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

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. 

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.

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 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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