Gov. Whitmer launching effort to undercut Michigan’s third-grade reading law

Michigan’s tough new reading law is aimed at ensuring children master basic reading skills by the end of third grade. But critics worry that this goal, however worthy, is outweighed by the psychological harm a young learner would suffer from having to repeat the grade.

Undercutting Michigan’s controversial third-grade reading law, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will unveil in her State of the State address Wednesday an initiative to help struggling readers avoid flunking and advance to fourth grade.

The administration will partner with several philanthropic foundations to help educate parents about the exemptions to retention available to third-graders, particularly in urban and low-income communities that are expected to bear the brunt of the state’s new retention policy.

The intent, according to Whitmer, is to lower the number of kids who flunk because they are struggling readers.

“That’s the goal,” Whitmer told Bridge Tuesday in an interview previewing her second State of the State address. “The law is ill-informed and could have incredibly harmful impacts on children. What we're trying to do is empower parents so that they can make informed choices on behalf of their kids.”

Whitmer’s actions will likely be popular among education leaders, who in general oppose the law, but struck a sour note for one Michigan business leader and longtime proponent of K-12 reform.


“The teachers and schools have been totally unable to help these kids who are behind in third grade graduate in high school and go on and get any kind of trade job or [attend] community college, or any consideration of a four-year university,” said Mike Jandernoa, founder and CEO of 42 North Partners in Grand Rapids and policy director of the West Michigan Policy Forum. (Disclosure: Jandernoa is on the steering committee of The Center for Michigan, the parent organization of Bridge Magazine, and also a funder to the Center.) 

“These kids end up with a life restricted to a job that is low income, and so many end up in prison,” Jandernoa said. “We need to help these kids, not just pass them along.”

Education experts view improving third-grade reading as a way to turn around Michigan schools. In October 2016, the Michigan Legislature passed a law requiring students who are more than a grade level behind in reading by the end of third grade to be retained, joining 15 other states with similar read-or-flunk laws. The sponsor of the bill, now-former Rep. Amanda Price, a Republican from Ottawa County who chaired the House Education Committee, said she hoped the bill would help low-income children, who often have lower reading scores than their more affluent classmates.

The policy didn’t kick in until this current school year, to give schools time to try to improve reading scores and the Michigan Department of Education time to establish grade-level testing from state M-STEP scores.

Bridge Magazine is following four third-grade classrooms as students and teachers navigate the first year that Michigan’s third-grade reading law goes into effect.

MDE estimates that 5,000 (roughly 5 percent) third-graders will be flagged for retention on the basis of the M-STEP test they will take this spring. If past test scores are an indication, the state’s low-income, urban and minority children will be more likely to be flagged for retention.

According to a Michigan State University analysis conducted for the education department, African-American students will be four times more likely to flunk than white students (10.7 percent of blacks, versus 2.6 percent of whites); economically disadvantaged students will be more than four times more likely to be flagged for retention than wealthier classmates; and urban students will be more than twice as likely to be retained than suburban, small town or rural kids.

The third-grade reading law was passed primarily by Republicans and signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Whitmer, a Democrat who assumed office in 2019, criticized the law during her campaign for governor.

The partnership between the state and foundations is meant to try to address some of those inequities, Whitmer said.

“It would be devastating if a parent who is trying to hold down two jobs just to keep their head above water has a child who is penalized, and the parent never had the ability to weigh in, or even knew that that ability was there” to have a child exempted from the law. 

There is no state funding allocated for the effort. The governor’s office will serve as a convener for foundations working to help families navigate the third-grade retention mandate.

Foundations involved in the effort are the Skillman Foundation, based in Detroit; the Max & Marjorie Fisher Foundation in Southfield; the Community Foundation of Greater Flint and the Battle Creek Community Foundation.

“The governor’s office has asked us to come to the table to address this issue,” said Punita Dani Thurman, vice president of program and policy for the Skillman Foundation. The read-or-flunk law “created a sense of urgency in raising awareness on the issue, and we think it’s unfair to be putting the burden on children and families alone.

“The law has a number of good-cause exemptions to make sure families have a voice in the process. But it is a process, and you have to be aware of the process. What we’re finding in Detroit is that it takes a number of avenues to reach parents” with the information about how to appeal a state recommendation that their third-grader be retained.

Children whose reading scores would flag them for retention nonetheless can move on to fourth grade under a number of “good cause” exemptions, including:

  • Having previously been retained in a grade. For example, having taken developmental kindergarten, a two-year public school program before entering first grade, would count as a retention.
  • Special education designation (an Individualized Education Program)
  • English language learners
  • Students enrolled in their current school for less than two years.

