Column: Improving early literacy the right start

Amber Arellano

The start of a new school year is usually greeted with a great deal of optimism among teachers, parents and students alike. My own daughter is starting kindergarten this month, and her excitement is contagious.

Like all parents, I hope and expect she will grow a lot over the next year, and master new skills and gain new confidence. Hoping for the best for my daughter, and for all children in Michigan, though, does not blind me to the fact that public education in the state is in a crisis, a years-long downward spiral heading to the bottom.

The research on this is clear: education in Michigan is not just failing to keep up with the rest of the country; we are rapidly racing toward the bottom. For example, in fourth-grade reading, Michigan students have fallen from 30th in the country in 2005 to 41st in 2015.

Many parents and school leaders comfort themselves by thinking that while there may be problems in the schools overall, their own local schools are probably doing fine. But the data show that’s not true.

In fact, Michigan is one of only five states that has declined in actual performance in fourth-grade reading since 2003 for all students. On the national assessment for early literacy, white students and higher-income students in Michigan rank nearly last in the country.

On the state assessment, more than half of all third-grade students were not proficient in English language arts last year. The results are even more devastating for students of color and low-income students. Only about one in three low-income students or Hispanic students were reading and writing at grade level in third and eighth grades.

Right now, Michigan has an opportunity to reverse these disturbing trends and put our state on the path toward becoming a top ten education state. For the first time in a long time, the focus of key stakeholders – including parents, educators, community leaders and business leaders – is focused squarely on improving early literacy. As research has long shown, this is the right place to start because reading is so essential for success in and out of school.

What are some initial steps for moving forward? We need to start by rejecting the failed policies that have contributed to this decline. Let’s insist on high academic expectations for every student. Let’s provide our teachers with the training, tools, mentoring and other supports they need to meet the needs of students. Let’s distribute our resources more equitably so that all students are given a fair chance to succeed. And let’s commit ourselves to using data not just for meaningful accountability, but also to inform policy and practice.

It’s not just our children’s education that’s at stake: when children read well by third grade, they are dramatically more likely to succeed not only in school, but in life. They’re more likely to go to college, find and keep good jobs and earn more money. On the other hand, students unable to read by third grade are at greater risk to drop out, break the law and require government assistance.

Fixing the state’s broken education system would not just be good for kids. In fact, Michigan’s future prosperity depends on us pulling our public education system out of its freefall.

Let’s get started.

Amber Arellano is founding executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest.

An ongoing series

This is part of a series of editorials, columns and commentaries that will appear throughout the school year exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools. Follow along at detroitnews.com/opinion.