After 3 years of substitute teachers, this Michigan girl may flunk 3rd grade


Sabrina and her mother, Heather Duenas, are told the third-grader risks being held back a year at her Pontiac school if her reading scores don’t improve by this spring. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)


PONTIAC – Sabrina leaned forward in a blue plastic chair. Beside her, Sabrina’s mother did the same. Mother and daughter sat with hands clasped, staring at a number on a computerized test report resting on a wood veneer desk.

Across from them, third-grade teacher Angela Okagbare used a pen to point at the number.

The number wasn’t a good number.

Sabrina had scored 188 on a standardized reading test in the first month of the school year. She needed to score 198 on that beginning-of-the-year test to be on pace to move on to fourth grade next year.

“Right now, she’s in danger of staying in third grade,” Okagbare told Sabrina and her mother, Heather Duenas.

Sabrina looked at her mom. “It’s OK,” Duenas said, smiling. “You can do it.”

Similar scenes likely played out this fall across Michigan at parent-teacher conferences, as schools and families navigate the first year in which third-graders risk flunking if their reading skills are more than a year behind.

Sabrina’s class in Pontiac is one of four third-grade classrooms that Bridge Magazine is following throughout the 2019-20 school year to chronicle the impact of the law on students, teachers and families.

The Michigan Department of Education projects that about 5,000 third-graders will be flagged for retention because of the new law, though there are exemptions that probably will allow some to advance to fourth grade despite low scores.

If Sabrina is one of them, her classroom experiences offer a likely explanation: three straight years of classes led by uncertified, long-term substitute teachers. 

In kindergarten, Sabrina attended a Pontiac charter school where a certified teacher left after one semester because of health issues. In her second semester, a long-term substitute without a teaching certificate led the class.

Sabrina was behind in reading when she finished kindergarten, her mother told Bridge.

Heather Duenas works with her daughter on homework at home. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

First grade was even worse. Sabrina’s teacher left for maternity leave after the fall semester. For the spring semester, the class was led by a series of substitutes, her mom said. 

“She was getting further and further behind,” Duenas said. “I was trying to help her, but it’s difficult when you have four children and you’re working two jobs.”

In Michigan, long-term substitute teachers can lead classrooms for up to a full year, and are not required to have a college degree or any educational background. That’s a problem, given how closely tied student performance is to having quality teachers.  A Bridge Magazine investigation in August found that the number of classrooms led by long-term subs grew 10-fold in five years, sparked by a teacher shortage in some parts of the state and in some academic teaching specialties. 

Frustrated by her daughter’s experience in kindergarten and first grade, Duenas moved Sabrina to International Technology Academy, a school within the Pontiac public school district, for second grade.

“She had a good start, with a good teacher,” Duenas said. “And then on Christmas break, the teacher announced she wasn’t coming back.”

That left Sabrina with a series of long-term substitutes for three years in a row.

“Sabrina is strong-willed, and she didn’t get along well with a couple of the subs,” Duenas recalled. “I was in constant contact with [ITA principal] Mr. [Greg] Spencer, asking for a full-time teacher. Mr. Spencer said ‘I’m really trying.’”

Spencer confirmed to Bridge that Sabrina’s second-grade class had been led by subs for a semester last year. “It’s nearly impossible to find [a certified teacher] mid-year,” Spencer said. “Even if you can offer them more money [than they’re earning at their current school], they don’t want to leave the children they’re with already.”

Spencer said some long-term subs are excellent teachers who “are only missing certifications.” But Sabrina’s mother isn’t convinced.

“What happens a lot of times is they print off worksheets from a computer and say, ‘Do this, do that,’” Duenas said, “but they don’t have the training to know how to manage a classroom.”

Duenas said she sometimes wonders what Sabrina would be like today if she’d not had eight to 10 teachers in her first three years of school.

“She’s grown into thinking she can do whatever she wants,” Duenas said. “When you’re a sub, you’re not looked at as a teacher. The kids know. Sabrina had the outlook that, I don’t care, you’re not my real teacher.”

Third grade has been different. Sabrina loves Okagbare, her third-grade teacher, and Duenas says she can tell the 8-year-old is enjoying school more than in the past. Sabrina is one of a group of students the veteran teacher works with individually to try to improve their reading.

