Vulnerable kids can’t improve reading if their parents can’t help

Students reading books at their desks in a classroom

Michigan has a new third-grade reading policy, intended to ensure that everyone entering the fourth grade is successfully reading at the time when the focus of instruction veers from learning to read to learning content material.

After months of debate surrounding the controversial component over retaining students who can’t read before entering fourth grade, bills have been signed by the governor and implementation of the plan is underway. Michigan’s ongoing challenge with this important benchmark includes 37 percent of kids unable to read at a basic level and 71 percent not reading proficiently by the end of third grade – statistics that are far worse for students of color and students facing other learning and life challenges.

Being one of the lowest performing states in the nation, it is critical that Michigan puts the right plan into action and adequately funds the steps necessary to do so.

Fortunately, there is much to be learned from Florida’s decades-long experience with mandatory retention.

A new study released in September unearthed a critical finding in Florida’s early grade retention policy which, similar to Michigan’s legislation, requires all students with reading skills below grade level to be retained in the third grade.

Researchers found the strongest predictor of retention was the educational attainment of students’ mothers. Children whose mothers had less than a high school diploma were 14 percent more likely to be retained compared with children whose mothers had a bachelor’s degree. In addition, children with well-educated mothers were more likely to be promoted based on subjective exemptions.

What can we learn from more experienced states on this issue?

That what we intuitively know is also borne out by experience and evidence -- there is a link between the educational success of parents and that of their children. Research has consistently shown that the success of children is tied to that of their parents, with multiple studies showing that children with more educated parents have more literacy readiness.

Parent education, of course, has its ties to economic status, but it is also specifically tied to parental availability for, understanding of, and ability to advocate for their kids in educational (and other) settings.

Because of this, Michigan’s Children has argued that third grade reading scores won’t rise appreciatively unless parents are able to engage effectively in their children’s learning. They are after all a package deal. Parents are a child’s first and best teacher and the home is the first and continues to be the most influential “classroom” for a child’s learning, view of the world, and ability to grasp success in life.

There are ways to make progress on this issue. Michigan’s Children was successful in maintaining in our final legislation a requirement to collect information about barriers parents face to successfully completing the required “read at home” plans.

If Michigan is anything like Florida, which of course it is, those barriers will likely include low adult skill levels. Addressing those barriers will have to include a family literacy component. Considering that there are 42,000 adults in Michigan between the ages of 18-34 who have less than a ninth grade education, and that each year more than 15,000 babies are born in Michigan to mothers without a high school credential, one can predict that some parents of the poorer performing kids are themselves poorly educated, likely poorly employed and struggling to ably assist in their children’s education.

A two-generation approach to literacy is what is required. Investment in family literacy must be part of the strategy to improving third grade reading scores. Adult education programs have suffered for decades over inadequate funding and as a result many good programs have closed their doors. Without opportunities for parents to get the educational help they need, how can they be expected to support their children’s educational journey? Educational programs must become more accessible to adults who need them.

Another necessary strategy Michigan’s Children successfully worked to include in the third grade reading legislation was an expansion of the participants in the read-at-home component to include caregivers beyond parents, like after-school providers.

Knowing the many challenges of working parents, particularly those struggling with their own literacy, and allowing other caregivers to contribute to the read-at-home plans is a sensible way to assist children’s learning. Of course, this requires that children are spending time in quality child care settings outside of school where their education can be supported.

To improve on the numbers of schoolchildren who can read by the end of third grade, we need to invest inside the school building, but also outside – in family literacy, high-quality child care to prepare kids before they reach kindergarten, and high-quality afterschool and summer programs that can reduce the literacy gap through the early grades and beyond.

