Third grade reading rule is not working
Opinion piece originally published in The Detroit News. March 2, 2023.
A rule that keeps third graders from advancing to the next grade if they don’t pass a standardized reading test is hopefully on its way to being revoked in the Legislature.
If children are struggling to read — and in Michigan, many, many children are struggling to read — is removing the retention rule that holds learners who are struggling to read from being promoted to the fourth grade a good thing?
Yes. And here’s why: When you don’t consult the public when creating public policy, it doesn’t work. The retention rule didn’t heed the wisdom of educators, parents and other child advocates. So, while well intended, it was poorly conceived.
Michiganians who are closest to kids and those who know how learning and child development happens told us from the start that literacy gaps begin before a child enters his first classroom, the gaps grow every year unless adequate supports are provided, and that poverty has a big impact on all of this.
In 2016, when the reading law was passed, only 44% of Michigan third graders were reading at grade level. We all knew something had to be done. But missing that crucial step of community consultation on the front end, we are now watching the law unravel after years have passed and dollars spent with little progress made.
Accountability is a term you will often hear bandied about in education reform. It has several meanings. One, it means that there should be a standard yardstick of achievement that students, teachers and administrators are measured against. Two, there needs to be a transparent and easy way to understand where folks are landing on that yardstick. And three, accountability in its best form means that we are all accountable to each other. Whether we are students, teachers, principals, parents, policymakers, business leaders or neighbors, we live and give for the collective well-being of our society.
Yet accountability in practice often feels like a hammer that turns everything into a nail. For example, keeping a child in third grade if they don’t pass a standardized reading test. The reality is that holding back a child doesn’t help, it hurts.
All policy change isn’t good policy change. Here’s what we know:
- Community members must be consulted. The people who will be most impacted by a policy have the on-the-ground insights needed to shape smart policy and plans to effectively implement it.
- We can’t afford to be inequitable. Child literacy is one of many examples — if we don’t invest more in kids who have the least, we’re not giving them the footing they need for the climb ahead.
- Swap the “stick” for the “carrot.” We have to understand that what may look like an individual falling short is often actually the human impact of a system falling short. When a nine-year-old is struggling with reading, it’s unlikely that the issue is not his (or his teacher’s) work ethic; rather, it is that there are insufficient social supports surrounding him.
Michigan must repeal the retention rule in the third grade reading law. But we’ve also got to learn its lesson. The turmoil caused by this policy can be avoided in the future, saving time, energy, money, and most of all, our children’s future. People most impacted by policy need to inform it on the front end. The practice is the solution.