Okagbare uses Sabrina’s strong personality to encourage the 8-year-old to be a classroom leader. “That’s the kind of thing that comes with classroom experience,” Duenas said.

Sabrina, right, is “finally at a point where she has an amazing teacher, but she’s had no base” because of a series of uncertified long-term substitute teachers from kindergarten through second grade, says her mother. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

Still, it will be hard for the girl with the pink rainbow backpack who loves hip hop and quesadillas to catch up in reading skills with classmates who haven’t been hobbled by a series of uncertified teachers.

Bridge’s analysis of state data found that long-term substitutes are more common in urban and rural low-income schools – often in the same schools where students are most likely to struggle academically and need high-quality teachers.

Students who are poor readers in third grade struggle to catch up with their classmates, impacting rates of high school completion, college enrollment and future earnings. Holding children back until they read at grade level better prepares them for future success, argue proponents of the law. So too, raising the stakes for these students incentivizes schools and families to give extra attention to struggling third-grade readers so they can move on with their classmates, they say.

Educators generally disagree with the law, and studies have found that grade retention has negative academic effects.  

If patterns of reading scores from past years on the M-STEP, Michigan’s standardized test, continue in 2020, more third-graders will flunk in low-income communities like Pontiac than elsewhere in Michigan. 

Duenas works a full-time job with a community service organization in Pontiac, carries a full-time course load at Oakland University where she is studying to become a teacher, and cares for four children.

Sabrina, a third-grader, reads “Green Eggs And Ham” to her mother, Heather Duenas, in the family’s extensive library of children's books in their Pontiac home on the day before Thanksgiving. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

“I work with Sabrina on homework every night but it’s not always 100 percent, I’m not going to lie, because I have other things I have to do.”

At the conclusion of the parent-teacher conference, teacher Okagbare tried to prepare Sabrina and her mother for what could happen in May if her reading scores don’t improve. “In the spring, it’s up to you if you want her held back,” Okagbare told Duenas (the law allows parents to request their children move on to fourth grade). “But if she’s not at that [expected reading] level, I will highly recommend she stay.”

The law is the same for all students. Sabrina, who has never had a full year in a classroom with a certified teacher, is expected to meet the same reading score on a test as students whose academic lives have been less chaotic.

And though the state has spent at least $80 million on efforts to improve early literacy in response to the read-or-flunk law, none of that money has made its way to Okagbare’s classroom, the teacher said, despite there being at least four students who are in danger of being retained, including Sabrina.

“She’s finally at a point where she has an amazing teacher, but she’s had no base,” said Sabrina’s mom. “I’m sure that can happen any place, but I can’t imagine it happens as much” in more affluent communities.

Duenas said she sometimes comes home from work and finds Sabrina playing her favorite game of pretend, placing scraps of paper in rows on the floor, imagining those scraps are her students and she is the teacher.

Sabrina wants to be a teacher when she grows up, her mother said.

First, though, she has to pass third grade.

“She loves to read, but she doesn’t know how to do it very well,” Duenas said, as Sabrina sat quietly beside her, arms folded across a blue jean vest.

Duenas nudged her daughter and smiled. “But that’s OK. That’s OK.”

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Ric Seager
Tue, 12/03/2019 - 8:31am

Add decades of disinvestment and teacher-bashing, coupled with increased accountability highlighted by an ever-changing assessment and evaluation system, linked together by schizophrenic leadership in Lansing...

Here is your result!

Tue, 12/03/2019 - 9:19am

Had the government stayed out of the homes and let parents maintain the discipline of their children without being charged with child abuse, some of these kids wouldn’t be so disrespectful of their teachers. Teachers are parents too, they don’t want to be over powered, cursed out or belittled by an unruly child. Parents are responsible for their children until they’re 18, let them be able to discipline them until that 18....& I didn’t say beat them until they see fit. Discipline start at infantry.

Tue, 12/03/2019 - 1:18pm

I sincerely hope you don't have kids, you absolute unit

Tue, 12/03/2019 - 9:19am

Had the government stayed out of the homes and let parents maintain the discipline of their children without being charged with child abuse, some of these kids wouldn’t be so disrespectful of their teachers. Teachers are parents too, they don’t want to be over powered, cursed out or belittled by an unruly child. Parents are responsible for their children until they’re 18, let them be able to discipline them until that 18....& I didn’t say beat them until they see fit. Discipline start at infantry.

