Opinion | Don’t gut the third-grade reading law; give it a chance to work

Mike Jandernoa

Mike Jandernoa is policy chair for the West Michigan Policy Forum

The third-grade reading law is finally being implemented after a three-year phase-in.  It would be unjust to these students and their classmates to delay full implementation further. Some in Lansing are proposing actions that would repeal a key part of the law and do just that.

The 2016 reading law requires districts to identify students who cannot read proficiently by the third grade and provide them with the extra support and resources needed to move to the next grade level – or hold them another year for further help. Why is it so important to have these requirements to ensure kids are reading at the third-grade level? 

First, because multiple studies have shown that a student’s ability to read proficiently by the end of third grade is crucial for future learning. By fourth grade they need to be “reading to learn” — a skill that impacts the rest of their life. If a student can’t read proficiently in third grade, how can he or she be expected to keep up in each grade after? Moving these students forward without teaching them to read is a cruel punishment that only assures future failure. 

Studies show that students who aren’t proficient in reading by the end of third grade are four times more likely to not graduate from high school. African-American and Hispanic students not reading in third grade are six times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate, according to research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Reading is essential far beyond the school years.  Studies have shown that 7 out of 10 inmates in the U.S. cannot read above a fourth-grade level.

Second, Michigan’s reading scores are abysmally low. The recent news of the state’s education ranking increase is nothing to celebrate — we stayed flat, other states simply got worse. Sadly, details in the NAEP report show that 69 percent of our children are behind in reading scores.

Legislators rightly worked hard to look at ways to start reversing this trend.  In 2016, with input by many in the education community, the “Read by Grade Three” law passed and supports both teachers and kids with resources to reach children as early as kindergarten.  Schools can use assessments to identify students who struggle to read and then deliver a broad variety of resources including literacy coaches, reading improvement and intervention programs, and more to help these students catch up —  before they even get to third grade.   Unfortunately, some have said that this support wasn’t happening at these levels before this law.

After all these efforts are made, if a third-grade student is still unable to read at the minimum of a second-grade level, that student is  retained for further help -– unless exempted for other causes included in the law. These kids are then given more specialized support and time to catch up. Michigan has invested over $80 million toward these reading-specific efforts.

Holding children back so they can achieve future success is not “punitive;” it is proactive. We want our kids to succeed and teachers would agree. Ask a teacher how well it works when trying to teach a room full of third-graders where 7 out of 10 of her kids are reading at the first-grade level or below.   The answer isn’t to pass kids who can’t read onto the fourth-grade teacher -– it’s to help the kids right now, with extra support.  Even if it takes an extra year. 

A Manhattan Institute study that looked at programs in other states show that retained students are able to catch up, while students who are promoted without the instruction they need, fall further behind. 

Students who received this extra year and instruction outperformed their peers who barely passed for promotion in both reading and math, and they have a higher probability of graduating with a regular diploma. Michigan should expect nothing less. 

While it may be hard for adults to hold back those students who aren’t second-grade reading level by the time they finish third grade, the legislature should NOT change course and condemn our kids to future failure.  Kids need help, not excuses.

Give the current law, in its full implementation, a chance to work. Our kids deserve it.

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Mon, 11/25/2019 - 8:24am

The $80 million the state has spent on extra reading efforts have already shown dismal results from what I have heard, if something has shown that it is not working we should just plow ahead anyway?

Dave Peterson
Mon, 11/25/2019 - 9:08am

Your commentary ignores the fact that there is an overwhelming body of research that indicates that retention is ineffective and often damaging. The solution lies in the use of proven teaching strategies which are often overlooked.

Mon, 11/25/2019 - 9:42am


What is the teaching strategies for reading? What are the day to day practices for teaching children to read?

