Column: Literacy drop needs bold response

Amanda Price

The recent report by Education Trust-Midwest, “Top Ten for Education: Not by Chance,” paints a landscape that is sobering and true. Michigan is performing very poorly, and in key measures such as third-grade reading we are losing ground. Data from the last state-wide test indicated only 44 percent of Michigan’s third-graders were reading at grade level.

The report also points blame at an educational system not capable of or oriented toward a systematic method of improvement. And again, this is very true.

If a business were confronted with the startling fact that 56 percent of its customers were requesting re-work, or a government program recorded a 56 percent failure rate, would they continue? Michigan is at this critical crossroads. The only difference is that we are in the business of educating children and we cannot retool the product or abandon the program.

As the author of PA 306 of 2016, Michigan’s Third Grade Reading law, I was dismayed at our statewide decline around literacy. Mine is not the only voice in the state heralding this urgent cry. Many business and education groups have been strongly signaling a need for dramatic change in Michigan’s education landscape for years.

I am aware of efforts across the state to begin this process. In Grand Rapids, local business owners have funded efforts in three public schools to train teachers, provide reading coaches and supports to improve reading proficiency. This effort has very positive results for children in the three schools.

Starting in 2013, 100 local school districts in west Michigan formed the Reading Now Network whose work highlighted best practices in elementary schools and replicate those efforts to improve reading proficiency throughout the region.

In the case of Parkview Elementary, a Grand Rapids area school (mentioned in the Ed Trust-Midwest report) the RNN and many other literacy improvement organizations are working in that school and are producing remarkable improvement. What is particularly noteworthy about the RNN effort is that it is grassroots and without any funding from the state.

And in what may be the most profound effort, all intermediate school districts in Michigan are participating in the Early Literacy Task Force.

This group has researched essential literacy practices, produced training materials and online modules, trained hundreds of coaches who work with thousands of teachers, has supported recommendations for more rigorous literacy training in teacher preparation universities, has developed a coaching model and has aligned a system for improving literacy across the state. This is the first time I have seen a systems-wide change effort have buy-in and coordination throughout our education system.

Michigan’s third-grade reading legislation has been in effect since October 2016 and we do not yet have data to assess the improvement in literacy nor the impact of the policy since its passage. Therefore, it is disingenuous of Ed Trust-Midwest to assert that the $83 million spent over a three-year period has not worked. In fact, many of the students receiving this money have yet to take the third-grade assessment.

These dollars were first appropriated in fiscal years 2015-16 for grades K-3. The Ed Trust-Midwest report uses reading data starting in fiscal year 2014-15, a year before the funding even started. Additionally, most of the dollars were targeted for interventions in the early grades. The report confuses data and spending on literacy before and after passage of the legislation, a disservice to parents and the public.

Michigan’s literacy problems are serious. Many local, regional and statewide efforts are needed to improve the literacy outcomes for our children. All citizens of Michigan should be concerned and pushing for immediate action and bold systemic improvement. We have no time to waste.

Amanda Price chairs the governor’s PreK-12 Literacy Commission and is a former Republican state representative from Holland.