Amanda J
Tue, 12/03/2019 - 10:56am

The article is conflicting within itself.

"Educators disagree with the law."

But Sabrina's teacher obviously thinks it would be beneficial for her to be held back if her reading doesn't improve. The sentences are just a few apart. I tend to expect more clarity from Bridge.

Ron French
Tue, 12/03/2019 - 4:05pm

Hi Amanda, thanks for commenting. Educators generally disagreee with the law, but it's still a law. There are exemptions written into the law, including allowing parents to request their children advance to fourth grade, students who have already been retained in their school career and English language learners. Schools can also make a judgement call to not retain children who are below the cut score. Regarding Sabrina's teacher's comment to the family, she's told me she feels it's a decision for families to make.

thanks again for reading.


Tue, 12/03/2019 - 11:16am

Along with the long term uncertified teachers you also end up with the state approving teaching certificates for unqualified persons who’s only training is biblical based and was never intended to be cross over into public schools.

Wed, 12/04/2019 - 3:19am

What does anything you just stated have to do with kids learning to read? Let me know if I'm reading to much into this, so Sabrina would be right on pace if an atheist was teaching her? Smh...

john chastain
Thu, 12/26/2019 - 9:12am

I spent 10 years in Catholic parochial school and was reading college level in late elementary school. There’s much about private religious schools I disagree with but I feel your emphasizing the wrong thing here. This is about the lack of the consistent schooling that committed and well trained teachers provide. That and stabilized families with community support. Religion is neither the villain nor the savior here & a well run religious based education can teach reading skills as well as its public alternative. The state is certifying unqualified people because there are not enough people who want to be teachers. We see a lack of people for a variety of important jobs because we don’t support and encourage much less educate for them. Not enough teachers, nurses, skilled tradespeople etc, etc. The answer is simple but the political will & needed funding is lacking. A society built on “I got mine jack” eventually fails even the privileged. Its a painful lesson we have yet to learn.

Tue, 12/03/2019 - 11:44am

Ric is spot on about education in this State especially with legislators with no grounding in education calling the shots to decide reading standards, bash teachers, curb pay and destroy education in Michigan. Legislators are too quick and loyal to the right wing "think tanks (?)" that support them and don't have the necessary skills to address education needs of children. No wonder many school districts have to rely on untrained substitutes as good teachers depart for other States.

Wed, 12/04/2019 - 8:26am

so you are advocating for an unaccountable panel of experts, ( I presume with no measurement (testing)), to replace parential, local and state oversight?

Wed, 12/04/2019 - 4:02pm

He advocated for no such thing. Is that the secret to your profound ignorance? An utter lack of reading comprehension?

Fri, 12/06/2019 - 4:50pm

Nice to see your delightful comments again Bones. With all the folks overdosing and suicides as Bridge has reported over the last year, and given your existence, we just never know.
But to your point if the legislature who is in charge of appropriating funds isn’t to exercise oversight over our schools, who are you saying is supposed to?

Tue, 12/03/2019 - 12:50pm

I have a nephew who is severly dyslexic. Trying to read is like standing in front of 10,000 people to give a speech and having no preparation. After trying to work with him a number of times I became convinced that he would be better off if he were blind. If he were blind, the education system would try to educate him using the skills and intelligence that he had rather than flogging him continually with something he could not do. I don't mean to say that reading is not important in our society, but it's no every thing we have a Michigan Supreme Court Justice who cannot read in the traditional way. This in no way impeded his education nor does it limit him now.

I would be interested to know if people who cannot handle traditional printed words can learn Braille. Has anyone researched this?

