March is National Reading Month, and we mark this month by participating in Read Across America, the National Education Association’s celebration of the birthday of children’s author Dr. Seuss. I always look forward to reading in classrooms with students and, as educators, we love modeling the joy of reading alongside our students. From Green Eggs and Ham to The Places You’ll Go, these March days are fun celebrations for children of all ages. This is a great time of year to celebrate reading and also a time to reflect on the importance of all students acquiring reading skills and becoming successful readers at an early age. A famous quotation among reading teachers from an earlier age states: “Readers are made on the laps of their parents,” and illustrates the powerful role that language development and reading play from infancy in literally hardwiring the brain for learning, both for reading as well as for other subject areas. We all know that reading to and with our children is an important practice to model not only in March, but every day with all children. Every child deserves to be read to and introduced to the rich world of reading at home, at school, and within our communities. Indeed, it takes a village. We all have a responsibility, both locally, and in a broader sense, to support young people and their families in this important way.
We know quite a lot about the importance of reading acquisition for students. We know that motivating children to read is a critical factor in instilling a lifelong habit of reading and in ensuring high levels of student learning. We also know that our children who arrive to school from homes impacted by poverty and second language challenges are among those most likely to struggle with reading. Currently in the Ann Arbor Public Schools we know that 1 in 4 students arrive in our schools from homes impacted by poverty and, therefore, are more likely to need additional supports early on to achieve the goal of reading at grade level. Many of these children frequently do not benefit from early literacy experiences (think of the bedtime story) or even have books available in their homes during their early years, and as a result, they are vulnerable to fall behind the learning curve at a very early age.
While students can begin at a disadvantage, gaps in achievement are relatively narrow for kindergarten and first grade students. These gaps tend to grow as content area texts and conversations occur at grade levels. Without early and intense intervention, struggling readers can find themselves disenfranchised from multiple curriculum areas.
We know from the most current brain research that memory, emotion, and cognition are inextricably linked. Children who experience the frustration of failure and who are retained in a grade are being further handicapped in their ability to see themselves as readers and to acquire literacy skills. Rather than helping, retention will exacerbate the problem and add to the challenges that a struggling reader is likely to face.
We know the importance that reading proficiently by the end of third grade plays in the future success of all students. According to a report published in 2012 by the Education Commission of the States, “Students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of high school.” We also know the brutal reality that, according to current MEAP assessment data, approximately 30,000 –one-third of children across Michigan –are not reading at grade level by the end of their third grade year. Most discussions of this topic fail to mention the inverse correlation between rates of third grade reading proficiency and the size of state prison populations.
Recently, Michigan legislators have been exploring potential legislation, HB 5111 and a complementary bill, HB 5144, designed to help ensure all children complete 3rd grade reading at grade level. While the proposed legislation allows for exemptions of students who demonstrate proficiency on an alternative assessment, have a documented disability as stated in an Individual Educations Plan (IEP), or are a limited English proficient student enrolled in an English Language Learner (ELL) program for less than two years, HB 5111 clearly stipulates that students not earning a score of proficient on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) exam would not be allowed to enroll in fourth grade. In addition, school officials would be required to prohibit a student from enrolling for the first time in fourth grade in a school district unless they have demonstrated a score of “proficient” on the state’s 3rd grade reading assessment.
The companion bill, HB 5144, introduced shortly after the original version of HB 5111, proposes assistance for children to receive services necessary to support success in third grade if they have to repeat the year. This bill details the identification of reading programs, proposes a pilot program for up to 400 K-3 students for school year 2014-2015, and calls for processes to include early screening, notification of parents, use of intensive intervention programs such as summer school, and allowing students to retake the third grade reading assessment.
In addition, the 2014-2015 school year will include a significant change in the state’s reading assessment. While AAPS students have consistently demonstrated gains in reading achievement as assessed by the MEAP, we are likely to see a temporary decline in these rates as schools adjust to new tests. Planning for a program that responds to a student’s performance based on results from these tests seems very much like putting multiple carts before a single horse.
The pending Michigan legislation follows a pattern of approximately 14 other states and the District of Columbia that passed versions of similar legislation in 2012. Currently, 32 states plus the District of Columbia require “reading assessment or diagnosis of reading deficiency in at least one grade, P-3” (Reading/Literacy, P-3, Education Commission of the States).
