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Bridge Michigan
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Supporting Michigan’s teachers and students

Michigan’s students have lost substantial ground over the last decade. Michigan has among the worst achievement gaps in the nation, and our state is not keeping up with the rest of the country – in achievement or improvement – according to new 2013 national assessment data. Indeed, that assessment found an astonishing 69 percent of Michigan’s fourth graders cannot read on grade level.

Legislation being debated now in Lansing offers one possible solution to our state’s tragically low performance: retain all third graders who are not proficient in reading and require them to repeat the grade.

An effort to boost early reading is noble – and needed. Students need to read proficiently in the fourth grade, when they begin to read to learn other subjects, such as math, science and social studies.

The question is: How do we do it to achieve the results that we want? We know from leading states around the country that a coherent, multifaceted strategy and investment are needed to meet the goal.

Florida is an important case in point. In 2002, Florida leaders passed legislation that would retain third graders who weren’t proficient in reading, but they did so as they made investments and implemented a comprehensive strategy to improve learning. For example, by 2006, the state trained 56,000 teachers in research – based reading instruction in grades K-5. The state also placed retained students with high-performing teachers and built systems to identify those teachers, to ensure retained students actually got better teaching to help them catch up.

Florida also reprioritized around $80 million in state and federal funds to pay for this teacher training, plus reading diagnostic tests and summer literacy camps. Over time, it also has raised academic standards, installed a statewide educator support and evaluation system, and trained teachers on how to teach more rigorous, complex content.

Thankfully, Michigan is on track to implement two of the most proven, transformative strategies to raise achievement: the Common Core standards and an educator support and evaluation system. These new efforts are our state's best opportunity to raise not only third-grade reading levels but learning across grades.

We applaud the state leaders that have provided the leadership and commitment to see to it that Michigan implements these mutually reinforcing strategies. Now we encourage our state leaders to invest in this work.

Our new report highlights how Michigan can best do that over multiple years, given how budget-strapped the state is. It also provides a common-sense road map for implementing these strategies so that all teachers and students benefit, including in early grades.

Rigorous standards, aligned to the high-level skills required in college and in the 21st-century workplace, are new to Michigan teachers. They require dramatic shifts in instructional practices in the classroom. Teachers will need intensive support and training to meet them.

We also must commit to providing the training, data systems, and technical support that districts say they need to evaluate teachers accurately – and give educators the feedback and support they need to improve their practice.

Implementing these strategies first in the early grades makes good sense, and would build upon the preschool investment happening in Michigan. This strategy also would provide the proven, research-based support needed to raise third-grade proficiency rates.

Tennessee is among the states showing how these strategies, done right, can dramatically raise student learning. According to the new national assessment, Tennessee’s students are seeing some of the highest growth nationwide.

That's remarkable, given how much Tennessee has struggled educationally in the past. How has Tennessee done it? It has invested in resources to train more than 35,000 educators and built an admirable teacher data, support and evaluation system to support educators on the higher standards.

The Michigan Department of Education is working to transform our teaching profession by raising the bar for teacher preparation programs and certification. While that is a worthwhile strategy, it's also a long-term one. Today's first-graders in Michigan will be in high school – or even raising children of their own – before such a strategy will pay dramatic dividends in learning. We need to improve both the preparation of future teachers and the practice of current teachers in Michigan’s classrooms.

Now is the time to invest in our teachers – and ensure no Michigan teacher is left behind in the transition to tougher standards. In the coming weeks, we have an opportunity to begin making the investments and approve legislation that will put us on a responsible path toward educational improvement in our state.

Our students – and our teachers – deserve it, and desperately need it.

To see the full report, please visit the Education Trust-Midwest website.

Sarah Lenhoff is director of policy and research and Amber Arellano is executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, based in Royal Oak, Mich.

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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