Gov. Whitmer wants to overturn third-grade reading law

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to overturn Michigan's controversial third-grade reading law that allows educators to retain struggling third-graders beginning next school year if they read a grade level behind on the state's reading assessment.

“I think it's destructive, actually this policy, and that’s why I am going to do everything I can to support kids so they are successful and work to get rid of that law,” Whitmer said this week during an MLive Citizen Roundtable in Grand Rapids to discuss her $60.2 billion budget proposal unveiled this week.

“The mindset that you penalize kids who can’t read by the end of third grade flies in the face of all the science ... a penalty doesn’t mean you are going to get a greater outcome,” Whitmer said during the interview.

On Thursday, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said retention has negative impacts on kids.

"We need meaningful early intervention, as supported with the governor’s budget, for example, to triple the number of literacy coaches to make sure teachers have the support they need to meet kids' needs," Brown said. "The goal is to support kids to make sure they are successful and not just penalize them."

The law, adopted in 2016, stops third-grade students from moving to the fourth grade — with some exemptions — if they read a grade level behind on the state's English Language Arts assessment, which measures reading, writing, listening and language.

A majority of Michigan's third-grade students — 55.6 percent or 56,850 students — scored less than proficient on the 2018 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, better known as M-STEP, which measures reading, writing, listening and language.

Michigan lawmakers created exemptions in the retention legislation. They include students with special education accommodations, students with less than three years of instruction in English language learning programs, students who show grade-level proficiency through a portfolio of work and students who perform at grade level on a state-approved alternative assessment.

During the interview, Whitmer said she tripled the amount of money in her proposed budget for literacy coaches to make sure Michigan teachers have the support they need to meet students' needs.

“A child who can’t read isn’t going to become a better reader because you have told them they are bad or that you have penalized them," Whitmer said. "Their parents aren’t going to get more engaged because you have made their child pay a penalty for not reading."

Written into the law were two years of preparation requirements that schools have been working on since 2017.

Students in kindergarten through third grade are undergoing three reading assessments during the school year, with the first given within 30 school days.

The law says students with reading problems must be given individualized reading plans, and schools are required to inform parents in writing about their child's deficiency within 30 days. Parents will be required to take part in "read-at-home plans," and students will see more small group and one-on-one intervention time in school.

School districts with struggling readers are required to provide teachers with additional professional development during the school day and literacy coaches who will train and offer feedback on teaching practices.

Between 2014 and 2017, the state's invested more than $76 million in early literacy programs and services by adding instructional time and allowing districts to hire literacy coaches. The Michigan Department of Education used money to develop a statewide literacy leadership and learning network for families, coaches, educators and administrators as well as update educator preparation standards.

State education officials said on Thursday they prefer not to comment on reports of what the "governor might be considering, in regards to the Read By Grade Three law."

"From the Michigan Department of Education’s standpoint, literacy is a top priority," MDE spokesman Martin Ackley said. "Our current focus is on early literacy to ensure that every child can read by grade three. Instrumental to this work are essential literacy practices to guide instruction for every child, in every classroom, every day."

Training modules to support educators with the implementation of the essential literacy practices are available, Ackley said.

The Michigan Education Association said it supports any efforts to get rid of the retention portion of the law.

"Going back to its initial passage, MEA has opposed the part of the law that calls for retention of third-graders, as research has proven it's not an effective strategy to improve literacy rates," MEA spokesman Doug Pratt said.

"We need real supports for literacy, including some of the things that are called for in the law and would be better funded under the governor’s budget recommendation, including her call to triple the number of literacy coaches."

But Amanda Price, a former state representative who chaired the House Education Committee and is current chair of the Governor's PreK-12 Literacy Commission, said on Thursday she was disappointed by Whitmer's comments.

"I don't think she understands the full extent of the legislation. There is more to that legislation than retaining kids," Price said. "It involves prescribed literacy coaches, helping parents understand there are reading plans and improvements."

Aside from the legislation, Price said there is a whole body of work around the state picking up on the need to improve literacy.

Price said that includes a statewide program called Literacy Essentials that trains teachers on 10 essential practices that need to happen every single day in the classroom for literacy. 

"(The law) is a great mechanism to help parents and teachers. The goal of the legislation was never to retain kids, but to front-load kids to get better at reading,“ Price said.

"It’s a policy lever that has brought a great urgency and attention to the literacy crisis in Michigan."

The Great Lakes Education Project advocacy director Beth DeShone issued a statement Thursday following Whitmer’s call to eliminate the state’s third-grade reading law.

DeShone said the law is an evidence-based policy that lifts Michigan’s students up to thrive. 

"We owe it our children to give them the best and this starts with the skill of reading. Period," DeShone said. "Governor Whitmer's plan to eliminate reading intervention services for the students in Michigan who need them most is a slap in the face of Michigan children and their teachers."

Instead of cutting support services that exist to help young students read, Whitmer should demand the Michigan Department of Education work with local districts to ensure all aspects of the law are being followed — screenings, interventions, parental notification, individualized reading plans and, in the most difficult situations, possible retention in a different classroom.

"Studies prove students must learn to read by third grade so they can read to learn for the rest of their career," DeShone said. "We cannot return to social promotion so that career politicians can coddle those who prioritize adult feelings over student needs."

Peter Spadafore, associate executive director for advocacy and communications for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said on Thursday that his organization appreciates the governor drawing attention to the issue of third-grade reading competency.

The association did support the law in 2016 because it contained multiple exemptions, but Spadafore said they are not yet taking a position on Whitmer's desire to overturn the law.

"Maybe it behooves all of us to look at the law again. We appreciate her drawing attention the issue," Spadafore said.