Opinion | Let’s get strategic in improving third-grade reading in Michigan

Amber Arellano

Amber Arellano is executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest

May 2019: Will Michigan 3rd- grade reading law hurt poor? Florida’s history says yes

Like so many of you, I’m a native Michigander who grew up proud of what I believe are shared Michigan values: a hard work ethic, a passion for the Great Lakes, a deep pride in our industrial heritage, and a commitment to taking care of our most treasured institutions ‒ including our public schools.

Years ago, our public schools arguably were among the best in the U.S., even in working class neighborhoods like Detroit and my hometown of Pontiac.

Sadly, our schools are not what they once were.

Last week, my organization, The Education Trust-Midwest, released a new analysis that shows Michigan’s third-graders are the lowest performing students in the U.S. among states in the same assessment consortium. We found that Michigan actually showed the greatest decline for third-grade reading, which is among the most important early predictors of learning success and lifelong employment.

That is totally unacceptable — and we can change it.

Related Michigan education news:

There are many reasons for Michigan’s overall educational decline, and many are complex and challenging to change. Political will, dollars, capacity … the list is long. Some leaders point to state governance change as the solution to K-12’s challenges, which likely would take years of political wars.

But on third-grade reading, many challenges soften. There is tremendous will ‒ and strong bipartisan support ‒ for third-grade reading success for all students. Indeed, Governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Legislature deserve credit for making third-grade reading a priority ‒ and investing more than $80 million in funding in recent years. Practitioners are focused and energized.

That’s the good news.

The bad news: There is a tremendous challenge with improving the effectiveness of the current system to ensure every student is receiving world-class literacy instruction.

Incredibly challenging?  Absolutely.

Do-able?  Heck, yes.

Take Louisiana. Like in Michigan, its state board of education is an elected board. However, that is not stopping it from becoming one of the nation’s top states for early literacy improvement.

Conference: Amber Arellano joins our March 23 Education Solutions Summit in Grand Rapids
Conference: Amber Arellano joins our March 22 Education Solutions Summit in Detroit

In other fast-improving states like Tennessee and Alabama, statewide initiatives identified top teachers, and provided them the leadership opportunities to train their colleagues on the latest research-based instructional practices. Both states are now seeing fast improvement – especially for African-American students.

But while Michigan’s leaders might have prioritized early literacy, the state’s overall lack of a strategic, coherent system of implementing best-practices far too often leaves it up to chance that students get the instruction they need to be strong early readers.

Too often, Michigan’s educators and schools are making these efforts without strong research-based systems of high-caliber training, feedback, support and tools that leading states provide their principals and teachers.

We don’t need to experiment in Michigan. We can learn from leading states to make significant improvements in short order here in Michigan.

Work under way in high-poverty schools is showing exactly that. The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), a project of the Education Trust-Midwest with the support of the Steelcase Foundation, is leveraging a “train-the-trainer” model (borrowed from Tennessee) to provide capacity building to educators and strengthen school-level systems for improvement and equity.

Today, some of the CETL’s partner schools are among Michigan’s highest-improving, high-poverty schools.

The experience of leading states and successful local efforts show that quality implementation is not a matter of finding a quick fix or program. It’s about building schools’ internal capacity and more effective improvement systems at the school and state levels – and implementing them well.

Related: Many Michigan K-12 reform ideas are jumbled, broad, or wildly expensive

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Thu, 03/15/2018 - 10:17am

Yah your "Train the Trainer" and accountability stuff all sounds great. Isn't this what is supposed to be happening when future educators are getting all their various Ed. degrees? Isn't accountability for results supposed to be demanded by Principles, Superintendents and local school boards. Are all these parts of the Educational bureaucracy somehow missing the mark?

Leon Hulett
Thu, 03/15/2018 - 10:51am

I don't think you appreciate how simple this is, or can be.

Years ago my son was 1 year 6 months in reading in the 4th grade. We had him tutored for 25 hours and he was reading at 9th grade level. He increased in grade level, 2 years per year thereafter, with no additional tutoring, help from parents, help from remedial teachers, or regular teachers.

As a substitute teacher I had a student that had not done his homework, I had him read his homework outloud to me during a free time late in the day. Each time he stumbled I found the word he did not understand. We defined that word and he understood it and could use it. I had him reread the area he had stumbled in and he could now read it smoothly and easily with full comprehension. We found he did not know how to read 80 words on that one page. The page had 200 words on it. When we clarified the 80 words, he could read the entire page with full comprehension, and complete his homework. This student was not in grades 1, 2, or 3. This student was within 3 months of graduating high school, at a local senior-high school.

