by the Read by Grade Three law. I was asked to define the “deficiency” for these ELLs but there was nothing wrong with these students. They were simply still learning English. The Read by Grade Three law asks teachers to "remediate" ELLs’ normal progress toward proficiency. It's a law with good intentions, but grounded in a misconception. That's not a good law. 

Another reason I feel the money supporting the Read by Grade Three law is not being used wisely is because it doesn’t seem to be having any impact on third grade reading. Results for 2019 aren’t available yet to the public but according to Mi School Data, the median scale score for the state's third-graders on the reading M-STEP has gone down from 2015 to 2018. The median scale scores for all disaggregated groups have also declined. 

North Carolina passed a similar third-grade reading law in 2012, four years before Michigan. A recent research study by North Carolina State University showed the state had spent $150 million for underwhelming results. Officials there said the state was “going backward” and “treading water.” So far, it's the same story in Michigan. 

So how can we boost literacy for Michigan’s young students? Recently a Bridge Magazine focus group of 32 teachers from all over Michigan addressed this very question. One suggestion that came up often in the online discussions was the need to reduce class size. The teachers’ observations are backed up by hard evidence. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Michigan ranked 43rd in student-teacher ratio in 2014. Even worse, Michigan ranked 47th in 2011 for average class size for elementary self-contained classes, the critical time and place for developing literacy. 

The majority of states also have some sort of class size policy that places a limit on the number of students in a single general education classroom. Michigan is one of only 15 states without one. Compared to other states, this is one reading “intervention” we haven’t tried. 

Opponents of class-size reduction might point to the teacher shortage we’re already experiencing, but other states with teacher shortages have class-size policies in place. Critics also say class-size reduction is an expensive solution. They’re right. It is expensive, but if it works, it’s worth it. 

It doesn’t need to be across the board, either. Most studies show the greatest positive effects come from reducing class sizes in the lower elementary grades, an area where there isn’t a critical shortage of teachers in Michigan. 

Let’s scrap the ineffective retention and excessive assessment that’s part of the Read by Grade Three law. Instead, let's put our money where it can do the most lasting good for all students — in reducing class size in the early elementary grades. Many other states already acknowledge a well-trained teacher with a manageable number of students is the best way to improve literacy rates. 

Michigan needs to do so, too.

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Wed, 09/18/2019 - 8:52am

Excellent article. Thank you.
Unfortunately the third grade reading law is yet another example of what happens when legislators decide they know how to educate kids. In truth, they have absolutely no clue. Let's discuss "zero tolerance;" the original legislation passed that rejiggered high school grad requirements to the point that it was killing tech and career prep and had to be changed; Michigan's completely ineffective teacher evaluation law; and pretty much any other law passed by the legislature that specified how school should work. Politicians have no more expertise in how to educate kids than they do in telling GM how to build a car or your doctor in how to perform surgery. On top of that, pretty much the only solution we ever see out of Michigan's government is some form of punishment when schools facing the toughest challenges cannot measure up to schools in more privileged communities.

Michigan's low standing in national rankings can be directly attributed to the ineptitude of state government. Our teacher shortage continues to go on unaddressed, businesses continue to tell government that they need and support better funding of education, and families continue to leave our state. Nothing changes in Lansing though and the latest state budget will not improve a thing.

Wed, 09/18/2019 - 8:06pm

Correct! Common Core teaching has has stupified kids now. Can't do simple math in their heads. Grammar, not so much anymore. I do not see them teaching welding, construction, finance, basically it's getting to be more opinionated education or indoctrination. I now see why the teachers union is against the increased home schooling and charter schools.

Thu, 10/24/2019 - 8:11am

I have to agree 100% with Lou. The author of the article is also 100% on point. What would Finland do since they number 1 in education? How about sending all these legislators into the classrooms and making the same demands on them? This GOP driven policy to corrupt education so all you folks out there need to have all this privatization and charter schools to save the public schools. The defunding of our education in this once great state taking away local education as it was back in 1994 and going to state controlled system with the legislators making all the expert educational decisions. If teachers were the experts as they are and the GOP legislators listened to them we would not be in this mess. Good luck Michigan until you clean the house....

