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Opinion | Don’t punish schools because Johnny can’t read. Invest in them instead.

Concerns about how well American children are reading aren’t new. In 1955, the worry was about why Johnny couldn’t read, but Ivan could—and would presumably be eating Johnny’s industrial lunch in a couple of decades. We know how that turned out.

Reading programs—and the research that deems them ‘effective’ or not –  have come and gone, but national anxiety around learning to read remains. What’s new is the ramping up of fear that Michigan is falling behind other states and needs to effect drastic, legislated disciplinary action — failing third graders –  to stop our slide into becoming an educational backwater.

As Bridge Magazine guest commentator Alicia Guevara Warren noted, it’s a perilous time to be a child in Michigan. Nearly a quarter of our students live in poverty—and the poverty figures for African-American children (47 percent) and Latino children (30 percent) are appalling. Our students have become political pawns, especially the most vulnerable, in Detroit, where there has been near-constant churn and instability, caused by adult policy-makers, for two decades.

The School Improvement Office, charged with addressing the most critical issues in student learning—instruction, curriculum and assessment—spent two and a half years in physical exile from the Michigan Department of Education, lest veteran educators working on school policy in the department have too great a say in developing productive recommendations, focused on real kids.  

It’s no wonder our scores have dropped.

Nobody denies that learning to read is one cornerstone in a quality education. The question is the best way to build coherent programming to support all the children in MI schools in learning to read.

Twenty-odd years ago, my family was friendly with a couple who had children the same ages as ours. Their youngest daughter was a young, late-birthday first grader—and was struggling to learn to read. By late spring, she had still not put together the considerable tasks and skills necessary for reading—phonemic awareness and phonics, recognizing words on sight, fluency and comprehension, and so on. Although she had been read to for all her six years, was exposed to lots of vocabulary and sophisticated language structures, and lived in a home filled with books, she was not yet a reader.

Her parents were beyond anxious—they were distressed. Their other children had been prodigious readers by the end of first grade. They blamed the reading program, and the school for adopting it. They blamed the teacher, who serenely insisted that their daughter was on the verge of reading. I’ve seen this hundreds of times, the teacher said—someday soon, it will click, and she’ll be off and reading.

The parents considered having their daughter privately tested for learning disabilities or taking her to a strip-mall tutoring outfit that made big promises in their ads. But then she started second grade and voila! She was reading. Today, she has a degree in chemistry from the University of Michigan.

Consider this: Finland (a nation that scores consistently high on international test comparisons) does not begin formal reading instruction until children are seven years of age, our second grade.  Until then, students are in what Finland calls ‘pre-school,’ experiencing what Timothy Walker, an American-trained teacher who now works in Finland, calls “joyful illiteracy.”

There is no rush to learn letters, phonics and decoding. The Finns, based on research conducted decades ago, decided that most children are not developmentally ready to begin the complex process of learning to read until they’re about seven years old. They focus, instead, on precursors to literacy: stories, oral vocabulary development, distinguishing sounds, singing, rhyming and play. There is current research to support this idea that beginning formal reading instruction too early is actually harmful.

One developmental year after Finland begins formal reading instruction, children in Michigan will soon be separated out—by law—and labeled failures, for not reading at ‘grade level.’

Worse, there is plenty of reason to mistrust the tests that will be sending our children back to repeat a grade: swings in scoring from year to year, large universal declines in a single year, questions about how Michigan’s tests compare to those in other states. Even the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), probably the most valid and reliable benchmark, has never settled on a definition of ‘proficient.’  The purpose of testing—to measure progress and inform instruction—has shifted to determining who gets punished for low scores.

Michigan’s third grade mandatory retention legislation is a dramatic but useless remedy to the problem of children who struggle to read when they’re eight or nine years old.  We're not doing kids favors by flunking them. Says educational psychologist David Berliner, regents professor of education at Arizona State University:  

"It seems like legislators are absolutely ignorant of the research, and the research is amazingly consistent that holding kids back is detrimental."

What about the oft-repeated platitude that until third grade, students learn to read—and read to learn afterwards? Perhaps that was true in classrooms 50 years ago, when instruction was solely dependent on textbook knowledge.

Students today learn from an array of media: podcasts, images, hands-on experience, dialogue. The one thing that demands independent reading facility? The standardized tests that pigeon-hole children.

What to do about children who are not confident readers in third grade? We could begin by taking the resources it will cost to retain them for a year (minimally, $10K per child) and spending it on supplemental instruction: in-school tutoring, libraries filled with easy, engaging books, after-school programs, summer reading clubs and books for children to take home.

We could offer smaller instructional groupings. We could stop the merry-go-round of silver-bullet ‘solutions,’ from emergency managers to charter schools to one-size-fits-all scripted curricula.

We could genuinely invest in our children, believing in their capacity to master not only the skill of reading, but to become an informed, productive citizen.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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