Editorial: Memo to schools: Reading is a must

The Detroit News

After several years of debating the merits of more early literacy intervention in schools, Michigan lawmakers finally got something passed. It’s not perfect legislation, but there is broad consensus that the new framework could make a significant difference in ensuring more children don’t leave elementary school without adequate reading skills.

The legislation seeks to end “social promotion” of students who can’t read sufficiently by third grade. And there are many avenues for exemptions in the bill—perhaps too many—so it’s not as if every student who isn’t proficient will be held back. Students who are proficient in other subjects such as math could still enter the fourth grade, while catching up in their reading coursework.

That seems like a reasonable compromise. Parents are also given a lot of leeway in what choice they wish to make about their child’s grade advancement. But parents should understand it’s of no benefit to their children if they enter fourth grade without being able to read. Teachers and principals should underscore this, too.

While reading should be the No. 1 priority for all early learners, too many Michigan children in public schools aren’t proficient in reading by the time they complete third grade—an important target for all students. If children can’t read by then, it’s much harder for them to catch up the rest of their academic career. They are also much more likely to drop out before graduation.

This bill, which Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign, offers schools a detailed process for handling these cases, starting in kindergarten.

“If districts take it seriously, it could have a real impact in academic achievement all over the state,” says Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project.

Similar laws have posted results in other states that have implemented them, which is encouraging for Michigan students. Naeyaert points to Florida, which saw non-proficiency cut in half after five years of their revamped law.

That kind of success is needed in Michigan. About 46 percent of third-graders were proficient in English on the 2016 M-STEP standardized test; 50 percent were proficient last year.

Nationally, Michigan is in the bottom 10 states for 4th grade reading proficiency. In some Michigan districts, including in Detroit, the proficiency rates barely register.

The bill’s passage comes one week after a California public interest law firm filed suit in federal court, charging that Detroit students have been denied their right of access to literacy. As part of the reading bill, Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, had wanted to allow lawsuits against school districts that have third graders who can’t read, forcing increased spending to teach them. That amendment failed.

This new bill would ideally prevent such extreme examples of illiteracy in Michigan schools going forward. Parents should demand basic results from their schools, but pushing school funding matters to the courts usually skirts fixing core problems. It’s often a matter of how schools allocate money that makes the most difference.

As Michigan seeks to increase its academic performance and faces more competition from other states, getting reading right has to be at the top of the to-do list.

If schools aren’t giving their young students this fundamental skill, nothing else matters.