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

Nancy Flanagan spent 31 years as a K-12 Music specialist in the Hartland, Michigan schools. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993.  Her blog, Teacher in a Strange Land, is featured at Education Week

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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Richard Dolinski
Thu, 05/10/2018 - 9:16am

The US childhood poverty rate is nearly 5 times higher than Finland's. When corrected for childhood poverty levels, children in US schools outperform any other nation in the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) cited in the article. For example, in the most recent study, children in US schools with a 0-10% childhood poverty rate scored 553, 530, and 548 in Science, Mathematics, and Reading respectively. The overall top scoring countries (Finland and South Korea) scored 531, 524, and 526 respectively. The US averages, however, were a dismal 496, 490, and 497 reflecting our nearly 25% childhood poverty rate. This suggests that, while not perfect, the instructional methodologies utilized in our schools are more than competitive. Instead, it appears that children raised in poverty lack the necessary supportive environment and resources in terms of basic needs, and physical and social/emotional health. This in turn results in learning deficits that are difficult if not impossible to close with instruction alone. Society must ways to provide these children with the environmental supports that are vital for them to learn, flourish, and thrive.

Bob Balwinski
Thu, 05/10/2018 - 11:36am

I spent 40 years in public education. One thing I saw over and over again on test data was that students from supportive family situations in well-to-do communities attending well-financed public schools always do better than children in poverty from a mix of family situations at home who attend poorly funded public schools.
A gent who made a presentation to our group suggested that 80% of the difference in test scores is due to socioeconomic issues.....and he had data to back up his claim!!!
When I retired after 30 years from Detroit Public Schools, I use to say we DFT teachers should take a pay cut of $10K/year........oh not because we were doing a poor job.......but to pay for therapists and psychologists to work with our incoming Kindergarten students because so many needed that level of attention. Yet, we put them into classes of 40 with a teacher and generally no aides. This is not a fair start for students who most needed extra attention day one of their educational years.
Enough........my blood pressure is rising!!

Thu, 05/10/2018 - 1:55pm

Bob, Saying socioeconomics is 80% responsible for school success is typical simplistic left wing reasoning. I will take 100 poor newly arrived Asian immigrants and track them against your group. The reason is not race per se, but groups come from largely aspirational cultures. Your wealthy families generally have success as an expectation and an example, sure doctors, engineers, lawyers and business people but also with much lower earning occupations. Hard, long work, seriousness and grit are daily object lessons. Ditto with all the Asian families I know whether poor or wealthy. Your kids in Detroit, what are their aspirations and examples? Unfortunately its not dad or the neighbor, for too many it's being athletes or entertainers , both extremely unrealistic and not likely benefit their culture or their society. And those that do achieve realistic avenues to success ... they leave, taking their example with them. Wealth ... and academic success, are results of aspirational cultures not causes.

Chuck Jordan
Sat, 05/12/2018 - 12:46pm

Matt, I don't disagree with much of what you say except the part about left wing reasoning. Many Asians like many other cultures who came here from dirt poor countries saw education as the key to success. Other parents of these same cultures wanted their kids to go directly into the work force (family business) instead of going to college. It is the parents who push their kids to be successful that makes a difference in most cases. Many poor black parents who value educations have made it possible for their kids to be successful. However, the fact remains that in most historically poor families (more than one generation here), education has not been seen as a way out. In schools where there are few resources, even the best parents and students are going to struggle and often lose hope. So the question is: what do you propose to improve the chances of all students to be successful? Perhaps we should just give up on giving all children a chance at success?

Thu, 05/10/2018 - 10:51am

Why do we keep ignoring the need to be able to spell correctly to read correctly? Computer Spell Check will tell you that you are spelling the word incorrectly but doesn't impart the meaning or its use in a sentence.

So if you are working on a computer, all is good however if you are a child in the 3rd grade who can't spell trying to read you don't have the basic basis of the understanding the meaning of the word so it has no meaning and the words around it are not of much use as you don't understand their relationship.

Am I getting through to you Nancy Flanagan?

Thu, 05/10/2018 - 12:05pm

Decrying the 3rd grade reading law without mentioning that it doesn't actually require students read at better than an end-of-2nd-grade level to pass on to 4th grade does a serious dis-service to Bridge readers. This article also fails to mention that the law requires (and provides additional money for) schools to test students who are seriously behind their classmates in reading for visual or auditory handicaps and learning disabilities. The law also requires schools to provide that testing, and if testing shows a need, specialized, individualized, intensive instruction in reading *before* the school is allowed to retain students at the end of 3rd grade.