Teachers and principals can request a good cause exemption for students.

Parents also can ask for an exemption, and schools are required to consider the request, with the principal making a final determination.

The concern of Whitmer and leaders of foundations that focus on urban and low-income communities is that parents won’t know they can appeal the retentions.

MDE published a fact guide for parents about good-cause exemptions for third grade retention, but Battle Creek Community Foundation CEO Brenda Hunt said she worries that’s not enough.

Hunt said her organization is working with Battle Creek Public Schools to determine the best way to educate parents. She said her organization may go “door to door” in communities this spring to get the word out about the law.

“This third grade retention mandate disproportionately affects urban school districts, with lower income children and African-American children,” Hunt said. “That could really affect Battle Creek.”

In Battle Creek Public Schools, 83 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, and 65 percent are racial minorities.

Retaining 5,000 Michigan third-graders because of low reading test scores would cost the state about $40 million, because the students will be in K-12 public education for an extra year, said Kyle Mayer, assistant superintendent at Ottawa Intermediate School District and a member of Whitmer’s literacy commission. 

“We have an opportunity to ask ourselves if the money we’re going to invest in retention is the best way to improve literacy,” Mayer said. “One example, we could shift that investment to kindergarten readiness.

“We’ll be better served when our focus shifts from retention to prevention.” 

The governor told Bridge her quarrel is with the means, not the ends, of the third-grade reading law. 

“I share the goal of ensuring that everyone is a reader by the end of third grade,” Whitmer said. “But the best way to do that is to really wrap them with the services and supports that they need to be successful,” rather than forcing students to repeat the grade.

“A child who has been penalized for not learning doesn't make them more eager to learn,” Whitmer said. “Sometimes that actually does such a number on their confidence that it undermines their ability and makes it even harder for them to be successful.”

In December, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clearlake, said he was open to tweaking the third-grade reading and retention law

Whitmer said Tuesday she “raised [the issue] personally numerous times” with Shirkey. “I think that there have been some comments that there was an openness to it [changing the law], but I'm worried that time is of the essence now and that's why we wanted to get this underway.

“I still would invite any legislator who wants to make a change in the law to work with me and to do so quickly. But at this point, I'm going to do everything I can to just support families and kids.”

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Wed, 01/29/2020 - 8:08am

So we're going back to social promotion again?
Why bother with "grades", as in 1st 2nd 5th? Why not base everything on subject/skill mastery? Each student can advance levels for each subject as they achieve necessary subject mastery. (Would/could require testing … oh my!!) The K -12, 180 days of seat time, could/would be gone! But of course the education establishment wouldn't stand for this potential loss of power and money! What if a kid(s) finished the whole thing in 10 years??? A potential loss of revenue!! Don't forget who this model does work for! Maybe explanation of why the US leads the world in per pupil spending and ranks 37th in attainment?

Nick A
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 12:28pm

I’m with you Matt. Modern technology makes delivering course material in modules and tracking module dependencies simple. Khan academy is an excellent example of this model that could serve as a basis for an expansion into the public education system. There is no reason why students couldn’t move with their social cohort while studying material at their own pace.

Jack Johnson
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 8:16am

This is a mistake. We have to stop passing people along who haven't learned.

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 9:36pm

a recent study shows that retaining kids leads to a 60% drop in graduation rates. Retention is not the solution; smaller class sizes, more aides, higher pay for teachers, better buildings, etc. will improve reading scores.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 8:24am

Great they need to do away with all then state and federal test,,, Teacher spend 1000$ of their time teaching the tests not teaching the kids how to learn!!!!

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 8:26am could just put "certified" teachers, not substitutes back in the classrooms, pay them what they are worth, and let them teach the kids how to read.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 9:16pm

Do you mean paying the teachers with the best record of success more? Not sure of meaning of "what they're worth".

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 8:37am

First off we should not be looking to Republican legislators to make laws about education. What makes them an authority?
Second, maybe it is the standard that is in error and not the child. Somehow we have decided that kindergarten children should learn to read and recognize words - even be able to write a sentence!
Maybe if we didn't put so much pressure on them we would not have a drug and suicide problem.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 9:10am

Good points! Did you know Einstein didn't read until 3rd grade? So what are we doing to these students with demeaning reactions to their personal difficulties. As I state in my comment below, help the student and the parents find ways to successfully read not find ways around "the system" in order to avoid the obstacles that will stand in the student's way for life.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 2:40pm

And he flunked physics! We need to stop acting as though our children are robots programmed to all do the same thing at the same time.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 4:31pm

True we are expecting every 8 year old to be more or less in the same place for every subject and then shuffle them along because of the way school is structured. Wrong on all counts.