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Thu, 12/01/2016 - 10:03am
At one time I heard Tennessee had the whole state enrolled in Dolly Parton's Imagination Library and used the health care providers to get the babies signed up. Imagination Library gives books every month from birth to age 5. Now they setup a foundation to help fund it and I don't know if they still have the healthcare workers help parents to sign up. Does Michigan have a website like Tennessee's with links to volunteer options (including getting teens to fund raise and signup people), activities to increase literacy at a young age, corporate sponsors, .... They show in the sponsoring link that each book is only a buck ($12/yr. per child or $60 for all 5 years/child). Literacy programs with a free book program might help some parents get that extra push. Shouldn't literacy be part of the state workforce training program(s) or a partner program with education?
Thu, 12/01/2016 - 11:03am
"We just need more money and everything will be fixed." I've heard that for decades and it has never been the solution for children, only adults.
Thu, 12/01/2016 - 1:49pm
Jerry, Instead of just reactionary naysaying, do you have any positive alternative solutions to offer? Did you actually read the article?
Fri, 12/02/2016 - 12:07am
Peter, Are you willing to participate in a conversation about reading and learning? "Parents are a child’s first and best teacher..." why should we believe that? If that were true then "each year more than 15,000 babies are born in Michigan to mothers without a high school credential," means there are only 15,000 students that will fail reading in 3rd grade. I offer a different possibility, it isn't about being taught to read at home, it is about being encouraged to read for fun and for learning, it is about being expected to read and to practice reading. Consider how that potentially the next Secretary of HUD was raised by a poor illiterate single mother in Detroit. I suspect that there are many students that struggle with reading who have high school graduate or college educated mothers and fathers [I actually know of some children who have had their father be active in their learning]. I wonder if you have consider the old adage 'you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.' I believe that if a student at any age does not have an interest in learning to read or any other subject they will not do what it takes to learn. I am surprise that Ms. Corey hasn't considered parents that English is a second language it they speak it at all as another category of students at risk, as it would seem that if the mother struggles with the language they would be less likely to be able to teach. My grandparents could not speak English, my mother did not speak English until she went to school, and yet she learned to read, though she didn't earn her GED until she was in her 60s. I think rather than try to blame the mothers for a child's lack of skills there would be a better chance for improving reading skills and learning by focusing on how to get the student interested in reading/learning. Ms. Corey's approach simplifies the solution for it narrows the focus to the mothers. My approach is complex because it is focused on the individual students, and since each is unique it requires an individual solution for each student. Do you recall your days in school and how students had different levels of success, do you recall a difference in attitudes in those students related to their learning success? I know I lacked interest in school and learning and was at best an average performing student, but when I did find a subject of interest my efforts and the results was above average. How about you, was your performance due to what your mother was teaching you at home or was it your interest in what was being taught in school?
Mary Pung
Thu, 12/01/2016 - 12:55pm
Suggest the promotion of little free libraries throughout communities to make books more available to children and adults.
Mary Pung
Thu, 12/01/2016 - 12:55pm
Suggest the promotion of little free libraries throughout communities to make books more available to children and adults.
Bob Balwinski
Thu, 12/01/2016 - 2:40pm
"each year more than 15,000 babies are born in Michigan to mothers without a high school credential" Is it possible here that Michigan Right-To-Life members could adopt or see that these children are adopted by educated parents? The educational status of the mother, in particular, is the main indicator of children's success in school. I see that Right-To-Life members.......the educated mothers in particular.....could really answer the call for help with these children born but not about to be raised in a good educational setting.
Thu, 12/01/2016 - 2:54pm
I have a much different kind of problem than Jerry with arguments calling for more money. It misleads most folks to believe that more money can be had, when in fact, it can not. And that misleads folks to wait for more money to materialize, rather than face-up to the hard truth of dealing with what can be done right now, with what little is available. I voted for Bernie, but less than 20% of Michigan's total voters did likewise. That means that not more than one in five voters would actually support paying higher taxes. Therefore, it's just never going to happen. Advocating for it is just another excuse for sitting on your hands, and doing nothing.
Fri, 12/02/2016 - 8:24am
I would like to add to the discussion regarding inner cities, the theory of "comfortable poverty." We have had in Detroit five decades or more majority of babies born to unwed mothers already living in poverty. Very few break out of that cycle. It takes a strong determination and mentoring program to have any chance to succeed. You have single mothers that may occasionally get a seasonal part time job to supplement the government assistance; you have children getting free breakfast & lunch at schools with many offering throughout the year. The amount of charitable programs of food, clothing and recreation are all available. So with that said, many don't put education as a priority. I don't mean to sound pessimistic, but there will be little change in academic performance regardless of funding programs unless there is a significant culture change. As a person that works with local universities, I just don't see things getting better with that demographic.
