Michigan teachers: Flunking won’t help kids read. We have better ideas.

Educators gathered in one Facebook group from across the state in search of a solution to falling reading scores. Here’s a look at where they teach.

With school back in session, thousands of third-graders in Michigan streamed into their classrooms for the first time this week. 

More than 5,000 of them could return to third-grade classrooms again next fall.

That’s because Michigan’s “read or flunk law,” which was passed in 2016, goes into effect this school year. The law mandates that third-graders who cannot read at grade level at the end of the year must repeat the year.

“Overall, I think the policy is a dud,” Heidi Knuuttila, a third-grade teacher in Hancock, told Bridge Magazine. “Getting all students to read is an amazing goal –  I just question the logic behind penalizing students who are struggling and whose parents may not know about loop-holes.”

The law is the latest policy in a churn of legislative efforts to reverse a decade-long decline in literacy rates that has left Michigan 41st in nationwide reading scores. Less than half of state third-graders, 45 percent, were proficient in English language arts, according to M-STEP test scores released last week.

To gauge how the law will impact classrooms, Bridge convened 29 statewide teachers this summer in a private Facebook group to discuss all things literacy –  from Lansing’s efforts to root causes and even good books on education reform. 

The group was diverse in geography –  with participants from Houghton to Detroit –  to experience, with some relatively new and others decades-long veterans. The vast majority teach kindergarten to third grade, while one is a learning specialist who works with students in Detroit and Ecorse and another recently retired as an administrator in East Lansing.

Despite their differences, most agreed that “read or flunk” doesn’t rank high on their reform wish list, preferring instead a uniform approach to teaching reading, more training and money to shrink class sizes.

It won’t hurt, but it won’t help.

Here’s the good part –  none of the teachers anticipates literacy rates getting worse because of the new law.

But only two predicted literacy rates would improve. Others who responded to a group poll online expect to see little to no change.

“This is a classic case of legislators not listening to teachers –  or research,” wrote Barbara Gottschalk, a K-5 English as a second language teacher in Troy who testified against the bill and has written multiple op-eds against the policy. 

Michigan teachers are skeptical the state’s new “read or flunk” law will improve reading scores. They say improving teacher training and shrinking class sizes would be more impactful. (Shutterstock image)

Studies differ on whether holding students back helps, hurts or has no impact on literacy. Florida enacted a similar “read or flunk policy” nearly two decades ago, and a Harvard study found initial gains in academic achievement faded after five yars. Other research found an increase in the percentage of poor or minority students held back after the law.

Critics of Michigan’s new law have Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state’s new superintendent, Michael Rice, on their side.

Rice called the policy a “bad law” “based on the false premise that the beatings will continue until reading improves. It’s far too punitive and comes with too few resources.” Whitmer said in March she would like to “get rid” of the retention law.

Rep. Kristy Pagan, D-Canton Township, submitted a bill to repeal the law in May of this year. Republicans control the Legislature and support the law, however, so the repeal has little chance of reaching the governor’s desk.

Kristen Kariainen, a Houghton County second-grade teacher, is more optimistic about the reform. She said her district, Dollar Bay Tamarack City Area Schools near Houghton in the Upper Peninsula, took literacy more seriously since the read or flunk law passed. 

“We have made this a driving force for us -- in the past three years we went from about a 60 percent [reaching their literacy goals]… to over 80 percent,” Kariainen told the group.

The school improved scores by instituting a reading block during the day with support staff for all children and implementing “consistent progress monitoring for data decision making,” Kariainen wrote. School staff meet six times during the year to track progress and adjust as necessary.

How about literacy coaches?

Whitmer wants to improve literacy by increasing funding for reading coaches. Her budget proposal recommends $55.4 million for coaches, a $24 million increase. That would triple the number of coaches statewide to 279, but still only be enough to fund coaches in half the state’s 587 districts.

Thirteen teachers in Bridge’s group were undecided about the potential impact of the coaches, while eight said they’d help scores and seven saying they wouldn’t move the needle.

Group participants had little hope the third-grade reading law will improve reading scores as intended.

Theresa Hazard, an elementary teacher in White Pigeon south of Kalamazoo, said reading coaches can “make a huge impact” when they meet daily with the same students.

Research indicates coaches can be helpful if programs are properly implemented.

