Finley: Teaching reading is all that matters

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder should settle the federal lawsuit which seeks to declare literacy a constitutional right by pledging to do everything possible to ensure that no student leaves the Detroit Public Schools without being a proficient reader.

Marcus Garvey Academy Interim Principal Kim Lane helps her students select books from a Little Free Library in Detroit, Michigan on July 28, 2016.

It could be done without more funds and would end a legal battle that could drain the state budget. And it’s the right thing to do.

There’s no point trying to teach children anything else if you haven’t taught them to read.

“You can self-learn almost anything if you can read proficiently,” says former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who is advocating that schools concentrate only on reading until they’re certain students can read, and read well.

“We’re carrying a super computer in our pockets. The power of technology we’re walking around with gives us access to the knowledge of the universe. But how can you function in that world if you aren’t highly literate?”

Engler, who now heads the Business Roundtable in Washington D.C., would transform elementary schools in high-risk communities into reading laboratories, where the entire school day is built around reading instruction.

That’s a big step further than what Michigan just put in place with it’s third-grading reading law, which prevents students from being promoted to fourth grade unless they can read at grade level.

But the reality is that in high-poverty schools, children are never going to get there by the current route. Those schools must teach reading, and only reading.

Once individual students hit the reading mark, they can move into classrooms that add science, math and other subjects. But a STEM curriculum is useless until children master the R.

Engler recommends Michigan follow Mississippi’s example and require all new elementary school teachers to have a proficiency in reading instruction.

“You have to transform the teaching faculty,” he says. “And that starts with how we teach teachers.”

Michigan, like most other states, is failing at it’s basic education assignment. By 4th grade, just one-third of students are reading at or above grade level. And those students never catch up: The rate for 8th graders is almost exactly the same.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of seven Detroit students by the Public Counsel law firm out of California contends the state has failed the city’s students through disinvestment and neglect of the public schools.

There’s a lot of room to debate the accuracy of that claim, but the evidence presented in the lawsuit is jarring. It notes that in the five schools the students attend, proficiency rates in all tested subjects hover near zero.

In filing the suit, Public Counsel said, “Literacy is the cornerstone of all education. ... Absent literacy, a child has no way to obtain knowledge, communicate with the world, or participate in the institutions and activities of citizenship.”

That’s exactly what Engler is saying. The lawsuit demands that the state address school conditions and instructional techniques that are obstacles to learning.

Everyone wants the same thing. The lawsuit. The Legislature. The governor. To get there, every hour of a child’s school day has to be dedicated to reading, for as long as it takes.

Nolan Finley’s book “A Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice” is available from Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble Nook.