A program aimed at helping young students gain literacy skills is making news because of a new law in Michigan, which requires some third graders to be held back if they’re not reading at grade level, but the law isn’t why teachers have backed the program enthusiastically, The Center for Michigan reports in Bridge Magazine.
Educators in the Reading Now Network in West Michigan have known for years that how well children read in third grade predicts their success in the rest of their school career. For example, students who aren’t reading at grade level by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate on time, which typically means smaller paychecks throughout their lifetimes.
These findings are based entirely on correlative studies, of course, as just about all education research is, and there are no controls. That makes it scientifically impossible to say something like, “Third-grade reading skills cause students to be more successful.” But we can say, good reading skills don’t cause students to be less successful, either.
More than 30 states plus the District of Columbia therefore have policies for reading proficiency that target third-grade reading, and more than a dozen states, now including Michigan, can retain third graders who don’t demonstrate proficiency in reading.
Other studies, though, find that holding kids back in elementary grades—failing to “socially promote” them based on their chronological age and failing to keep them with their age-group peers—may lead to effects that ultimately hurt kids in areas of their lives that don’t involve reading. Education policy is a tough nut to crack, since we can’t really “experiment” on kids, placing them in potentially harmful treatment or control groups. So policymakers and lawmakers do what they can.
And so far, data from the Reading Now Network in about a dozen school districts is giving school leaders a good feeling about the benefits of putting an early spotlight on literacy.
During a 90- to 120-minute teaching block every morning, teachers devote time to large-group, small-group, and one-on-one instruction—all about reading. Teachers also look at a lot of data, which can track the reading proficiency of each student, and they share what works with teachers at other schools in the network.
What has worked in improving the reading scores for students at network schools is a teacher who focuses on reading and talks about what students have read, with support from school administrators and staff. There’s no magic trick here. No flashy, attention-grabbing clickbait headline. Just reading.
This focus on reading, whether it be fiction or fact, has a ripple effect. It not only builds strong leadership in school buildings, but it also conveys the message to community members that educators refuse to give up on any student and imparts an enjoyment of learning to students, which helps them learn material in other content areas.
“It doesn’t take any more money,” said Kent Independent School District Superintendent Karen McPhee. “It does take time, leadership, a laser-like focus, and energy. But you and your school can do this, and when you do, this is the magic you’ll create.”
School leaders still want to look at more data from across the state and from other states. “While we applaud efforts to improve literacy levels, Michigan’s early literacy performance continues to stagnate,” Bridge Magazine quoted Amber Arellano, executive director of Michigan-based Education Trust-Midwest, as saying. “Clearly, leaders need to take a closer look at the strategies here compared to other states, especially those states producing far higher levels of achievement and improvement than Michigan.”
But at Lakeshore Elementary in Holland, the town where Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos grew up, Principal Jens Milobinski gives students a standard greeting as they leave for the day: “Don’t forget to read 20 minutes.” The National Blue Ribbon school, which has about half its students eligible for free or reduced-price meals and about a quarter of them learning English as a second language, also provides overnight book loans and “word walls” in the classrooms.
Teachers at the school invest personally in the reading effort. Mr Milobinski told Bridge that when one teacher found out a student’s parents wouldn’t be reading to the child over the holiday break, she asked if she could call daily and read with the child over the phone. Every day, they traded paragraphs on the calls, which lasted about 45 minutes each.