Opinion: To address literacy, understand link with poverty

Paula Herbart

Some of us remember the old “Reading is Fundamental” ad campaign, which encouraged parents to read to their children. Today, that fundamental is even more critical, especially in light of how poverty and lagging literacy levels intersect.

Too often, lawmakers look for “silver bullet” solutions — like the reading law that threatens to retain third graders who do not meet literacy benchmarks this spring — rather than understanding more complex needs, like building a strong foundation of literacy skills to ensure future success.

Front-line educators have a deep understanding of the problem. Colby Sharp, a nationally-recognized literacy expert and a fifth grade teacher in Jackson County, put it this way:

“We have a poverty issue more than anything. Children from high poverty areas are less likely to live in homes with 100 or more books, or to attend schools with rich library collections. Research shows that kids surrounded by books are more likely to succeed at reading than those who are not.”

Launch Michigan’s initial recommendations, released today, focus on the link between literacy and poverty, Herbart writes.

Nearly 70% of our third grade students living in poverty score below proficiency in reading. That statistic has been a driving force behind the work of Launch Michigan — a partnership of education, labor, business, community and philanthropic organizations which has spent more than a year working to find consensus on key education policy issues.

That’s why Launch Michigan’s initial recommendations, released today, make the critical linkage between literacy and poverty a central focus. In calling for a weighted funding formula that directs more resources to students with particular needs, the coalition recognizes that it costs more to educate students living in poverty.

In particular, Launch Michigan is recommending next year’s state education budget include an “equity fund,” which would initially focus on early elementary literacy by driving more funding to K-3 elementary students living in poverty. Directing more resources to the students who need the most help will generate greater results in attacking the problem. 

The recommendations call for local planning about how to use the additional funding, so that different schools facing different challenges can use different strategies. Rather than “one-size-fits-all” solutions, this will allow for customized approaches that meet students’ needs — and allow for accountability for those funds by measuring outcomes vs. expectations.

These are only first steps in what will be an ongoing process to address not only lagging literacy levels, but the broader needs of every Michigan student. For example, the Launch Michigan recommendations also include ensuring students (and educators) have access to high-quality reading materials and curriculum.

Mallory Rivard, a Bay City first-grade teacher, echoed Colby Sharp’s concern about the lack of access to books and the effect that has on literacy:

“I was telling Johnny, ‘Read before bed! Read before bed!’  And Johnny said, ‘Miss Rivard, I don’t have any books to read before bed.’”  

Rivard echoes this theme in her other role — as Michigan’s representative to this week’s Miss America competition, where she’s committed to highlighting the importance of literacy for all students.

Often, educators like Rivard and Sharp take it upon themselves to provide the necessary books. But that responsibility, on top of all the others that teachers and other school employees bear, should not be theirs. As a state, we need to do more to ensure that all our students have access to the tools needed to be great readers — and that educators get the training and tools they need to do their jobs.  

From the Launch Michigan table to classrooms around the state, we know what works to improve literacy. We must commit to put politics aside and implement these policies — for the sake of our students and our future.

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers Acting President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.