I completely agree with the writer that many of the current Michigan Department of Education grade-level expectations for kindergarten and 1st grade literacy are developmentally inappropriate. Projecting standards linearly backward from "can read fluently at the end of 3rd grade" to school entry at age 4.5 or 5 ignores almost everything we know about children's neurological development. These standards are actively damaging to many boys, whose brains mature a little later than girls brains do, because they create a sense of failure and alienation of boys from school. This is an area that Michigan's Department of Education can and should correct as soon as possible.

Most kids experience a huge leap in their ability to think abstractly during the year in which they turn 7, which is generally 2nd grade. If those 7-year-olds have been previously read to, listened to stories being told and told some of their own, had ample opportunities for imaginative role-playing, taught to recognize and write individual letters and their names, memorized and sung rhymes, and learned the basics of phonics, reading comes as the natural next step sometime during 2nd grade . The students' progress in reading fluency from that point is usually quite rapid. There are some normally-developing kids who won't experience that leap until sometime in their 8th year, and many more of these are boys than are girls. So holding non-fluent readers back at the end of second grade would probably disproportionately affect boys, and might make an already bad situation worse.

But assuming competent reading teachers, every native speaker of English student who reaches the end of 3rd grade without learning to read at an end-of-2nd-grade level absolutely needs to be tested; for hearing, for visual acuity and eye tracking, for general health, for overall intellectual development and for more complex learning disabilities. Then those with normal or above intelligence need either interventions (glasses, hearing aids, more protein in their diet, medications to treat any illnesses) or intensive, specialized, research-validated, multi-sensory reading instruction (Orton-Gillingham is the gold standard) or both until they catch up to their age-mates.

Nancy Flanagan
Thu, 05/10/2018 - 6:56pm

Thanks for your response. I am familiar with the loopholes, special conditions and escape clauses written into the law, as well as the extra money for testing. The fact remains: the law is unnecessary, and was written specifically to punish schools, and as collateral, the children who attend them. Schools have always had the power to retain children 'for their own good' if they were struggling academically--as well as the power (if not the resources) to offer supplementary, custom-tailored instruction.

The law forces the issue of public failure, unnecessarily. Savvy parents will be able to keep their children from being retained, and the children whose parents don't know how to play the game will be labeled failures. If the law merely provided extra money for vision and hearing tests, or identifying learning disabilities, or debilitating health conditions, it never would have passed. It was the 'teeth' in the law that made certain legislators eager to have their name attached to it.

I agree with your comments about the standards, and the desirability of screening and targeted interventions. But those cost money--they're the kinds of investments I recommend in place of retaining children, which is also costly (something few legislators seem to understand). Why aren't we spending money on the right things?

Chuck Fellows
Sun, 05/13/2018 - 8:51am

Where is the evidence that homo sapiens developmentally comply with an external directive to "read" (Whatever that means) by a certain time, i.e. the third grade?
This cultural meme is dangerous and harmful. The legislature and the MDE are behaving in ways that are dangerous and harmful.
How if we let the children take charge of their learning and we as adults behave as coaches and mentors, not the sage on the stage in "control" and "all powerful".
This third grade reading issue is clear evidence that we adults are the idiots in the room.

Nancy Bailey
Fri, 05/11/2018 - 7:14am

There is so much research to show the harm of retention. The State of Michigan is living in the dark ages, as is any state that fails third graders.

Deborah Forester
Sat, 05/12/2018 - 10:34pm

Please, Nancy. What the research shows is that third-grade retention works. States that have instituted the law - particularly Florida - have seen dramatic improvements in student achievement. What Michigan is doing clearly isn't working. Why not try something different?
Here's a nine-year study out of Texas that showed exactly how well it works:

Nancy Flanagan
Mon, 05/14/2018 - 11:09am

Oh, look. Here's some research-based policy analysis that shows the exact opposite.
Before the law passed, I spoke with my local House Rep, who sat on the Education Committee, and he said that 'some outfit from Florida' (K-12 Inc) did a presentation for the Ed Comm showing that 4th grade test scores went up in FL the year after the law was passed, impressing the legislators. If the metric is an uptick in whole-grade test scores, naturally pulling the weakest readers out of a cohort will suffice. But if the metric is getting every child to read--including keeping them from the harm of being labeled a failure--then not so much.

Here's a solid piece from the University of Michigan's Brian Jacob, writing for the Brookings Institute. Some excerpts:
'Consider the case of Florida. While it is true that the state saw impressive initial gains in fourth-grade reading scores after adopting the policy in 2002, a rigorous analysis found that by the time kids who repeated third grade reached middle school, they were no better off than their peers who just missed being retained.'