Sat, 12/03/2016 - 5:11pm
“Parents are a child’s first and best teacher…” why should we believe that? If that were true then “each year more than 15,000 babies are born in Michigan to mothers without a high school credential,” means there are only 15,000 students that will fail reading in 3rd grade. What are you talking about? You took that quote out of context, that is not what they are saying.
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 9:04pm
***, I assume, with all the risk that entails, that you are directing your comments at me. If you noticed when I included, "..." , indicating that it was out of context, that I was using only part of a sentence to show people that there was more and I was only providing a means to find the whole for the context in the article. I did this because to copy the whole of the article or a portion of the article would make the reading of the comment overly long [my comments are generally long] which discourages reading. In your comment your quotes were out of context and were nearly three times as long as your remark. You mentioned taking things out of context, how do you determine the context? It seems to me that you took my remarks out of context. The next sentence/paragraph used that extreme remark to offer a different view on the issue. Out of context? No, the context of the article was how Ms. Corey focus was on educating the mothers [“A two-generation approach to literacy is what is required.”] and used the children’s reading as a means to promote her agenda. I was challenging the way she was portraying how and why children learn. The quote I used was an example how the writer was focusing on mothers and not mentioning the child learning. The 15,000 is an irrelevant number because the issue is each children reading, for even in homes where the parents have high school and college degrees, they are not necessarily teaching reading. [Ms. Corey, “Parents are a child’s first and best teacher…” is part of the context of the article.] What you will find is that the parents [regardless of degrees] that encourage reading; they read where their children can see them, they talk about what they read, they provide the opportunity and places to read, they buy their kids books [at used book stores], they set up library accounts for the kids, are leading their kids to the 'water' of reading, because the child has to want to learn to read before they will learn to read. Reading encouragement can be done even by mothers/fathers that don’t have a high school diploma. Ms. Corey, “That what we intuitively know is also borne out by experience and evidence — there is a link between the educational success of parents and that of their children.” And with her remarks about the 15,000 she has stopped trying to understand what that link is. Too many people use numbers to justify a position to the detriment of other perspectives, in this case she used of 15,000 so I use that number to link my comments. In this case she was using it to justify teaching the mothers at the expense of their children. The reason for my remarks was to challenge the author’s perspective and to encourage others to look beyond the blaming and look to the children learning. If Ms. Corey tried to look beyond her intuition and ask why the children of better educated parents [with more money] are more likely to succeed, she mind find that children are very observant, so if their parents have done well with an education they are more likely to do well with and education, if the parents appreciate how their education has help them to succeed then they are more likely to encourage their children to learn and academically achieve, if the parents practice at home how they learned then their children are more likely to use that environment and use what their parents practice. It has little to with whether the mother is teaching reading. The reality is that the environment has a stronger impact on a child’s engagement in learning than the diplomas. Parents without high school degrees can provide strong academic encouragement [just as Dr. Ben Carson’s mother did for her boys even though she was poor and illiterate]. And the schools and communities can supplement that environment to help students learn. I do know how important reading skills can be to success in life and how the easier it is to read the easier it is to succeed. I will take the time to challenge those that frame children’s learning/reading in a way that narrows how people approach supporting learning. I don’t have Ms. Corey’s academic credential, but working in a field that academics is critical I also have seen how a person’s credentials don’t assure understand the causes of problems and how to solve problems, or how to avoid making problems worse.
Matt Korolden
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 10:28am
The research around language development and literacy is consistent and clear, yet Ed policy continues to be ideologically based. When policy makers start putting research ahead of ideology we will begin to experience more than isolated pockets of excellence.
Sun, 12/04/2016 - 9:07pm
Matt, When researchers put ideology ahead of research we risk the free flow of ideas.
Mon, 12/05/2016 - 9:49am
I am curious...what is the goal? If the goal is to produce children that can read at grade level, then I think this approach is all wrong. What if children grow up in an orphanage and have no parents. How are they be taught? Is the expectation the same? I think re-framing of the concept of literacy should be entertained. What does teaching literacy look like if parents are removed as a factor? What are the strategies involved and how do they differ from current strategy? I understand the importance of parents in their child's education and the connection between the education level of the mother on the child. I cannot understand how we continue to invest in variations of the same theory, that is clearly not working. If the goal is to truly have all Michigan school children reading at grade level by 3rd grade, then that should be the goal regardless of what happens in the home. I have no doubt it can be done, we just need to reframe the goal, identify strategy and get to work.
dorita dorsey
Sat, 06/09/2018 - 11:38am

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