Opinion | Michigan is in the midst of a literacy crisis

Tamara Bashore-Berg is executive director of professional learning services at Michigan Virtual, which provides online courses for students and teacher professional development.

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.

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Tue, 07/31/2018 - 7:15am

Reading for pleasure is important, wanting to read and not just because you are doing a school assignment is a key.

William Brown
Tue, 07/31/2018 - 8:49am

Research has clearly indicated that English is largely a phonetic language and that phonemic awareness is critical to mastering the reading of English. Until educators recognize this fundamental fact, there will be no progress in teaching children to read.

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 11:02am

I hope the other half of the communication skill set is not forgotten. Writing is just as important as reading.

Lee Griffin
Tue, 07/31/2018 - 1:49pm

I second this motion! Reading and writing are just different sides of the same coin. As children read, their brains unconsciously develop patterns for recognizing standard spelling, the signals sent by punctuation marks, how a writer transitions from one topic to another, etc. These patterns become standards which they employ in their own writing. Likewise, when they write - especially when they hear their classmates read their prose out loud - they develop a sense of how readers interpret or misinterpret what they've written, and how to influence their audience's responses.

Chuck Jordan
Tue, 07/31/2018 - 11:16am

One of the problems is that so many students needing extra literacy learning experiences are left behind in poor inner city districts. Students with learning disabilities are concentrated in those districts with dwindling resources, many without even libraries and librarians. I am not against charters and choice, but we have to respond to the consequences so that every student has a chance to succeed.

The absolute worst choice we can make is to keep students with difficulty reading in the same classroom setting in third grade. The idea of a magical year when students all of the sudden are ready to read to learn is a myth.

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 12:17pm

Unfortunately, the Republican-run legislature will resist making meaningful improvements to children's education, because they'll see that as helping teachers, which Republicans view as a political enemy, and hurting charter school businesses, which are supported by the Devos family.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 07/31/2018 - 2:28pm

I'm convinced that the problem here isn't with education as much as it is with dealing with a culture that as been allowed to flourish and grow over decades which discourages people to learn.

Money obviously isn't them problem, districts like DPS/DPSCD have received a disproportionately large percentage of funding in comparison with other districts within Michigan.


The end results speak for themselves.


Note the scores in relation to the proximity to the southern end of Macomb County (closer to Detroit).

You won't be able to change those scores until you change the culture.

It's that simple.

Jeffrey L Salisbury
Tue, 07/31/2018 - 2:32pm

Here's the real crisis: Too many adults misuse, abuse or refuse to properly explain to the public what the word "proficient" really means.
"Thirty-two percent of Michigan’s fourth-graders score at the seventh-grade level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.

Did you miss that headline recently? I did, too.

That’s because it wasn’t reported. Instead, Michigan’s schools and students were slammed by pundits because just 32 percent were “proficient” on the NAEP. To be proficient at the fourth-grade level, students must answer seventh-grade questions.

If you think that is confusing, or just doesn’t sound right, join the tens of thousands of educators who think the same thing."


Tue, 07/31/2018 - 8:21pm

One more reason why the concept of grades is obsolete Kids should be allowed to advance or maybe slow down without regard to some age/grade notion but based on the kid's strengths and abilities and demonstrated mastery of the subject matter and career interests.

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 9:46pm

The first practice stated involves parents. There are many students, particularly in urban districts, that have parents that can’t, because of their own skills or work schedule, or won’t, because academics just aren’t important in many homes, help their students with literacy skills. Also, has anyone actually performed readability levels on the tests that students are required to take? If the tests were written at the grade level they are testing students might have half a chance. If they are reading well below grade level they have no chance at all.
When the state changes standards, say to common core, school districts need money to up grade curriculum to keep up with the changes and to train teachers.
Students also have developmental needs that need to be met before some of the academic milestones can fall into place. With children spending less time playing, drawing, coloring, etc. it impacts what happens at school. It’s not a one size fits all so.ution.

Kami G
Wed, 08/01/2018 - 10:25am

As a doctoral student majoring in teaching and learning
, I am learning more and more about how it takes a village to teach a child. In my opinion, neighborhood after school programs should be created as an extension of school, parents need to be held accountable by law and students interest should be taken into account to increase literacy skills in this country.

Mary A Kovari
Mon, 08/06/2018 - 12:36pm

Your comments are right on albeit a little late. Michigan has been in a reading crisis for awhile and we will continue to slide downward unless there is a much more cohesive, deeper plan than virtual learning online for teachers. Other states have shown us how to do this work. It takes leadership from the Michigan department of education that leverages their ISD's as a training ground for every single Prek-3 teacher in the state to train around executing viable curriculum and assessment and developing intervention strategies that have been proven to work. Again, professional development on demand will do little to begin to resolve the literacy crisis in Michigan.

Tamara Bashore-Berg
Mon, 08/13/2018 - 10:11am

Mary - you are ABSOLUTELY correct. That is why, throughout this opinion piece, the importance of the work of Michigan's Early Literacy Task Force is highlighted. It's only in the last paragraph that the OUTSTANDING and award winning online learning modules are highlighted. The modules by themselves aren't enough, nor does anyone make that claim. Please re-read the article if that is what you took from it!