The reality, however, is that the legislation currently under consideration in Michigan falls far short: it offers too little, too late for Michigan students in supporting reading proficiency. Unfortunately, the emphasis of the proposal rests heavily on retention at third grade and the prescribed supports are offered only during the repeating year. In contrast, the proposal should detail early supports for reading acquisition in the years between preschool and second grade when this reading intervention work can be more proactive, and exceedingly more effective.
Waiting until third grade to implement additional supports is far too late in the life of a child. According to report published by the Education Commission of the States, “In a meta-analysis of studies of student retention policies, the RAND Corporation found that the most successful retention policies, as measured by student outcomes, are characterized by early assessments and numerous interventions.” (Third Grade Literacy Policies: Identification, Intervention, Retention, March, 2012, p. 3)
We know from the research and from our own experience in the Ann Arbor Public Schools that preschool and early elementary intervention are our most powerful tools. We have a track record of success in our own K-2 Reading Intervention program. Daily and extra instruction by a highly trained reading specialist that supports assessment to drive classroom instruction has made a profound difference for many of our readers.
We absolutely support that the currently proposed Michigan legislation seeks to highlight the importance of early literacy development as an important priority for all of us in Michigan. In that the Michigan legislation, in its current form, focuses on 3rd grade retention, fails to clearly establish earlier benchmarks and a continuum of supports for early literacy (PreK-2), and provides no additional funding to support desperately needed instructional interventions for students who struggle to read on par by third grade. Thus the Michigan legislation more likely resembles another March phenomena, March Madness, rather than an effective pathway to improving literacy in Michigan.
Effective legislation designed to ensure high levels of early reading are characterized by an emphasis on early prevention as opposed to retention. Examples of this kind of legislation currently exist in states across the country. One such example is the Colorado READ Act, which features early identification of students struggling with reading challenges, focuses on students identified as “having a significant reading deficiency,” articulates requirements for parent communication and ensures additional funding critical to support early and intensive intervention. Further, 15 states currently require supplemental instruction during regular school hours and five states currently require additional instruction outside of regular school hours, including after school and Saturday school.
(More information on characteristics of various P-3 literacy legislative efforts across the United States can be found at http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/01/03/47/10347.)
If all students reading on grade level is our legitimate goal — and it absolutely must be — then we must get about the business of articulating a full and robust plan for supporting students who struggle with reading. We must get ahead of this unfortunate reality in Michigan by supporting our children through prevention and early intervention strategies, not through retention after the fact. We must fund the additional early reading interventions so desperately needed by one-third of our children. And we must agree that third grade is too late to bring out the ‘good stuff’ to support our children; we must not withhold our intensive work on reading until a child is nearing his or her tenth birthday. Third grade is far too late, and the legislation as it is currently written, offers far too little.
With 32 states and the District of Columbia ahead of us, Michigan is coming somewhat late to this conversation around early literacy legislation, and so, all the more, we should aim to pattern our work after states that have leveraged legislative tools and state resources to make a positive and profound difference for a generation of students. Rather than secure the easy headline, playing ‘gotcha’ with our most disadvantaged children, we must work across Michigan to choose the higher road, one characterized by the early supports necessary to achieve the high levels of reading that Michigan students deserve.
We applaud the impulse of legislators in drawing attention to this issue, as currently a gap exists in reading performance. There is another literacy gap emerging. It is a gap between our legislature’s identification of this problem and their understanding of the clearly established research regarding the effectiveness of early intervention and the lack of effectiveness and even pernicious harm that can occur as a result of retention.
Governor Snyder’s mantra, Reinventing Michigan: Getting It Right. Getting It Done. proves particularly appropriate to our continuing discussion of ensuring quality early literacy education across our great state. We must get it right, for our children. We must lead by providing and requiring appropriate supports for our children, and for their teachers, classrooms, parents, and school systems. We must intervene early and often on behalf of our children, to ensure high levels of literacy. Achieving high rates of early literacy must become a collective priority in Michigan. Let’s get it right, and let’s get it done.
Dr. Jeanice Swift, Superintendent of Schools, Ann Arbor Public Schools
and Mr. Chuck Hatt, Principal, Burns Park Elementary School