Michigan is investing heavily in early reading. So far, it’s not working.

teacher in classroom

Michigan has invested tens of millions of dollars on boosting early reading skills for students. So far, the investment is not showing results.

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.

Source: Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI)

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.

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.”

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Tue, 05/21/2019 - 8:02am

To be really successful at reading it has to be more than a classroom exercise, reading at home for pleasure needs to be part of the equation, this brings up the old parental involvement issue that we see time and again and where it appears many are not doing what they should be.

Tue, 05/21/2019 - 2:57pm

I would agree, without parental involvement, not much will change. Throwing more teachers and or aids will not address the core issue !

Tue, 05/21/2019 - 8:55pm

You can throw as much money as you want at the problem and it won't work. If the parents have not been reading to the child and encouraging the child to try and read along all these programs will not work.

Steve Keskes
Tue, 05/21/2019 - 8:39am

There is something missing from the data set. Many schools who took the MSTEP during the assessment's first iteration (2014/2015) did not use the computer-based assessment and scored much higher when using the paper/pencil version. This variable has improved over time. Computer vs. paper/pencil also impacts county-wide averages. This also leads me to question how and what the MSTEP actually measures when it comes to reading. (Computer Skills, Computerized Testing Skills or actual Reading Skills?) Based on analysis, I would argue that it measures all three. There are still several districts that do not have the financial means to make the needed technology available to their children and teachers, thus a paper/pencil version is utilized and to some degree advantages those students from a "scoring" lens. Whether or not it advantages actual reading ability is up for debate.

This being stated, I'm not discounting our need to improve instructional strategies when it comes to teaching our children to read. If we aren't at or near 100% of our children being able to read proficiently, we need to do some things differently, and many school districts are. More of the same is not the answer. I agree with Bill Miller. There are a lot of strategies being employed in very thoughtful and strategic ways that take time to develop and improve. Thank you for bringing the conversation to the forefront. A literate nation is a strong nation.

Karl Schmidt
Tue, 05/21/2019 - 8:54am

I am a School Board trustee for Troy School District, arguably one of the best districts in the state. If the state legislature had maintained funding here since 2008 at the rate of inflation, our district alone would have $35 million in our general fund ANNUALLY. The $80 million the state legislature has allocated to early literacy across the entire state over the past four years is so insignificant, to suggest we'd see an impact on our early literacy is ridiculous.

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 6:56pm

What are the problems the schools finding that are preventing their learning to read?
How would Troy spend the money to change a student's reading?
I ask these questions because not in any of the articles were those to questions addressed, nor have we heard from a single person in a position responsible for spending moneys for the early reading program.

Tue, 05/21/2019 - 8:57am

How about some additional perspective? The expenditure of $80 M over four years is $20 M per year. There are approximately 1.5 million public school students in Michigan, 750,000 of which are elementary age. This illustrates that Michigan's "investment" has been just under $27 per elementary student per year. That's 15 cents per school day.

Dana Getsinger
Tue, 05/21/2019 - 9:24am

Have we looked at the environmental effects of our water on our young learners ?

Tue, 05/21/2019 - 10:15am

It will take more than $80 million and many more years of work to reverse the hostile policies Governor Snyder, with DeVos support, enacted to demoralize and impoverish the public schools our state's most vulnerable families depend on to education their children.

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 7:05pm

Are you another one of those that feels we have to wait until everyone is reading before we can evaluate the program and that we must continue to spend millions and millions until you can claim the program is a success? When are we allowed to see such program demonstrated in a few classrooms, in a few schools and have the results validate before we commit millions and millions of more dollars? Why can't the education system and its 'experts' accept that a few classrooms across the state can show us a lot about a program and how it may benefit from modification before casting the program in 'concrete' to be used by children yet to be born?

Charles Carpenter
Tue, 05/21/2019 - 10:21am

There are 3 things we can do to improve student performance:
1. Reduce class size
2. Reduce class size, and
3. Reduce class size
It is really pretty simple. The teachers are good enough. We just need to give them manageable workload.

Barb Smith
Sun, 06/09/2019 - 12:56am

Parental participation, support and interacting with the school would help more than anything - Do they have the children read to them - do they assist them in learning new words - instead of expecting the school to raise the child and teach them how to do everything. It is time that parents took responsibility for their children and what they learn - also hold the school accountable for doing its fair share. If parents do not encourage and assist their children, the kids will think it is not important to learn how to read - after all, mom and dad don't care.

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 8:38am

So much that I'm guessing did NOT go into the Early Literacy initiative, besides the ridiculously low amount of money (it's spread over 4 years, across the entire state, so a drop in the bucket/student):

First off, the birth-8YO Window is still ALL Early Childhood. This window for learning does NOT resemble learning for older kids and most Early Literacy (or Early Numeracy, for that matter) don't take this into account. Testing for true literacy right at the end of this window is unrealistic.

Post about paper & pencil vs computer-based testing is also on target; there's a separate learning curve associated w/computer-based testing that involves hand-eye coordination and a mouse and/or touchscreen which are separate skills from actual reading or decoding.
Point about lead affecting brain development is also well-taken, and I'd add that it's been documented that the stresses of poverty have been shown unequivocally to affect brain development especially in our youngest learners when the brain is developing most rapidly. Even parents reading to kids at home aren't going to overcome these obstacles, nor will pennies/day/student thrown at Early Literacy.

Look at what research shows is how children come hard-wired to learn and work with that, start from THAT point. Anything else is money down the toilet (and going to textbook companies and testing companies instead of to KIDS).