'Several studies find that retention is associated with short-term improvements in standardized test scores, but these seem to fade within several years. And none of these “new generation” studies indicate any positive effects on high school completion. '

'...it is also true that students who are held back tend to face greater challenges for many reasons—they are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have lower initial academic achievement relative to other children. Even if two children appear similar in terms of all observable characteristics, it is nearly certain that the retained child differs in some important way from the child who was promoted, and it is likely that this difference will influence each child’s long-term outcomes. In the program evaluation literature, this is known as selection bias, and it makes it very hard to infer the impact of a particular program or policy from observational data.'

And finally:
'Mandatory retention is an extremely expensive way to help struggling readers. In other states that have tried this approach, up to 20 percent of third-graders have been held back, which means that they will end up spending an additional year in school. In Michigan, only 45.2 percent of third graders scored at or above the proficiency threshold in 2016.[v] This means that nearly 60,000 children in the state would have been subject to retention had the policy been in place last year. Given that Michigan spends over $10,000 per pupil each year, if even two-third of those students were retained, it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.'

Why not try something different? Because it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars with very little (or harmful) impact on individual readers.

Deborah Forester
Fri, 05/11/2018 - 10:46pm

I've been reading Nancy Flanagan's blogs for years, and this is very typical of her writing. True to her role as a union apologist, she resists any sort of accountability for schools, teachers or students. Her solution to everything is to just give schools more money, don't measure anything, don't expect anything and eliminate all choices for parents.
This piece is borderline ridiculous. She suggests that we don't even start teaching kids to read until second grade? She says that the solution to the problem is that we need more books for kids to take home? Really? Our main problem is a shortage of books?
Nancy Flanagan is a Michigan Teacher of the Year, but she's a music teacher. I'm sure she's a spectacular music teacher. But just like a third-grade teacher would have no business telling her how to teach a child to play the clarinet, she's out of her league telling everyone else how to teach reading.

Chuck Jordan
Sat, 05/12/2018 - 12:49pm

Ad hominem attacks are not helpful. Please supply some facts.

Nancy Flanagan
Sun, 05/13/2018 - 7:46am

The general recommendation for addressing ad hominem attacks is: Don't. Especially when they consist of a line-up of straw men (i.e., 'union apologist').

However--I need to remind Ms. Forester that all teachers are reading teachers--or should be. All of us attend IEPs for children with dyslexia and other reading disabilities. All of us must address reading issues with secondary students who are reading in a second language, or cannot successfully navigate a difficult passage. Interpreting text, close reading, building vocabulary and making meaning happen in every classroom. The widely adopted 'reading across the curriculum' movement, several years ago, helped ingrain these principles in veteran teachers' practice. In addition, I have taught thousands of children to read music, using a completely novel--to them--set of symbols and auditory/physical skills, also requiring reading at a fixed rate and with the knowledge that mistakes will impact the entire ensemble.

And thank you for reading my blogs for years--much appreciated.

sam melvin
Tue, 05/15/2018 - 10:10am

Kids cannot tell TIME ..analog to Digital........

David Berliner
Tue, 05/15/2018 - 12:23pm

Thanks. Given the data, almost all of which (though not all) posits negative effects of leaving kids back, and the willingness of legislators to spend 10K or so on another year of schooling for the child with difficulties, rather then to spend it on tutoring, summer programs, etc. there is another hypothesis about contemporary legislators--at least here in Arizona. They are mean. They are cruel. They would rather punish the child and hurt family dynamics by flunking the kid, rather than to alleviate the problem with methods. that almost always work and usually cost less.

Jim Brown
Tue, 05/15/2018 - 10:48pm

Thank you Nancy, for once again pointing out that there are educational responses that are appropriate to the educational problems which children face that are based upon a real understanding of developmental facts, rather than the political/economic fearmongering and destructive intentions, largely invented by corporate visions of sugar plums and huge profit margins (gained at the expense of our children).

Lifelong teacher
Thu, 05/24/2018 - 9:18pm

It is tiring to see the US education system compared to Finland for SO many reasons-- but with this argument, primarily the fact that it is a truly false comparison when it comes to letters and sounds. Finnish is a flat language-- it easily maps to sound and spelling patterns. English, however, is much less regular-- you can spell the long e sound as ee or ea or ie or i....etc. When 7 year olds in Finland start reading, they can draw upon the play based phonological awareness games they've played at school and in homes for years and it maps. Meanwhile, in the US, students from high poverty without language rich homes are often thrust into groups "at their level" where they look at patterned books and are not given the keys to the code. Systematic phonics PLUS a rich read aloud experience in early grades could make a huge difference in Michigan-- but we aren't doing it. We shouldn't retain 3rd graders-- we should TEACH and support students in the early grades, intensively.