Michigan needs a comprehensive approach to third grade reading

Added March 24th, 2015 by Jane Zehnder-Merrell | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Reading proficiently by the end of third grade is a critical benchmark for future academic success, so Michigan policymakers have been seriously considering strategies to improve the chances that more children will reach this goal. After third grade, children read to learn, and half the curriculum materials in fourth-grade require grade-level reading skills. Three of four third-graders who struggle to master reading will continue to struggle as high school students. A comprehensive approach is needed to improve early literacy for children in Michigan.

The current situation in Michigan is troubling. In 2013, two of every five third-graders in the state did not demonstrate proficiency on the MEAP reading test. Outcomes are even worse on the national test where 69% of Michigan fourth-graders performed below proficiency—ranking the state 34th among the 50 states (number 1 is the best).

One reason for the development of the learning standards known as the Common Core was to address the wide variability across states in defining proficiency; in 2007 no state reading standard met that of the National Assessment of Educational Progress; in fact, Michigan had the fourth lowest standard, according to analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics.  A similar analysis of the state’s 2013 reading test standards earned the state a C grade (with A for tests matching the national standard).

The most reliable predictor of academic success is family income. Children in families with income below or only marginally above poverty level ($24,000 for a two-parent family of four in 2013) are more likely to experience barriers such as illness, transportation problems, hunger, lead poisoning, housing mobility and homelessness than their more affluent peers.

Michigan school districts with the largest percentages of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches consistently have the largest percentages of students scoring below proficiency levels. Four of five fourth-graders in Michigan’s low-income families did not demonstrate proficiency on the NAEP reading test compared with just over half of their more affluent peers. Unfortunately, family supports for the economically fragile have substantially weakened in the past two decades. Benefits and eligibility for government programs such as unemployment insurance, cash assistance and child care, designed to blunt the impact of economic downturns, particularly for children, have been drastically reduced. Schools and parents are blamed for circumstances often beyond their control.

School readiness begins with a healthy birth bolstered by early access to prenatal care, nurturing stable relationships with parents and other caregivers, healthy homes and safe neighborhoods. Home visiting programs can play a valuable role in strengthening parental skills, providing access to services and extending social support, but community resources are too often limited.

Meanwhile, the state level of mass incarceration has had a devastating impact on children and communities of color by shackling opportunities for education and employment for large numbers of young men of color. The failure to invest in childhood lead poisoning prevention and access to quality child care compromises optimal development during the critical early years when the brain is developing most rapidly. The state has not devoted adequate funds to Michigan’s Early On program to ensure early identification and services to address developmental delays or disabilities among children ages 0-2 and their families.

To their credit, the governor and Legislature supported a dramatic expansion in the Great Start Readiness Program, the state-funded preschool program for four-year-olds. For the coming budget year the governor maintains that commitment and proposes another $48.6 million as a third-grade reading initiative that recognizes the importance of a comprehensive approach. The initiative includes an expansion of home visits to at-risk families, parent education pilot programs, professional development on reading instruction for teachers, additional instruction time for students who need extra assistance and literacy coaches for K-3 teachers.

Children struggle with literacy for a number of reasons. By taking a broad approach and investing early in the lives of children and their families, the governor has made another step in the “great start” that is needed by so many of our children. While these initiatives should be supported, the pervasive blight of poverty among children and their families must be addressed in state policy as well.

— Jane Zehnder-Merrell


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