Recently I ran across this headline on the Education Trust/Midwest website:
The article, which was from 2018, went on to detail the crisis in early reading in Michigan, where scores for proficiency in 3rd grade reading fell from 50% proficient in 2015 to 44% proficient by 2017. Third grade is often the line in the sand for reading: if students aren’t on grade level by the end of grade three, research indicates that they are likely to lag behind their peers for the rest of their academic career and struggle to succeed in other subjects which require more and more reading to acquire information. Some states hold students back if they are not reading on grade level by the end of grade 3. Michigan is one such state, so proficiency is very, very important.
People from various parts of Michigan’s educational system commented on the severity of the problem, especially the large number of children in poverty and children of color who would be facing retention, but nearly all thought the cause was the same: Michigan wasn’t spending enough money on early reading programs. When you break down that $80 million in funding over all the classrooms in grades K-3 in Michigan, it works out to a fairly small amount per classroom. But really, money might not be the root of the problem. In fact, with this sort of persistent disconnect between the classroom and the test, I’d say there are definitely other factors in play. Some possibilities:
- It might not be the money per se, but how the money is apportioned. Michigan gave the same amount of early literacy money to every school district on a per-classroom basis. This is equal, but not equitable. Funds need to go to areas where the need is greatest; districts where reading scores are really tanking and where large numbers of students will be retained if they don’t achieve proficiency should receive the most funds. Think of it this way: if you had $9000 to give to 20 people, 15 needing a $250 cavity filled and 5 needing a $900 root canal, and you divided the money equally, each would get $450. That’s a nice amount of money, but those needing root canal would still not have enough to stop their tooth pain while those needing a filling would have far more than they needed. Fund the root canals first, then assess everyone else’s need and fund that. This makes sense for a lot of reasons, most notably because the highest gains are usually experienced by the groups who are the lowest. That’s the most bang for your buck, right there.
- Alignment of classroom activities to the M-Step, Michigan’s state test, may not be present. Kids need ample time before the test to practice what’s on the test in the same way it appears on the test (context) and at the same level of rigor (cognitive demand). M-Step is an online test, which requires yet another type of practice so students can navigate the test efficiently and correctly. What are students actually being asked to do in the classroom?
- Phonics instruction is critical to reading. The entry point to cracking the code of writing is not sight, but sound. If teachers aren’t teaching sound-letter correspondence, the ability to decode words will suffer, especially as students move up the grades and encounter more and more unfamiliar words. This backed by a lot of scientific research. Sorry, Whole Language.
- Access to books is often inequitable, with poorer districts having far fewer books in their libraries and classrooms. Wealthier districts and schools tend to have both extensive school libraries and well-stocked classroom libraries that offer kids ample opportunity to encounter new and interesting books.
- Environmental conditions can be a powerful bar to learning. The recent case against the Detroit Schools demonstrated the effect crumbling buildings with broken heat/air and vermin have on student outcomes.
- A lack of qualified teachers is going to undermine even the most well-funded program. You can pour money into a system but if there aren’t enough bodies in classrooms, or if the teachers in the classrooms aren’t fully certified, or if they’re very inexperienced (or worse — incompetent), you’re not likely to see the results you’re hoping for. One thing the article cited was a lack of reading specialists in the state, which is a problem, but not as much a problem as ensuring there are competent, experienced, well-trained teachers in every classroom. No specialist working with kids once or twice a week can make up for the day-to-day impact of a skillful classroom teacher.
I looked up Michigan’s progress in 3rd grade reading since the article was written. In 2018, 44.4% of 3rd graders were proficient; an increase of 0.3%. In 2019, 3rd grade proficiency in reading rose to 45.1%. These are very modest gains and statewide scores still haven’t recovered to the 2015 level of 50% proficient but that’s really not the whole picture. Some schools in districts such as East Grand Rapids, showed 76% proficiency in 3rd grade literacy, while others like Detroit had 72 elementaries whose proficiency rate was 20% or below; that’s four out of five kids who aren’t reading at grade level. In some schools, the percent proficient was 5%. That’s 95% of third graders not reading on level.
Cavities and root canals. Where would you send your money?