Thu, 05/23/2019 - 6:39pm

“…one of the largest expansions of state-funded pre-K in the nation, reading skills remain stagnant or declining across most of Michigan.” Say it ain’t so, throwing millions and millions at the problem didn’t fix it, more money didn’t change results, all that money didn’t help the students. All we heard was how early reading will save our students to read and be successful, we just needed to give the schools millions of more dollars.
This the reality of all those claims it’s the money that solves problems, ignoring results, listening only to ‘experts’, the academics, the politicians, and most of all ignoring the kids that read.
This article is a window on the future all the programs that claim money is the answer, be it roads and bridges, education, health, employment, safety and security of our state. You name it, someone will whine for more money claiming it will solve all. If you want to solve problems, you need well defined results, you need learn why and how success is achieved, and programs need performance metrics to ensure accountability so modifications for success can be made.
Mr. Miller is see the reading as an all or nothing, he is wrong, we don’t need to wait until 2,500 teachers are trained, we should be hearing of changes where a trained teacher in a single classroom applies their lessons, and each newly trained teacher is given a class to teach should show successes. If we can see success in a small number of classrooms then each succeeding trained teacher will validate the program, we best not wait for all 2,500 to judge if the program is failing.
Ms. Arellano fails in making her claims of student success by not describing how and why students succeed with 3rd grade reading. Could it be that it is a student learning how to learn is what helps them to learn math, learn science, and that’s what is helping them to succeed post school, and like the others reading is just another tool? And she like others, only see the money and ignores the student’s role/responsibilities in their learning and even their learning to read.
Ms. Arellano and Mr. Miller seem preoccupied with grand solutions for which they need more and more millions, what they fail to grasp is that the results we all want are achieved by the individual successes of each student, and their achievements drive by what they want and what they are willing to sacrifice for such goals [like reading and learning], it is not due to the time and money adults spend on what the adults do.

Ken Tokarz
Sun, 05/26/2019 - 4:56am

Take music and art out of the curriculum to pay for resolving reading and math deficiencies.

Sun, 05/26/2019 - 9:29am

As a past principal, 1st grade teacher and a literacy coach, that left the public schools, leadership needs to be changed.

Shop teachers that become superintendents are making decisions by balance budgets and increase class sizes at the early elementary level (28:1 teacher student ratio).
Too many students in the classroom with only one teacher. This is the root cause and needs to be addressed. A fish rots from the head down. Leadership is the root cause of an organizations failure and demise.

There is little a principal, literacy coach or teacher can do to create change, when the money sent from the state is allowed to be reallocated to hire more landscaping crew for the football, soccer, baseball fields, etc. To be groomed. That was our district's focus....take away the number of teachers teaching, to pay for needs outside of the classroom.

It's all about appearance on the outside to get re-elected. This superintendent has built many beautiful buildings and was the President for the Michigan Superintendents Association and President for the National Superintendents Association. He spent his time away from the district, because he had more important things to do. I offered him visits to our school to see the effects of the increased class size, but he never came. He said that his decision was based on what other superintendents were doing in Michigan, and that it was a trend to increase the class size.

He had never had a class on literacy or knew what that term was referring to in education. He was a manager and knew what to do without any training. ...And so it goes....

RJ King
Sun, 05/26/2019 - 11:42am

As a board member of the nonprofit, Beyond Basics, the organization has had tremendous success in providing children who fall behind their grade level in reading, writing, and word comprehension by pairing them, one on one, with a certified tutor. Our success rate within 6 weeks is 90+ percent. We have special classrooms set up within schools in Detroit, Taylor, and Pontiac. http://www.beyondbasics.org/

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 1:14pm

Teaching needs to be a team effort. While teachers bare the brunt of the time spent with students and the focus for learning outcomes, there are other players in the game. Or at least there should be. Parents are obviously a pivotal influence on whether children are interested in reading, but another key player needs to be added back into the mix. School libraries staffed with school librarians. I'm not talking about a paraprofessional who is there for a part time job, but an actual degreed and accredited librarian. I understand that there is an effort to train teachers in handling early literacy, but why not employ someone who already has that training. I can't begin to say how influential my elementary school librarian was on my desire to read, coupled with a mother who made me read throughout the summer. School libraries and librarians have been constant targets when it comes to budget cuts. It's time to add them back into the mix.

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 9:20am

It is very important to help the child in studying, but when you are overloaded at work, it is rather challenging to pick up suitable material to help the child because of lack of time. Also, it is sometimes difficult to afford a personal tutor because of financial circumstances. Besides, it is better when the parent spends more time with the child. I received the help from the website (writingcheap.com) crew, who provided many useful articles and essays, on the example of which I could help the child to deal with writing his own academic work.

tired teacher
Sun, 09/22/2019 - 6:35pm

So what is a teacher to do about the 15 out of 33 kids in their am 4th grade class and the 15 out of 32 kids in their pm 4th grade class that can't read right now? Asking for a friend.....

John S.
Sun, 09/22/2019 - 11:59pm

Not enough information is furnished in the article to evaluate the methods used to evaluate reading proficiency. That so many districts show a decline suggests that the findings are an artifact of the methods used. What changes, if any, occurred in those methods? Also, for some districts, there may have been changes in the characteristics of the student population--e.g., a larger percentage of students where the parents do not speak English in the home. Can we assume that those conducting this research know what they are doing? Let's hope so.