Wed, 09/18/2019 - 9:08am

Interesting, the author did not cite any facts on effective glass size . Credentials and opinion is not a good argument.

Chuck Jordan
Sun, 09/22/2019 - 11:06am

I agree. Google "Class Size Matters." Still a matter of poverty. Middle class parents are more likely to read to their kids and encouragereading. While we can't do anything about parents, legislators are also a problem. They don't understand education, especially reading.

Paul Jordan
Wed, 09/18/2019 - 9:47am

This article clearly illustrates a key element of what is wrong with K-12 education in Michigan: Too much control by legislators who have too little knowledge of education and too much power over it.

In 1993 the state legislature and Governor Engler eliminated using the property tax to fund K-12 schools, and put the people in the position of voting for Proposal A--or else. Proposal A shifted the funding control from the electors and boards of local school districts to the state legislature and governor.

The state constitution clearly gives the responsibility of "Leadership and general supervision over all public education" to the elected state board of education, and its superintendent--but Proposal A's transfer of funding power from local districts to the state gave the legislature what amounts to total control of K-12 education; whether legislators know anything about education or not; whether they even support public K-12 education, or not; and even if they devoutly believe that almost all government functions--including K-12 education--should be carried out by for-profit businesses. They have had the power, and they have used it freely.

Our current public K-12 education system--and the poor achievement levels of Michigan's children, compared to those in other states--is the lamentable and predictable result. The solution is for a citizen's initiative to greatly strengthen the power of the state board of education, and eliminate any ability that the legislature has to legislate goals, standards, and processes for K-12 public education.

Thu, 09/19/2019 - 5:13pm

What makes you think SBOE bureaucrats are any better? Evidence isn't good. Send it back to locals and be done with it.

James F Bish
Wed, 09/18/2019 - 10:01am

I fully agree. is all the weeping & nashing of teeth serious or just crocodile tears
from political elites who are not serious about educating all children?

Bob Sornson
Wed, 09/18/2019 - 11:35am

Class size is an issue, and for those who desire research, the Tennessee class size study is a classic, although twenty years old. But that study and others show that the best effect from lower class size is in K, 1, and 2. An unmentioned issue is the ongoing onslaught of one-size-fits-all instruction, in which the federal (Common Core State Standards), state (Michigan grade level standards ) and local (mandated curriculum, aggressive pacing guides, and relentless assessment systems) combine to make learning a RACE through same-size instruction.

We have sucked the joy out of our classrooms and removed the professional expectation that teachers should figure out what their students are ready to learn, and in doing so are creating generations of kids who sadly do not love to read, think, problem-solve, and learn. Third grade retention is just one more example of mandates that have produced lousy results. The best time to offer personalized intervention and support is as early as possible, not after the damage is already done.

Concerned Citizen
Thu, 09/19/2019 - 4:31pm

I don't claim expertise on this subject. I share a few suggestions from what I'm observing as a volunteer in an elementary school:
1. Set and enforce class size limits, as the author of this article stated. I don't know that # is, but I feel confident it's not 30-40 students. Further, when the percentage of students who are below grade level reaches a set number or percent, drive class sizes down further. A teacher can't give adequate individual attention if the # of students below grade level passes a tipping point. Pulling students out of classrooms for special help isn't the answer.
2. If a child is not ready for kindergarten, place them in a pre-K or transitional K class. Don't let them fall behind at age 5-6. Don't let parents override this. If you want your child in K, make sure they're ready.
3. If K-3 students aren't ready for the next grade, deal with it right there. Either repeat or have a transitional step for them before moving on. Again, don't let parents override this. If you want your child to advance and they're not keeping up, spend time at home reinforcing and practicing what's being taught at school.
The measures I'm proposing would mean added cost for our state. We'd all like to pay lower taxes, and guess what? We're already there. Crains Detroit Business reported in January that Michigan ranks dead last in education funding growth. "When adjusted for inflation, the state's total education revenue in 2015 was 82 percent of what it was in 1995 — shortly after voters passed a law that lowered property taxes, boosted the state sales tax and narrowed funding inequities across K-12 districts." We must focus for several years on getting most students to grade level, and to do so, we need to commit the funds. Businesses: If you want a labor pool that's ready to work, be willing to fund education.
There's also a concern that reduced class size will require more teachers at a time when there's a shortage. Maybe if they didn't have to try to teach 35 students, many of whom are below grade level, they wouldn't leave the profession.