Kim Laforet
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 8:45am

So, just keep passing them so they can’t get a good job after we’ve graduated them. Ridiculous. Like giving every child a participation trophy. Why not address those that are struggling and offer them extra help? Inform the parents and work with them. We are raising a generation of mediocrity.

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 9:38pm

“Why not...offer extra help”
Because that takes money. Which school districts are notoriously short on thanks to prop A.

Pamella Binder
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 9:03am

Don't help the parents learn how to "get around" this law. Help the parents learn what the problems are that causes their child to be behind in their reading ability. I personally worked with a family of a graduating 2nd grader for an entire summer. In the fall the student would enter 3rd grade. This student had two very pronounced reading disabilities that no one had addressed: bad eye sight (because eye tests are not given until 3rd grade) and dyslexia. Talk about bad self image! As a volunteer I was encumbered to present these findings to the parent. How well did that work, you ask. Not at all. But had the school with one of its professionals intervene possibly this child could have received the help she needed before her world totally collapsed around her as she waded through the third grade jungle that was getting harder to navigate. Please don't offer to avoid problems that stick out like a sore thumb. FIX THEM !!!!

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 9:08am

Let's consider this logic:
Mike Jandernoa: “The teachers and schools have been totally unable to help these kids who are behind in third grade graduate in high school and go on and get any kind of trade job or [attend] community college, or any consideration of a four-year university."
So the clever policy idea here is to hold them back for another year, presumably in the same schools with the same teachers? Or are you suggesting also better resources to make the second go-around successful? I must have missed that part.

middle of the mit
Thu, 01/30/2020 - 1:48am

So from your comment what I am understanding is that apparently the parents have no clue what reading standard their own kids have achieved or not, and you are blaming it all on the teachers who spend how much time with them reading? An hour or two per day? And who knows whether or not that child is paying attention at all? The teacher. And from the article and knowing a few teachers personally and having been in school.....there are some kids who don't pay attention, and others who love to attract attention to themselves and not the class.

Why aren't parents teaching their children how to do this at home? Oh I get it. Too much time at work. Then cooking, cleaning, laundry, practice for sports that are more important than liberal arts............ Not to mention that despite Bill Schutte pushing for better reading scores, the republicans cut funding for schools, which is part of your taking the sales tax off of gasoline so that it doesn't go to funding schools, and then saying you are the only ones that make everything bettor. Oh did I spell that wrong? NO!

What are you placing your bets on? Public vs Charter?

Stats show you lose!

Bettor needs needs a new bet.

mary therese lemanek
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 9:11am

There is no argument ~ kids most definitely need to be able to read with comprehension of they are going to make it in the world. Is retention the best "solution"? Until we are able to address the impact of trauma and the lack of literacy support at home, retention will have minimal benefit.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 9:37am

The older the kids get, the more reading on their own they must do for homework. If they can't read, they won't be able to keep up in other subjects, either. If it's going to cost more to hold the kids back anyway, why not provide funding for tutors for lower income families for the kids who are having trouble at the end of 2nd grade? Help them before they have to be held back.

Donna Anuskiewicz
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 9:39am

Reading level is heavily dependent on knowledge level. What are we doing about raising knowledge levels of poor readers? Repeating third grade is not only expensive but it also does nothing to address the problem. Read the research, folks. Read the research.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 9:44am

The research on the impact of grade retention on students is extensive and clear. Retention in almost all cases harms students. Brain research on early childhood education is also extensive and clear. Preschool works to make students better prepared to learn reading and math in early elementary grades. Rather than incur millions in extra costs to educate students we have retained, we should be spending the money to make a difference by funding universally available, high quality preschool education.

Charles Buck
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 9:55am

The author previously noted research that the subjective "good cause" exemption in the third grade reading law was the primary reason for socio-economic disparity in Florida's application of their law. White women had a higher success rate using the "good cause" exemption to circumvent retention recommendations for their children than black women due to implicit and explicit bias. Perhaps that exemption should be struck from the Michigan law before a court strikes it down.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 10:01am

You have 1000s of family electing to have their children do 2 years of kindergarten so they can save on child care. Now continue to move them on regardless of their performance. Make class sizes smaller. Have more aides to assist those who are behind. Don't expect the parents to do it because many don't have a PARENT. Pay people a living wage and get more qualified teachers in the classroom. Subs can't do the job. I just visited a 5th grade class 32 students. I don' t want to hear anymore that teachers only work 6 months. Pay a living wage and have teachers some summer time in workshops and home visits to see what they ar dealing with. Peace R.L.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 11:09am

Oh great! Governor Whitmer wants to continue and expand "social promotion" by explaining how parents can make their kids' academic deficiencies permanent and handicap their children for the rest of their lives. The "soft bigotry of low expectations" is very strong among the Democrats, especially those, like our state's governor, who are beholden to the MEA.