I haven't heard anything that helps those of us who are not educational professionals to understand what could/should be happening, we only hear about the long history of disappointment in results. Please help a Bridge reader, like me, learn what the choices are between the law and the practices that work>

Chuck Jordan
Sun, 12/01/2019 - 10:38am

Duane, here below is a basic overview. The reading wars have been going on for a long time. When anyone says there is one way to teach children to read, you know they have an agenda or something to sell. Beware the packaged reading programs for sale. Experienced teachers will tell you there are many ways to teach reading depending on the student. I learned this from my kid's kindergarten teacher 30 some years ago. These methods plus reading to kids and surrounding them with books is key. We can teach kids to read but if they learn to hate reading, they will never progress. That is the problem I see with this law. It will teach kids who have trouble learning to read, those with cognitive issues, dyslexia, or who live in poverty that they are not smart, that reading is a punishment rather than a prize. There is nothing more important than reading and learning. This law like the No Child Left Behind law will do more damage than good.

Sun, 12/01/2019 - 2:50pm


Thank you for the link to Evidence-Based Literacy, it was specific and focused in a way I could see how to apply as a parent. It is something I wish we would have had when our kids were starting out, we could have used it to press their teachers for how we could reinforce the classroom work they were doing. It seems to even suggest how to help kids learning to speak.

It isn't that kids learn to hate reading they simply don't find things that they enjoy so much they want to learn and as they reading becomes a struggle so they avoid it. Learning to read is most successful when they want to read because the want what they get from reading. Laws, rules, policies don't need to be a barrier that can't be over come or worked around. And if a student has enough desire they will try to read until they can read and will continue to read.

I understand how physical conditions are an added barrier, but there are examples of people with the cognitive issues you mention have learned enough to succeed. Though I am not clear on how poverty or the other conditions or laws make kids believe they aren't smart. Kids, especially when they are young [elementary school], have to be taught that they aren't smart before they begin to believe that is true. How many kids have read the No Child Left Behind law, how would kids know they are living in 'poverty' if they weren't being told they were poor [that is how I learned I was, 5th grade]?
I think reading is a personal skill that is best developed by reading on your own. I don't see how a law would prevent such independent reading. I don't see any law banning Evidence-Based Literacy, so are laws truly an insurmountable barriers?

Chuck Jordan
Mon, 12/02/2019 - 6:48pm

You are right. If a student finds something interesting enough, he/she will find a way to read it. That is why poverty matters. Kids with parents who have books and read to their children and encourage them to find the right books to read (good teachers do that) have a great advantage. It does not mean many poor children will not overcome adversity to learn to read and succeed. It is just that the odds are against them.
The laws put the wrong emphasis on learning. They force teachers to spend their time teaching excerpts from reading selections so students search for and learn the "right" answer for the test. These are not "insurmountable barriers," but they don't help. Students have enough barriers to reading already with the screen world everywhere, instead of books.

Mon, 12/02/2019 - 9:08pm

Rather then focusing all the energies on things [laws] that the kids can't control why do we have a structured conversation about the barriers and creating ways to overcome those barriers or at least work around them?
Why aren't there articles or conversations about identifying each barrier and developing means to overcome one barrier at a time and encourage the sharing of each method so rather than trying to create that one glorious solution that fixes reading for every child we help create segments of students have success and many methods helps many students succeed? There were several ideas in the Evidence-Based Literacy for build small means to success.
Why aren't we talking about what works in the schools and try to figure out how to apply them to reading and other topics? It seems that athletics [in my community] is promoted as a way out of poverty, let's understand how and why that helps kids overcome their barriers and leverage what is learned to helping kids read?

Cindy Hynan
Mon, 11/25/2019 - 10:08am

Holding children back in third grade because the system no longer teaches developmentally appropriate curriculum and does not allow teachers to adjust curriculum to meet group and individual students needs based on their day to day contact with these students is an abusive system.

Retention has been tried before and failed

Chuck Fellows
Mon, 11/25/2019 - 10:25am

Major fallacy with a law that dictates when all human beings must be able to read. There is no credible evidence that learning conforms to an arbitrary target date. It’s not the child that is “behind” it is the system that is dysfunctional.