Ben W. Washburn
Fri, 09/20/2019 - 12:09am

Sorry folks. Every single one of you, including the writer, is way off-base. There is absolutely no way that even the best managed school system can do much to overcome a lack of parent concern and activism in their child's education. Yes, it might be able to move the needle a couple of points, but that's about the best that you can expect from the formal system with regard to the basics of reading and math, if you only intervene in or after the 3rd grade. That's way too late. All three of my children, and both of my two grandchildren
were already reading at the 3rd grade level, before they entered Kindergarten. That's the norm for parents who are really concerned about their children's development. There is no way that the children of most parents, who have been systematically led to believe by multiple societal institutions, that the proper education of their children can be relinquished to the public education systems, including chartered public schools, can overcome that head-start. Yes, better managed school systems can do a little better, but no where near what public opinion seems to expect.
If we really want to do the best that we can as a public body, then we need to place our first emphasis and expenditures upon early childhood education, but only when parents are fully expected and required to take the primary role. Have you ever wondered why, year after year, the National Spelling Bee finals in the English language are dominated by the children of foreign immigrants? It is because their parents place the education of their children first-most, and don't expect that there is some kind of political solution to that need.

Fri, 09/20/2019 - 8:31am

You are right! The biggest problem in low performing schools is the lack of parents or parents who are still kids themselves!

Fri, 09/20/2019 - 12:17am

What frustrates me most about this is many parents don't work with their children at home on school work. It's pushed into the laps of schools. My daughter is in 3rd grade and reading at a 4th grade level. Why? Because we read every day after school. 15 to 20 minutes. We play reading games on the way to her football practices and games. I quiz her on spelling words. Primary teaching for a child shouldn't fall on the school. It's my job as a parent to ensure my children are learning everything necessary to compete in the world. If I feel the school is lacking in an area I have always picked up the slack. An example would be, my children's school doesn't teach cursive. So I taught my children. The math is over-complicated. I taught my kids how I was taught and they suddenly understood what they were doing but were left wondering why the school makes math so difficult. A child's education is the job of parents first. Schools are second. I'm not sure why schools are being punished for lack of parenting.

Wed, 10/23/2019 - 11:01am

I think there is too much emphasis on sports for children that the basics are being overlooked by parents. They go out of their way to make sure kids go to practices and games but how much time at home is devoted to reading, writing and math? I grew up going to a small Catholic school and was taught by a nun. She had forty kids in her class and never did have a classroom helper. We didn't have sports but we sure learned a lot!

Ms Tee
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 9:59am

Change the language. Words like “ flunk” and “held back” has a negative connotation which will place a sigma on the child. This type of wording creates the risk that the parent(s) may reject the ideal of their child repeating a grade because it could misconstrued as indicating that something wrong with their child. No child is a failure.

As Head Start Teacher in the inner city, I disagree with Governor Whitmer about the impact this will have on lower income children.
The children and families that some consider are not as fragile are more resilient then some may think. . What poor and disadvantaged need is ACCESS to resources.
Educate the parents and you will lift the child.

I do agree with Barbara Gottschalk somewhat . Reduce the classroom. It’s an hard task for a teacher to give each child the attention they need with 20 kids in a classroom.

Lastly, In my opinion to see success on the Elementary grade level it vital that we provide a high quality Early childhood experience for all children.

J Hendricks
Wed, 02/19/2020 - 4:30pm

So tired of the class size push. Right up there will the more money push. How in the world did we provide education in the past with class sizes of 45+ And produce a nation that built this country and won two world wars. And produce kids that could read!