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 9:34pm

The bridge article links to a study that shows retaining students leads to a 60% *DROP* in graduation rate. Whitmer is attempting to help protect students from this. There are known ways to improve education, most of which take more money, which the republican legislature has been very unwilling to provide. Smaller classes, more parapros, more one-on-one intervention for struggling students, etc.

How about you learn the effects of these actions before calling others bigots.....

Marguerite Long
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 11:22am

The National Institute of Health has proven that 60-70% of US children can be taught how to read regardless of the method(s) used; the other percent require a sequential, phonic-based program. (See a late NYTimes article on reading in Mississippi.) I was a reading teacher in public school and this proved true for me and my students.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 11:26am

It's not the first generation of mediocrity we've raised. The adults of today are the ones who elected our moronic president because they didn't even have the skill-set to do any research on the man. It takes a moron to raise the next generation moron. Before a legislature makes a sweeping new law, let's have a few small pilot projects and see how it works out. Republicans have no respect for education...look how low our schools rank now; doubt the Democrats could do much to help but they wouldnt be wasting money keeping 5,000 kids in the 3rd grade again.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 4:54pm

Maybe this is because the Education Establishment (Schools of Ed., Teacher Unions and school administrations) are dominent Democratic interest groups? Maybe because the US leads the world in per pupil spending while delivering sub mediocre results? Our schools have been in trouble since before the Reagan Admin, (remember "A Nation at Risk"?) There's a lot of places to point fingers. Republicans deserve criticism on this meddling but are hardy alone at the table..

Jim L Fenner
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 12:40pm

Sadly, I had hoped that Bridge would be free of bias, but it is clear from the presentation of this article that Bridge is just another branch of the West Mich DeVoss Mafia. Too bad, I had hoped for more.

Robert Honeyman
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 1:58pm

How odd. I read the article as being remarkably neutral. The comments, on the other hand, are infuriating. One thing we know about the Republican legislature is they only accept expert input if it fits their preconceived goals.

Whitmer's intent is to help children and parents navigate difficult waters. The existing legislation seems to allow parents a way of addressing punitive measures, but probably has no method of addressing the underlying problem: an underfunded education system that fails the poorest children.

Whitmer's intent is to address the education problem, not single out anonymous children for punishment.

Michael Diaz
Wed, 01/29/2020 - 1:37pm

For those who claim that it is disproportionately affecting low income students, they are missing the bigger picture. Those that fail do so regardless of their financial situation. They simply can't read and comprehend at what is considered to be a minimum level.
Early identification of those at risk, and utilization of the services and monies being offered by these great philanthropic organizations, along with, yes, holding them back if needed, will do far more good for nearly all of these students than the push them through mentality.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 3:30pm

Pity the school principals who have to deal with an angry parent face to face over their child being a "failure". I suspect many will get passed on to the next grade anyway just to get the parent off there back about it.

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 6:26pm

The folks who developed this legislation are NOT school psychologists, teachers or people who study developmental psychology/learning. Failing these students will NOT help them! Small group instruction, basic foundational skills (phonics for example).

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 8:20pm

Not the school's fault black parents aren't teaching their children at home to read. Don't bring down other races of students because of it.

K ONeil
Thu, 01/30/2020 - 12:05am

What ever happen to the parents making decision for their own flesh and blood? That has gone out the window for sure. And what about these parents that exempt their children from the M-Step testing? My only child that has a chance to be retain would be my youngest who's in 1st grade this year and if she had been struggling in reading I would had to fight the district to retain her in Kindergarten. The school districts don't like to do that even if the parents believe it's the best thing for the child. I do have a 3rd grader this year but she's exempt as she technically already been retained since she went to a Young 5 program prior to kindergarten.

abe bubush
Thu, 01/30/2020 - 12:44am

The attempt to flunk 3rd graders based on reading ability is simply another Republican ploy to create a permanent underclass, one that is discouraged and oppressed to the point that they become burdens on society, thereby supporting the Republican theory that nothing can be done about the ills of society.

It's the surest way to an ill society.

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 5:33pm

Dear abe bubush,
You have that exactly backwards. The "Read by 3rd Grade" law is designed specifically to make sure that the Michigan students who may have started school behind the majority of their age mates do NOT fall permanently behind, drop out or age out of school and become barely literate, barely employable members of the underclass.

