Michigan children fall further behind in reading literacy

Continued slide in education represents greater impediment to Detroit’s comeback than crime, poverty.

By Jack Lessenberry / The Blade
Sat, 30 Nov 2019 05:00:00 GMT

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DETROIT — Here’s something that may be the biggest problem in the way of Detroit ever making a truly successful comeback: No, it’s not crime, or urban blight, or even poverty.

It’s that the children in its schools cannot read.

Cannot read well enough, that is, to pass a state reading test given to all Michigan third-graders. Third grade is considered the most important by educators, because that’s the last year teachers concentrate on teaching them how to read.

After that, the children are expected to “read to learn,” to use their reading skills to study and learn knowledge.

If they don’t read well enough to do that, they are essentially doomed to falling further and further behind.

Michigan as a whole, it should be noted, is not doing well in reading proficiency. Statewide, a majority — almost 55 percent — of Michigan third graders were less than adequate this year.

However, a study by Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, found last year that third-grade literacy levels were getting worse in Michigan than in any of the other 10 states it examined. That’s possibly because state government has reduced aid to education and weakened teacher benefits, causing many talented teachers to leave the profession.

Proposal A, the formula for funding education Michigan adopted in 1994, is now widely acknowledged to need massive overhauling, and some believe the rise of charter schools has diluted resources.

But if Michigan as a whole has problems with literacy, the situation in Detroit is so bad they may need a new adjective to describe it. This year, a mind-numbing 88.1 percent of third-graders failed to demonstrate reading proficiency on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress. What’s more stunning is this:

What’s now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District issued a news release celebrating this — because the year before was slightly worse. Nearly 89 percent couldn’t read then.

“These results demonstrate encouraging signs of improvement,” a news release issued by the schools said. “These positive results are a sign of things to come in all our schools,” said Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s superintendent of schools.

While it would be easy to think an administration that presides over a system where so many children can’t read has to be a horrendous failure, that’s not the case here. In fact, most community and education leaders praise Mr. Vitti, who became superintendent in May, 2017 after Detroit’s public schools emerged from bankruptcy and years of it having been run by state-appointed emergency managers.

For the first time in decades, enrollment, now 51,979, is creeping up, though it is less than one-third what is was in 2000.

Most Detroit children of school age go to charter schools, schools of choice in the suburbs, or private schools for the few whose parents can afford them.

Detroit public school children did show considerable improvement by the eighth grade, though three-quarters of them still were less than proficient. But 90 percent of the sixth-graders failed.

And the third-grade reading problem will take on a new dimension next May, when a new law will kick in that requires schools to hold back or “flunk” third graders whose reading is more than one year behind where it ought to be.

The law makes some exceptions, such as for children of recent immigrants, and some parents may be able to talk administrators out of failing their children. But it will create a huge bottleneck. Opinion among education experts is divided as to whether the “read or flunk” law is a good thing. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said she would like to “get rid” of the law.

However, the GOP-controlled Legislature is unlikely to go along. A Michigan State University team estimates this means something like 5,000 children will be held back statewide.

But no one really knows.

Nor is it clear how Detroit can drastically improve reading performance. Various experiments with new curriculums have been or are being tried, with mixed results.

Tom Watkins, who was state superintendent of schools from 2001-2005, said, “How do you best improve third-grade reading?

“Start reading to your child and allow them to enjoy the joy of reading long before third grade,” long before kindergarten, Mr. Watkins said.

“The best investment we can make as a state and country is high-quality preschool experiences for our youth,” yet we aren’t doing that, he complained, adding, “we say we value education and then disinvest in it. We pay child-care workers and pre-K workers lousy wages, and then punishing the child and school by flunking them.”

What no one talks much about is, the reality is that most Detroit public school children are from poor, single parent families. They do not have parents who have the time and inclination to read to them.

Some are in even worse circumstances. “How do you teach a child whose mother is a hooker, and who lives in the back seat of her car?” a despairing charter school teacher asked me once.

In some places, turning schools into after-hours study halls and community centers has seemed to help.

But what is clear is unless children learn how to read well, they, and their communities, now have little chance of a successful future.

Why our leaders don’t make this a higher priority is hard to say.

Jack Lessenberry is a former Blade national editor. He can be reached by email at omblade@aol.com.