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Opinion | Michigan is in the midst of a literacy crisis

It has been well documented that Michigan’s students have a literacy problem. Bridge magazine has written about $80 million in funding aimed at increasing early reading scores, but scores went down. In fact, scores in almost every school district across the state have dropped.

Nell Duke, a professor at the University of Michigan and Tanya Wright, a professor at Michigan State University, have conducted extensive research that identifies a frightening trend in Michigan; our state is in the midst of a literacy crisis.

I believe now is the time to act. The consequences of poor literacy span beyond the time a student is in school, and can even affect their health. Adults with poor literacy rates are more likely to have poor health, which can lead to a host of other social and economic problems.  Conversely, according to a 2015 report published by the Center for Public Education, as literacy rates go up, so do wages.

Our state has a lot of work to do to improve literacy rates among elementary students. The 2015 M-STEP data examines the number of third-graders who are considered proficient readers. Nearly 50 percent of third-graders in Michigan are considered partially proficient or not proficient readers.

Why does that matter? Because students who fall below the standards in third grade are more likely to struggle for the rest of their education.  

The numbers are even more sobering for students in low-income families. From an Early Literacy Task Force Executive Summary from the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA), Michigan ranks 45th in the country for fourth-grade reading scores and 48th overall for students who are economically disadvantaged.

Why are our students struggling?

It boils down to a difference between learning to read and reading to learn. As students move throughout school, they receive less instruction on how to read and instead use reading as a way to learn. If students do not catch up to their peers in literacy standards by the end of third grade, they’re at a severe disadvantage in acquiring new knowledge for the rest of their education.

We need to push toward a paradigm shift in literacy instruction. The Early Literacy Task Force  was created by Michigan’s General Education Leadership Network, a committee of MAISA. This collaborative has a common and concise goal—to improve the literacy rates in Michigan.

With guidance from Professors Duke, Wright and other national and international reading experts, leaders from Michigan Department of Education and key state educational organizations came together and agreed on research-supported instructional practices for children in pre-K through third grade. These 10 essential practices serve as a “minimum standard of care” when it comes to helping students master literacy, and should be taught to every pre-K through third grade child, in every classroom, every day.

Through a grant from Michigan Department of Education, the Early Literacy Task Force and its partners created foundational documents, training opportunities and online courses to support teachers, literacy coaches, and school administrators in building systems to support high-quality literacy instruction

Some of these practices include:

  • A consistent family engagement strategy including specific attention to literacy development.
  • An ambitious summer reading initiative to support reading growth.
  • Adequate, high-quality instructional resources are well-maintained for teachers.
  • Organizational systems assess and respond to individual challenges that may impede students’ literacy development.

We need to change the paradigm of how primary education is taught, so active literacy instruction becomes a natural part of the classroom.

In collaboration with the Early Literacy Task Force and literacy researchers, Michigan Virtual has developed free instructional courses in a professional learning portal that support educators in changing this paradigm.

Together, let’s shift how we teach literacy skills, and allow children to enjoy the process of learning along the way. The future - and lives - of Michigan’s children depend on it.

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 Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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