“Literacy coaches are a great resource for teachers and districts,” wrote Kevin Molenkamp, a teacher kindergarten teacher in Kentwood. “I am unsure if the [number of literacy coaches Whitmer’s proposal would fund] would make enough difference.”

Let’s give additional training a shot

Teachers instead pushed for continual training with literacy education and what Flint kindergarten teacher Jennifer Maybee called a “uniform philosophy on teaching reading.”

“Districts do their own thing,” she said, who called the state’s pell-mell approach to literacy education “kind of a cluster.”

To really improve, Michigan must move beyond individual educators’ “philosophy” and rely on educational research into what works best, said Macomb County learning consultant Sheryl Ferlito.

“Do surgeons have philosophy on surgery or do they follow research?” Ferlito asked.

Nancy Williams, a literacy specialist at Children's Dyslexia Center in Bay City, said vast amounts of research already exists on how young brains process language but “it is not communicated to teachers.”

“It takes ongoing [professional development] in language to learn how the brain processes. It would be ideal if teacher prep did the instruction. But they don't!” Williams wrote.

Kariainen, the Houghton teacher, said teacher preparation programs could better prepare teachers by spending more time on literacy education. She noted that Michigan only requires six college credits of reading instruction for certified teachers.

That’s “a super-small percent when you think about how much of our daily time is on literacy,” Kariainen wrote.

Ayrica Bakari, a second-grade teacher in Caledonia, agreed. “I would have benefited from taking more courses that focused on explicit literacy instruction” in college.

Professional development arose repeatedly as a tactic to sharpen teachers’ skills throughout their careers.

“Hopefully when we know better we do better,” wrote Susan Dameron, an elementary teacher in Benzie County.

Calls for robust teacher training come as the use of long-term substitutes explodes across the state. There are more than 2,500 classrooms across the state lead by a long term sub, a tenfold increase in a matter of years. The state does not require any educational background or training to be a long-term sub.

Just as studies that examine retention, research is mixed on whether teacher training has a major impact on student achievement. 

Capping class sizes was another idea popular with the group. A recent survey of Michigan teachers found that 80 percent recommend reducing class sizes to improve student learning. Smaller class sizes are promoted by groups such as the National Education Association, but some research has found reducing class sizes barely impact student achievement.

"Continuing the conversation"

At the end of the two weeks, Ferlito invited fellow participants to keep the conversation rolling.

“I’m wondering if others would be interested...in continuing the conversation via a book club” on “The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System - and How to Fix It” by education reporter Natalie Wexler.

Published in 2019, the book contends that a critical flaw in the American education system is a focus on reading “skills” at the expense of time spent building knowledge about the world. This background knowledge, according to Wexler’s reporting, is context critical to effective reading.

Two weeks later, on Aug. 26, a new Facebook group began.

With 28 members from multiple states across the country, the vast majority were not part of the initial group. 

Some members found the group by word of mouth, but most were invited to join by Ferlito, including the book’s author. 

“I'd be happy to try to answer any questions you might have about the book and respond to comments…” Wexler told the group.

Ferlito told Bridge she hopes the group will “get the conversation started” about what teachers can control in their own classrooms.

“You do have influence over this reading situation. We can’t do anything about the third grade reading law or truant kids… but we do have influence. And maybe what we were taught in college or professional development in our own state isn’t actually what we should be doing… Maybe there is another body of information we should be doing that.”


Correction: This article initally referred to participant Sheryl Ferlito as Sheryl Passmore-Ferlito. This error has been corrected. 

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Frank Koob
Tue, 09/03/2019 - 9:46am

This discussion is vital to the development of our students. It should be widespread among teachers. All teachers teach reading through their subject matter resources. Perhaps all teachers will get on board with literacy growth and development. Perhaps also legislators in Lansing will listen truth is teachers rather than chew their own experience of the good old days when kids flunked a grade once in a while.