Frank Koob
Mon, 11/25/2019 - 10:35am

Listen to the Educators. Get politicians out of this. Do not hold children back because they are deficient in one area. Reading is a specialization that is necessary for some children who cannot learn it through the prompting of a teacher who teaches all subjects particularly in third grade. There are specialized teachers in Reading School ought to be hired to take those children who need that special education. If you don't have them, give your excellent teachers scholarships to become a reading specialist and bring them back into the schools. That's where the money should be spent. There is no value and there are a lot of reasons to keep a child with his or her age group. I am an educator and I've been an educator all of my life. I have seen it happen. I understand the problem and know that there are better ways to solve it then retention at the third grade level.

Mon, 11/25/2019 - 10:41am

Maybe the best solution in todays world is to rethink the concept of age assigned grades (3rd 4th 5th and so on)? What if classes/subjects weren't conected to age but to mastery or attainment level of the kids by subject matter? Sure you'll have a range of ages in each "class" and some older kids will be in a class with younger kids, depending on each kid's attainment. Kids will be ahead in some and maybe behind in others, so what? It would be about subject catagory mastery, not age. Our current K - 12th, 180 days a year is a feature of our old, one size fits all, big union/bearucraccy dominated, school assignment by zip code and age, failing system as opposed to modern highly individualize customized approaches we see everywhere else, that the current education powers fight at every turn. Oh no, could lead to parents exercising choice!

Al Churchill
Mon, 11/25/2019 - 10:19pm

That Matt would blame unions and bureaucratic teachers burdened with an antiquated pedogy for any problems with schools is to be expected from a person that thinks anything to the left of Ayn Rand is heresy.
What you will find Matt, is that, states with unions involved in their educational process do considerably better educationally than states where there is no union present. One might also point to the historical reality of teachers unions promoting lowering class size. There are volumes of research that, generally, support the correlation between fewer students in a classroom and the ability of a teacher to have an effect on individual students schooling.
Then, there is the reality that teachers, being aware of each students different learning style, conform their skills to address those student differences. Its called individual attention, something that you, wrongly, seem to think is missing from todays schools.
I'll give you something else to distress over Matt. Our schools were never failing ang are not failing today.
Once again, nice try, no cigar.

Chuck Fellows
Tue, 11/26/2019 - 8:50am

Correlation is not causation. The assertion that states with teachers unions produce better outcomes than state without unions is a gross misrepresentation of reality. Unions don't exist to support learning, they exist to support their members needs and do that rather badly. Teachers are used, abused and disrespected in every state. Teachers are burdened by literally thousands of laws, regulations and rules within an antiquated educational structure unfit for the twenty-first century. Assessment of school performance isn't. We embrace metrics produced by testing methodologies rooted in eugenics and tortured statistics. If we wish to support children learning we must abandon the centuries old structure of education, a mass production factory model producing widgets by date of manufacture steeped in a binary worldview dictated by curriculum and pedagogy demanding conformance and compliance above all else, framed in narrow slices of Academic disciplines, a one size fits none environment that insists a four year degree is the only measure of success that matters. What have unions done about that other than shrug their shoulders, fund candidates that support their myopic views and ignore the real plight of their members in the classroom? Based on the reality on the ground, not a damn thing.

