Is Michigan’s big bet on third-grade reading too small to make a difference?

February 14, 2020

Michigan is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to improve literacy as part of its third-grade reading law but the architects of the law now say that’s not enough money.

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Koby Levin of Chalkbeat quoted professor Nell K. Duke in his report on Michigan’s “read by grade three” law. Passed in 2016 in response to stagnant third-grade reading scores, it requires schools hold back third-graders who fall too far behind in reading.

Florida and New York City invested heavily in strengthening instruction for struggling readers when they passed their own third-grade reading policies and both saw their scores improve but Michigan, where fewer than half of students are proficient in reading, has spent much less proportionally than those places on new literacy policies.

Levin reports that over the last five years, Michigan spent roughly $192 million on policies targeting early literacy, from literacy coaches for teachers to summer school for struggling readers. That may sound like a lot of money, but it only adds up to $89 per student per year divided among Michigan’s 430,000 students in grades K-3. By contrast, Florida spends about $154 on early literacy per K-3 student per year, and it has a lower poverty rate for young children than Michigan.

“I think it’s enough to make a dent, but not enough to get us where we need to be,” said Nell Duke. A lack of funding has become an issue in other states experimenting with third-grade reading laws. Duke has argued that the money spent on holding kids back would be better spent on evidence-based efforts to improve literacy.

For instance, Michigan has already spent $50.5 million on the literacy coaches, but Duke pointed to a study showing that this strategy is effective when there’s one coach for every 14 teachers. “We are nowhere near a 1 to 14 coach-to-teacher ratio in the state,” she said.

For years, the state instructed districts to spend additional money on third-grade reading. With students set to be retained for the first time this year, districts may be diverting funds from other programs to help students avoid being retained.
  

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