The law provides school districts with extra funding to cover more intensive reading instruction for students who were not on grade level as they left 2nd grade. There's tutoring plus other interventions during 3rd grade and summer school for those students who, in spite of that extra help, are more than a full school year behind by the spring of 3rd grade. School districts are empowered to promote students whose reading improves enough during summer school to 4th grade on schedule. Third, there's testing for special education services to identify dyslexia or other learning disabilities, although by Federal law, parents can refuse their permission for this testing. And lastly, after some or all of those interventions have failed to improve the student's reading to the required end-of-2nd-grade minimum level for promotion to 4th grade, there's repeating the 3rd grade with even more intensive reading instruction and intervention.

Michigan has also doubled the number of free Great Start pre-school slots for low-income 4-year-olds since the law passed in 2016. We also more than doubled the number of state-paid reading specialists available to coach classroom teachers in research-proven instructional methods for teaching reading. According to Bridge, hundreds of thousands of students have had an extra year of "developmental kindergarten", which turns out may exempt them from being held in 3rd grade, no matter how poorly they read. Huge emphasis has been put on early literacy activities for the past 4 school years, although the results were mostly very modest or actually negative for some groups on the M-STEP scores from last years' 3rd graders.

This law is not a Republican plot to create a functionally illiterate, poorly-paid underclass. It is a strong effort to prevent further growth in that segment of Michigan's population.

Fri, 01/31/2020 - 8:56am

Thank you for that info, Anna. I agree with the 3rd grade law but want to see more early intervention so holding a child back is the last resort. My granddaughter had a hard time with reading up to 3rd grade but her 4th grade teacher made all the difference - part of the problem was making her read aloud where the rest of the class could hear because she became so nervous. Plus of course her parents helped at home as did I. The point, however, is my son attempted in 2nd grade to get help from the school because the teacher made him aware she was behind - she ended up sitting in the hallway with a couple other slow readers to work on special reading projects (where other kids in the hallway could walk by and see they were slow in a subject and ridicule them). It was difficult to say the least but they said there were no other options. My question is, if the schools have funding for this extra education and all the options you mentioned above, are they really going to use that funding to cover summer tutoring and testing and these other interventions?? Will children of low income families be passed by? I don't understand why this is the FIRST time I've heard of it. I have a dear friend with a child (now grown) with a disability causing him to not be able to speak but he's perfectly normal intellectually. She had to fight tooth and nail his entire school life to get the educational tools the schools have funding to provide. They didn't let her know what his options were, and they tried their best to ignore her and deny help when she did her research and found what they should be doing. He's now graduated from regular high school and a technical school, has a driver's license and a job - that never would have happened if she hadn't fought her way through the system - luckily she was a stay at home Mom and had the time and fortitude to stick with it. Kids like him have no chance without a mom like her. I fear this will be the same and that needs to be fixed. They need to really help these kids before they hold them back.

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 8:47am

Can you say teachers union!

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 11:49am

So, if the state is willing to pay up to $40 million more each year to hold back slow readers for another round of the third grade, why not spend that money, instead, on additional resources that could help all kids to be able to read proficiently by the end of the third grade and not require anyone to be held back?

Chuck Jordan
Sat, 02/01/2020 - 10:25am

Good article. So many myths about reading and the "reading wars."

Sun, 02/02/2020 - 4:38pm

Let’s be clear: M-Step is not designed to determine a child’s reading level (1st grade, 2nd grade etc.). It is designed to test a child’s knowledge of the standards that were taught in 3rd grade. Why is the state using this standardized test to determine retention. Teachers have tools that can determine the grade level that a child is reading at but these are not taken into consideration in the law.

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 6:06pm

I hate this law. When my son was struggling in 2nd grade back in the nineties the teacher wanted to hold him back. The principal gave me some research left over from the 80s when failing a grade was a thing kids did when they didn’t perform to standard tests. One of the research papers asked kids to rank “bad things that happen to kids”. They ranked the top items as “losing a parent”, “failing a grade”, “wetting your pants in class”. I did not allow them to hold my son back because of this. He did better when he aged up a bit and graduated with a b+ average from high school. I’m so glad I did not inflict this public humiliation of failing a grade on him.

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 12:52pm

Personally, I think it's a great idea. We are already dumbing down the school system enough! Digital clocks replacing analog clocks because students can't tell time, Too much focus on doing work online, so children have NO concept of how to work problems out on paper at least, not without some long, drawn out process, that serves no purpose, low academic requirements in the athletics programs that have to be spread to other areas of students in order to be fair, that only serve to fail students once they leave the institutions. We need to do better by our students and stop coddling them!