Fri, 12/20/2019 - 10:21pm

This is a good question. I'm interested to hear if Braille is an option. Best wishes for you and your nephew.

john c
Wed, 12/04/2019 - 9:16am

The failure of school boards/tax payers to support teachers salaries is shameful. We need quality teachers for insuring our children's futures. However, all of our educational insufficiencies can not be blamed on teachers. Teachers unions, early retirement (before 65, while tax payers work to 65) and other issues undermine public education. My final and most important observation is where are the parents? Sabrina's mother is "to busy", others do not demand attendance, discipline, etc. Parents need to step up and support education.

patrick h
Wed, 12/04/2019 - 1:03pm

Fact is, school districts WITH teacher unions have students that perform better and have lower student drop out rates.
School districts WITH teacher unions have better teachers because they negotiate better wages for teachers and are able to hold on
to experienced and better performing teachers. Better teachers = better performing students. All of these statements are based on
the best available research. And by the way, unionized districts make teacher evaluation and staff development more of a priority
because they have to be careful who they retain and how they support them. Unionized districts dismiss just as many underperforming
teachers as non-unionized districts. Bottom line, you want quality results, like anything else, you have to pay for it.

Justan Observer
Wed, 12/04/2019 - 9:52am

“I was trying to help her, but it’s difficult when you have four children and you’re working two jobs.”
Do we dare ask why the father is not taking some responsibility?

Wed, 12/04/2019 - 11:41am

Is this article meant to prove that 'long-term' substitute teachers are inferior and should be eliminated from our schools? Is this an isolated case or is there data showing this is happening in all 'long-term' substitute classrooms across Michigan?
Since there is no mention of students failing to read in classrooms with fulltime teachers, is Mr. French implying that if a student has a fulltime teacher in the first three years of school they are assured of learning to read? Even for this school/these classrooms there is no mention of whether other students who had similar experiences are having the same struggles with reading or if any students have learned to read above the required testing score?

It is disappointing that the young girl is not reading as well as expected, being one who has struggled with reading for a lifetime and has a daughter with similar struggles, I can offer that even with weak reading skills [which are an obstacle to learning] that with desire and persistence academic success is still achievable [we both earned engineering degrees from state universities].

Wed, 12/04/2019 - 12:13pm

I feel badly for Sabrina and her family that her reading level falls short of the beginning of 2nd grade level as she entered 3rd grade this fall. It sounds from this article as if her mother was involved in her education and did all she knew to support Sabrina's learning. But I cannot endorse the Bridge implication in this article that reading results for either Sabrina or her classmates would have been different if they had been taught by certified teachers for her entire school career instead of only about half of it.

Based on nation-wide research, teacher certification status has almost no effect on the academic achievement scores of the pupils being taught. See for a summary of research sponsored by the Federal Department of Education. Based on research here in Michigan, in Colorado and in several other states, the vast majority of certified elementary school teachers in the US do not know *how* to teach reading effectively. See this Chalkbeat article for teachers' voluntary self-reports on how they were taught and how they are now teaching reading.

Given the results of this research, and the low reading test scores of so many of Michigan 3rd graders, blaming Sabrina's difficulty in learning to read on the absence of certified teachers in her classrooms is deflecting the blame from those who *should* be held responsible. The people we should blame for the dismal results of Michigan's schools are not substitute teachers. They are not necessarily the people who hired the substitute teachers instead of doubling up classes with another teacher in the building when a teacher goes on maternity leave or quits mid-year. The people to blame are the ones in charge of selecting the literacy curriculum at Sabrina's (and by extension, all of Michigan's) schools; the people who should have been developing and delivering professional development for both regular teachers and long-term substitutes on how best to teach reading using the selected curriculum, and the teachers and administrators who failed to ask permission of her parent to test Sabrina(andd so many students like her) for dyslexia when her progress fell so significantly short of expectations for so long.

Michigan's schools have had 4 years of notice that this Read by 3rd Grade law was coming. Gov. Snyder dramatically expanded Great Start Michigan pre-school. Michigan's legislature appropriated 3 years of extra funding for early literacy activities of all sorts in the neediest, lowest performing school districts. In spite of these efforts, Michigan's third graders in the 2018-19 have barely improved their literacy scores on M-STEP, with even the best school districts still having 25-30% of students who do not read at grade level by the spring of their 3rd grade year. Bridge does a disservice to Michigan's students, their parents, and taxpayers to pretend that this problem wouldn't exist if every teacher in every Michigan classroom was certified and "highly qualified" according to our current licensing regulations. Experience in multiple states with multiple variations on "Read by 3rd Grade" regulations have proved that to be untrue.