If a child does not understand a word he will not be able to read smoothly, easily and with full understanding. When he does understand that one word, or those 80 words he did not know on the page, he can read the page, and fully understand it.

This is not "rocket science". It is just the definition of words. The student was taught to go past words that he or she did not know.

When he learns to define words with a dictionary as he or she goes along, that solves it. This is NOT an $80 million dollar fix, that reduces Reading scores. This is not a Pre-School Program with 4 year-olds, from four years ago that are now in 3d grade, failing in 3d grade, and possibly 1 or more years behind in Reading.

It is simple. The child learns to define words with a dictionary. The child learns to define new words when they see them or hear them. The child learns to go back and find the word they missed when they need to. These are skills third-graders have learned and can do.

If a third-grader can not do this you fix the 1st, 2nd, and 3d grade teachers so they CAN do this.

If a teacher knows this and can do this they will not refuse to add a clause to their Teaching Contract that says, "A promise to teach each child assigned to grade level by the end of school year, and if I can not do this, I will hire a tutor to do this before the start of the next school year." A tutor CAN do this. I can do this. You can learn to do this. A tutor can help a teacher so the teacher CAN do this. 99% of third-graders, from my experience, have the potential to do this, if someone teaches them.

This is not "a strategic problem" like Bridge commentaries took up four years ago. You do not need the advice of Tennessee lobbyists, or Alabama lobbyists.

If a child understands something he can do it. If he can not you find the word he missed and define it. If a child is no longer able to learn a subject, like Reading, you find the first word in the subject the child went past, that he did not understand, and you help him define that.

You could have him do a little course in few hours to learn how to use a Dictionary.
You could have him do a little course in few days to learn Grammar.
You could have him do a little course in a few days to learn the Simple Words of the English language.

When a student has done these things they are ready to a take a little course in how to study all subjects.

That is enough for 99% of Michigan students to pass a third-grade level reading test.

Please add your voice to a simple solution. One word at a time. One student at a time. One teacher at a time. One school at a time. One state at a time, Michigan.

You have my warmest regards,
Leon Hulett, PE

Donna Anuskiewicz
Thu, 03/15/2018 - 11:24am

The way to improve third grade reading scores is to provide in pre-school, first, and second grades a language rich environment--reading, word games, times to talk, to problem solve, anything that adds to the deficient vocabularies of many of these children.
Identify the children at risk by keep track of absenteeism, one signal that a child may later drop out of school before graduation.

Bob Sornson
Thu, 03/15/2018 - 11:38am

Perhaps the system is so broken that another “train-the-trainer model to provide capacity building to educators and strengthen school-level systems for improvement and equity" is not nearly enough.

Consider this: The impact of all MI state dept of education initiatives over the last twenty years adds up to significantly declining learning outcomes, for kids in every demographic group. We have tweaked our long lists of grade level content expectations, our student assessment systems, our teacher evaluation processes. Overall they have added stress to the system without showing any positive outcomes. Far fewer students are choosing teacher education training. Teachers and administrators continue to flee the profession. We've created a joyless environment for learning in which a vast majority of kids are non-proficient readers and mathematicians by fourth grade.

Tweaking the system may not be enough. It is time, not to "strengthen school level systems", whatever that means, but radically change the underlying design system for how we deliver instruction. Instead of "covering the content standards" for all kids in the same time-frame, our prime directive must shift to personalizing learning, identifying student learning needs, offering instruction at the student's level of readiness, for as long as needed to achieve deep learning. Competency based learning must replace the high pressure one-size-fits-all model which has failed Michigan's children.

Chuck Fellows
Thu, 03/15/2018 - 7:37pm

Our children are not the problem. The structure of our system of education is. As long as we refuse to accept this fact, a fact supported by decades of failed adult tinkering around the fringes, nothing substantive will change. How we fund, distribute those funds and source the funding represent a significant barrier. Calendar driven silos of knowledge delivered by poorly supported and trained teachers whipsawed by continually changed assessment protocols dependent upon standardized testing act to destroy our children. Look in the mirror. Read the comments provided. Stop believing you are the experts - you are not. The children are.