Al Churchill
Mon, 12/02/2019 - 4:36pm

Given that there is research that validates the contention that teachers unions affect educational outcomes in a positive manner, the assertion, to the contrary , that saying so is a "gross misrepresentation of reality", is open to question. Also questionable is the position that "Unions do not exist to support learning...". One only has to peruse union publications and media statements of union leaders to demonstrate otherwise. Specifically, Al Shanker, past President of the American Federation of Teachers union and his early support of charter schools is empirical evidence of union support for learning that is beyond dispute. Shanker's idea won support from 3000 delegates in an AFT convention in San Francisco. Having attended a UAW political gathering in DC, this writer can personally attest to an agenda that featured education. One might also point to Walter Reuther, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and a UAW Constitution, whose prologue was lifted, in part, from the Declaration of Independence for proof that unions feel a responsibility well beyond bread and butter issues. The first thing done at UAW meeting is the pledge to a flag, prominently displayed in our halls; Never mind that union supporting teachers do their absolute best every day to assure that our kids, upon completion of their educational journey are responsible, productive citizens, a teachers primary responsibility. When assessing the validity of a unions political preference, consider that candidates are first interviewed by a committee that identifies what they think is the best candidate. That decision is then taken to a larger body that has the final decision concerning the selection put in front of them.
Contrary to Chuck Fellows opinion , unions are positively, deeply and legitimately involved in educational issues.
Otherwise , there is, at least general agreement with his piece,
It would helpful, however, if there were an more detail in some areas. What is it that unions are doing to meet their members needs that is done "badly"? What should they be doing? What is it it about unions that make their views "myopic"? What can be done to remove the term "myopic" from their views? If the political canidates supported by unions are inadequate, who are the preferable candidates?

Mon, 11/25/2019 - 1:50pm

For some reason, I just knew when I looked up the "west michigan policy forum" that it was going to be run by DeVos's. Please stop ruining Michigan's schools and sell pyramid schemes instead. Thanks. (also maybe... consult actual teachers before making policy??)

Mon, 11/25/2019 - 3:24pm

Thanks Gina, this is exactly the reason my family and I are moving out of Michigan. My children are grown, but future children will always be hampered in this state by the politicians.

Mon, 11/25/2019 - 8:42pm

Where is the research that shows that retention is the answer? Research actually shows retention isn’t the answer. Michigan has decided that the one deciding factor as to whether or not a student will be retained is the M-Step. This Assessment does NOT give a child’s reading level. This assessment is supposed to test students on the third grade ELA standards. Obtaining a student’s reading level is done by giving a running record not by giving the M-Step.

Wed, 11/27/2019 - 5:36pm

This author is a pure EVIL conservative. The answer is to help children who are struggling with support services, not to pin a scarlet letter on them.

Fri, 11/29/2019 - 3:58pm

Disappointing you feel that this offer of a personal perspective makes a person 'EVIL', that you equate a 'conservative' with 'EVIL' .
I wonder if you were one of those who were supportive of kids being passed grade to grade to protect the student's pride with them graduating from high school not able to read their diploma.
I am not one for legislative control of results, I believe in the importance of individualizing teaching, but I can appreciate the frustration when the professional proposed no alternative with accountability to achieve the desired results we all wanted.

Betsy Calhoun
Sat, 11/30/2019 - 4:59pm

As several commenters have pointed out, studies show retention can be damaging. With modern technology there are more ways to learn than through text on the page (during the time a student is still working toward this critical skill). We need not be so 19th century! There are computer apps that read middle school textbooks to a child (and following along with an audio reader has improved the skills of my slightly under-proficient reader). Not every kid gets the IEP or 504 necessary to provide them the individual attention they need to succeed. It's often parents with the educational and socioeconomic means who obtain these accommodations. I have often wished this country could really demonstrate care for children over statistics.

Fri, 12/13/2019 - 11:21am

I was curious as to who Mike Janernoa was and found this bio on line:

"Mike Jandernoa was CEO of Perrigo Company from 1988 to 2000, Chairman of the Board from 1991 to 2003, and continued to serve on the Board of Directors until 2017. Perrigo is a leading global healthcare supplier that develops, manufactures, and distributes over-the-counter and generic prescription pharmaceuticals."

One of the many "republicans" who thinks he has the answers to all Michiganders problems. Money speaks and Mr. Jandernoa certainly has a lot of it to donate to the party responsible for the significant decline in educational performance of the children in this state for the last two decades.

His comment about the legislators "rightly" passing this law is another sign of republican dominance in MI politics. The competitiveness and know it all attitude has decimated our current standing in the world. These people are trying to solve problems they don't understand and refuse to admit they don't know what they are doing.