Wed, 12/04/2019 - 4:34pm

Teachers in every state complain about being under paid and underfunded. Michigan is not alone here. It is however, extremely evident what the lack of parental involvement does to the educational system and the learning process . Studies done on Florida’s students where the 3rd grade reading standard was first implemented show that holding the child back mostly results in a man/woman child amongst the elementary children. They also have proven that the more the child is read to in their first few years of life( starting as early as 3months after conception) lessens the chances of being held back by up to 90%. Money is only a tip of the iceberg.

Sat, 12/07/2019 - 9:59am

Joe, you are dead wrong about the results that Florida has seen with their "Read by Third Grade" law. Very few children without significant diagnosed disabilities are *ever* held back more than once in their school careers. More 5 year-old boys are "red shirted" into an additional year of pre-school to enhance their chances of being competitive in high school sports than the annual total of Florida kids now being held back because of poor reading achievement. Florida has seen no negative effect on high school completion among students who repeat 3rd grade, and has seen significant improvement in middle and high school grades among those students vs. the ones whose parents over-ruled the schools recommendation and moved the student to 4th grade in spite of very poor reading skills.

Reading to babies and young children is certainly important to support their eventual learning to read.. The evidence in this story shows that Sabrina did not and does not lack parental involvement in her education, nor access to children's books and being read to at home. What Sabrina didn't have - so far- was appropriate, scientifically verified reading instruction when she was at school. That educational malpractice seems to have happened whether the adult in the room was a certified teacher, or a long-term substitute. Sabrina's poor reading is equally the responsibility of the school administration's choices of reading curriculum, the teachers, and the substitutes, and the teachers (certified or otherwise) who continue to ignore the findings of cognitive science about how to teach reading.

Wed, 12/04/2019 - 9:10pm

When my daughter was in third grade she didn’t like to read. My daughter and I met with her teacher and when I mentioned to her that she doesn’t like to read the teacher said “that’s ok I don’t like to read either”. I was flabbergasted. I knew then it was up to me. I had always read to her even when she was a baby but needed to do more. This teacher had been there almost 40 years and needed to retire. I wanted to volunteer in the classroom to help her and other little readers but was turned down because the teacher claimed she didn’t need any help.

Michael B
Thu, 12/05/2019 - 4:14am

We need to invest in our community schools, not consider millages to be just another tax. Even if you don't have kids in school, the community as a whole benefits from quality schools. This includes paying teachers respectable professional wages, taking care of the physical plant, and getting the community involved with sports, music and arts. It is an investment, and the returns are immeasurable.

Sat, 12/07/2019 - 12:09pm

Wow, this is depressing. It doesn't sound like much has changed since the mid-1970's and early '80's when I spent my elementary-grade years in Pontiac (and, briefly, Waterford). I recall overcrowded, often out-of-control classrooms. The teachers (not substitutes, and who, I assume, had their certificates) were pretty much all inattentive and uncaring. In retrospect, I can appreciate that most were probably burned out. Many of them were certainly incompetent. I also remember how, one by one, we lost our "extra" subjects: First music, then art, then science. Each time, the teachers and administrators would just shrug say "The millage didn't pass." By fifth grade I was spending my days filling out countless mimeographed math and grammar worksheets in an unbearably loud and chaotic environment. Oh, and getting bullied. At the end of my disastrous first year of junior high school my desperate parents enrolled me in the only private school they could afford: A tiny fundamentalist Christian outfit that was a joke academically (those teachers definitely did NOT have proper credentials). My saving grace, although it was extremely stressful at the time, came a few years later when my parents divorced and my mom and I moved to Florida. The schools were much better, although of course by high school I was far behind where I should have been (and nearly didn't graduate on time).

Everything I later accomplished (college, masters degree, a good career) was in spite of Pontiac City Schools. I was fortunate that I was a studious kid and a precocious reader. Sabrina reminds me of many of my similarly "strong-willed" classmates who had learning and/or intellectual deficits yet little of the support they desperately needed at home and at school. They ran wild and often called the shots, so to speak. The system was unfair to each and every one of us.

Sun, 01/12/2020 - 3:08pm

Unfortunately, mom might want to reconsider the heavy schedule. I understand the thought process but is the road to ”perceived” success worth your child's future. No malice intended. At some point, something has got to give.