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MLPP: "Read or Flunk" Won't Solve MI Education Crisis

PHOTO: Educators say third grade is the critical time when students move from learning to read to reading to learn. Some children's advocates don't think a law requiring third-graders to be held back if they don't read proficiently is the answer to Michigan's current education problems. Photo credit: jdurham/morguefile.com.
PHOTO: Educators say third grade is the critical time when students move from learning to read to reading to learn. Some children's advocates don't think a law requiring third-graders to be held back if they don't read proficiently is the answer to Michigan's current education problems. Photo credit: jdurham/morguefile.com.
July 30, 2014

LANSING, Mich. - Too many Michigan fourth-graders aren't making the grade when it comes to reading, but should struggling students be required by law to repeat third grade?

The latest Kids Count data ranks the state 37th in the nation for the number of fourth-graders reading at grade level, and some state lawmakers see that as support for a package of so-called "mandatory retention" bills. But Jane Zehnder-Merrell, Kids Count director for the Michigan League for Public Policy, said making children repeat third grade is treating the symptom, not the cause.

"We can't wait for kids to fail and then to address the problem," she said, "We need to put in the interventions in that 0-to-3 group, to make sure that kids have what they need in that developmental phase before they ever get to preschool."

Zehnder-Merrell said tackling this problem will require the state to take a long look at the many issues that play into academic success, including how to bring down Michigan's rising child poverty rate, strengthen the child-care system for low-income families and reinvest in the K-12 system.

Zehnder-Merrell said she's concerned the legislation would unfairly target low-income communities, where obstacles to learning are high and support for families may be low.

"To put this burden on those families without adding any kind of resources is not helpful," she said. "In fact, it puts further stresses on those communities and those schools which will be disproportionately affected."

Last year, about four in 10 Michigan third-graders would have been held back under the guidelines in the proposed legislation. That's more than 40,000 students repeating third grade, compared with the roughly 1,000 who are typically held back. Research has shown that retention can increase the likelihood of high-school dropout.

Michigan Kids Count data is online at datacenter.kidscount.org. Details of the legislation (HB 5111 and HB 5144) is online at legislature.mi.gov.

Mona Shand, Public News Service - MI