Despite at least $80 million spent on improving early literacy and one of the largest expansions of state-funded pre-K in the nation, reading skills remain stagnant or declining across most of Michigan.
Half of Michigan third-graders were proficient in English Language Arts on the state’s standardized assessment, the M-STEP, in 2014-15. Three years later, 44 percent were proficient on the same test. Only three intermediate school districts out of 56 in Michigan showed gains over that time period.
Those three intermediate school districts – providing services for schools in Lapeer and Clinton counties in the Lower Peninsula and Houghton, Baraga and Keweenaw counties in the Upper Peninsula, represent fewer than 2 percent of the state’s third-graders.
Michigan’s flailing third grade reading scores raise concerns over the effectiveness of efforts to improve early literacy, especially in light of a soon-to-be-implemented law that will flunk third graders who are more than a grade level behind in reading skills.
Early reading not improving
Only three intermediate school districts recorded improvements in third-grade reading proficiency rates in the past three years, despite an influx of cash to address the problem.
The failure so far to move the needle on third-grade reading is a critical issue because early literacy is seen by educators and researchers as a key indicator of later academic success.
One educator involved in Michigan’s expanded early literacy efforts asks for patience.
William Miller, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and who heads up early literacy efforts for the General Education Leadership Network, a consortium of educators and researchers, said it’s too early to gauge success.
“We need to train 2,500 teachers to impact the classroom,” Miller said. “It’s all about getting the research right and getting all the efforts together.”
That reading skills are at best stagnant, while students in other states are seeing scores rise, bodes poorly for Michigan’s future, said Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, a Michigan-based research and advocacy group.
In a report released Tuesday, Education Trust-Midwest sounds the alarm about Michigan’s K-12 system, focusing in part on the state’s inability to improve early literacy while many states are making progress.
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One sobering example is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as “the nation’s report card,” The NAEP test isn’t given to third-graders, but it does conduct a fourth-grade reading test. If Michigan’s fourth-grade scores had improved at the same rate as Florida’s test scores since 2003, Michigan, which ranked 28th that year, would now rank third in the nation, according to the Education Trust-Midwest analysis; instead, Michigan ranks 35th. If current trends continue, according to Education Trust, Michigan’s rank will plummet to 45th in 2030.
“Third grade reading is a great (example) of the broader challenge” facing Michigan schools, Arellano said. “It’s hugely important that all Michigan kids are being taught and supported to read at high levels early on in their lives.
“Research shows that learning to read is key not only to achievement in school, but also throughout the lives of our children,” she said. “Children who can read by third grade are not only dramatically more likely to succeed in school, but they’re also less likely to end up in trouble.”
Michigan has spent at least $80 million over the past four years on early literacy. Yet the share of third-graders scoring high enough on the M-STEP to be labeled “proficient” or higher on English Language Arts has dropped statewide, and held steady or dropped in 53 out of 56 intermediate school districts.
Intermediate school districts are organizations that provide services to traditional school districts. Most intermediate school districts service districts in one county, but some in rural parts of the state cover multiple counties.
Michigan increased its investment in publicly funded pre-K by $65 million in 2013, a 60 percent increase to expand the number of slots in the state-run Great Start Readiness Program for more low- and moderate-income children. GSRP received another $65 million boost the following year.
The first wave of students who benefitted from expanded pre-school access was in third grade in 2017-18.
Miller said pressure is building to show results.
“Legislators say, ‘We’ve made this investment, we want to see results and they want to see it now,’” Miller said. “But the investment hasn’t been big enough frankly and it takes building an infrastructure.”
Miller said he believes the state has developed a good early literacy model and is in the process of building a stable of literacy coaches and good instruction models for elementary school teachers.
The share of third-graders who were proficient or better in English Language Arts in 2017-18 varied from a low of 32 percent in Wayne County, to 66 percent in Clinton County, just north of Lansing.
Clinton County also had the largest gain – increasing the share of proficient third-grade readers by 4 percent between 2014-15 (62 percent) and 2017-18 (66 percent).
There, the strategy is heavy use of data pinpointing the strengths and weaknesses of individual young readers.
“For a child to be successful, reading is important,” said Melissa Dawes, instructional service director for Clinton County Regional Service Educational Service Agency (the intermediate school district for the county). “It’s so important to intervene early.”
Students are tested three times a year. To analyze the results, “We bring the (traditional school) district team in to look at building-level data,” Dawes said. The building team looks at grade-level data; the grade-level team looks at groups of students, and then down to individual students.
A lot of times,” Dawes said, “if we can find what to target for a student, we can raise those scores.”
That hasn’t happened in most schools, a fact that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to fix, said Whitmer spokesperson Robert Leddy.
"After years of disinvestment and inequality in educational conditions, it’s clear that the achievement gap is real and continues to inhibit students’ performance,” Leddy said. “However, these challenges are not the fault of educators or students, but rather the policymakers who have taken resources away from the classroom. Gov. Whitmer’s budget, which increases education funding by $507 million, is the largest investment in the classroom in a generation. Her budget allocates funding on a weighted foundation allowance because we know that different students require different resources to teach, which is why Gov. Whitmer increased funding for special education and at-risk students. This will allow us to adequately fund our students, and provides schools with a real chance to boost educational outcomes and close the achievement gap.”
“It’s a moment of great opportunity because we have a governor who says (education) is a top priority as a state,” said Education Trust’s Arellano.
“We have a Legislature saying we need to get more serious about this, that we need to look at investment. We have a business and philanthropic community saying we need to lean in.
“Now the question is, can we get to this big bargain, a consensus, at least on some big, key levers to start moving the ball? I think that’s still to be determined.”