Wed, 09/04/2019 - 10:13pm

It seems everyone has an answer, but no one is talking about the causes. Are all the kids failing to learn how to read or is there something different that cause many kids to read and many kids not to read, why don't we have a conversation about that rather then everyone trying to get their solution funded?
Why don't we start by asking what is it that makes kids want to read, why don't we ask what is different now and a generation or two ago when reading wasn't the headline justification of more spending, why don't we ask why in one classroom some read very well and some don't read at all, why done we start by asking questions rather then keep harping on answers that weren't answers before we discovered the reading problem? And if asking the questions and listening to the answers, and having a conversation is too much effort then why are we talking about establishing some performance metrics so we can determine which answer is most effective and leverage that across the state?
As for listening to teachers, aside from them telling us in our 'Parent - Teacher' conferences to leave it to the professionals, telling us schools shouldn't be measured as a means of accountability [when kids that ere graduating couldn't read their diploma], why should we leave this too the 'educational' professionals when they only want to talk about money and are interested in helping the public understand how kids learn?
Consider that we never hear talked about is that we are all knowledge about our education system, we all got that knowledge first hand [as students for 12 years or more] and second hand as parents trying to help our children succeed. Why shouldn't everyone of us no matter our profession be part of the conversation, why shouldn't those paying for all of this be part of the conversation, why shouldn't those who live and work in a world that is knowledge dependent and see how that the future demands the children of today need to both learn how to learn and learn how think so they can apply what they learn be part of the conversation?

I apologize for how I frame my remarks, especially since you were voicing you frustration in a much politer way. You seem open to conversations, to change, but maybe it was the listen and trust teachers and the discounting of personal experiences that seem to suggest nothing will change. No matter the reason, I apologize and I hope you will consider my questions and offer you views on at least a few.

Chuck Fellows
Tue, 09/03/2019 - 9:59am

Establishing targets for reading skills is a fools errand. It distracts from science that exposes all children are unique. Therefore, how a child learns is unique. Our compliance and conformance , pass/fail system of education is a dysfunction enterprise. Stop applying mass incarceration models of dispensing knowledge facts and simply let the children read what is relevant to them as individuals and their life context. Let them be curious, imaginative and interested. They learned language and syntax without your specialized expert intervention. Be a coach and mentor respecting who the student really is. They will read beyond your simplistic, and wrong, expectations.

Sat, 09/07/2019 - 9:45pm

Setting specific goals and especially ones that include performance metrics are much likely to be achieved than not having them.
The schools have good examples of this, the school sports teams. People play and watch sports because the know the goals and they can see the results of all the work the put in at practice [which is much like doing homework and see how it creates learning].

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 1:31pm

It makes more sense to spend additional funds on the students, not the teachers. Nothing against the teachers and I can understand that point of view yet the additional funds can help parents as well as students

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 2:32pm

How about giving every child a public library card? Which might encourage them to read more. If necessary, provide transportation to the local library so they can get a book to read.

Wed, 09/04/2019 - 9:38am

The cities need to take them parking netters out of library parking lots!!!!

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 4:05pm

Michigan kids have poor test scores, nearly the worst in the nation. There’s lots of speculation on causes, generally: poor teachers, poor administrators, poor laws governing education, poor parents and/or class sizes too large.
The big problem with the speculation is that Michigan’s demographics in all these areas aren’t much different than states whose kids test better.
What’s different in Michigan than other areas that can cause learning disability?
Neurotoxins and genotoxins can cause learning disabilities and it doesn’t take much exposure to lead, aluminum, mercury, chrome, cadmium, carbon, nitric oxide, plus new chemicals being invented every day, to degrade cognitive function in children.
Could the root of Michigan’s test score problem be environmental? For example, do poor test scores correlate to areas with high lead exposure or some other toxin?
Consider https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5059837/.

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 8:14pm

What's your evidence that MI has worse exposure than states with higher scores? Your attachment doesn't answer this.

Wed, 09/04/2019 - 9:36am

What they need to do is bring back book that kids love to read that were band by the right wing NUTS like tom sawyer and huckleberry finn!!!

Wed, 09/04/2019 - 9:36am

What they need to do is bring back book that kids love to read that were band by the right wing NUTS like tom sawyer and huckleberry finn!!!

Thu, 09/26/2019 - 11:21am

Frankly, if districts discontinued the widespread investment in canned reading (and math) programs being developed and marketed by for-profit companies they would be able to fund time-proven reading strategies. Teachers teach reading, not programs developed to leech money out of school districts. Teachers spend years in school learning methods and models for the delivery of content to students, only to be told that their education is meaningless and that they must use an expensive, prepackaged program by, say, Scholastic, or face retribution in the form of evaluation. Not only does this practice stifle academic freedom, but it does not address the individual requirements of students who have highly specific learning needs.