As Michigan lawmakers wrangle over the question of whether it’s a good idea to require schools to hold-back 3rd graders that are not proficient in reading, maybe it’s time they examine another question: Why are these students unable to read at grade level in the first place? Attempting to fix a problem without examining its causes and correlations, is a strong indicator of the incompetency of the state’s education policy makers.
While Republican leadership is fast to blame public school teachers and administrators for all that ails our educational system, it is curious that it was a Republican, Rep. Amanda Price, that sponsored the hold-back legislation (HB-5111) — which begs the question: If teachers are to blame, how can repeating a grade help?
Answer: It’s not the teachers that are to blame.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation just released a Kids Count Snapshot report that found a strong correlation between poverty and the compromised reading level of Michigan students. Fully 69 percent of 4th grade children from lower-income families are not proficient readers, and that’s up by a percentage point from the previous measure in 2003. Across all grade levels, 81 percent of Michigan’s low-income kids are not proficient, compared to 56 percent of those from households with a higher income. Education professionals focus on 3rd grade skills specifically because research indicates that proficiency at that age is critical to future development and academic success.
The Michigan Dashboard reports, (also from the Annie E. Casey Foundation), that 25 percent of the state’s children live in poverty, compared to 14 percent in the year 2000. Poverty is defined as a family of four living on less than $22,811 a year — the Kids Count study examined more “lower-income” households, including those struggling above the poverty line.
There is a nationwide push to improve 3rd grade reading levels. The Campaign for Grade Level Reading, an organization focused on elementary school reading success, reports that nationally two-thirds of 4th graders are falling behind in reading.
The numbers are frighteningly high.
But, is the plan to repeat a grade even viable? In Michigan, it is estimated that the annual cost would be around $50 million to hold-back about 39,000 3rd graders found deficient. Grand Rapids Schools alone report the proposed legislation would impact 52 percent of its 3rd graders.
What do the experts think of the hold-back laws that are sweeping the nation’s Republican-led legislatures? An article in The Atlantic quotes Educational Psychologist David Berliner, of Arizona State University, who characterized the idea thus:
“It seems like legislators are absolutely ignorant of the research, and the research is amazingly consistent that holding kids back is detrimental. Everybody supports the idea that if a student isn’t reading well in third grade that it’s a signal that the child needs help. If you hold them back, you’re going to spend roughly another $10,000 per child for an extra year of schooling. If you spread out that $10,000 over the fourth and fifth grades for extra tutoring, in the long run you’re going to get a better outcome.”
Holding-back 3rd graders is not only potentially bad for the students, but it’s bad fiscal policy. GOP initiatives like this are a hallmark of their poor long-term planning — all for the gratification of offering broad corporate tax cuts that are not lifting the state’s economy, but are pushing even more families into poverty.
Earlier today the Michigan Senate Finance Committee approved SB-402, legislation for a reduction of the state’s income tax. The tax would fall from 4.25 to 3.9 percent over a three-year period as a means for lawmakers to spend the nearly $1 billion in “surplus” created by taxing pensions, cutting school funding, and eliminating the earned income tax credit for lower-income households. Because Michigan has a flat tax, lowering it will benefit primarily the wealthy, leaving pennies for those most in need, or as Gov. Snyder called them in his State of State address: “hard-working folk”.
Those “folk” would be better served by a restoration of the earned income credit and school funding, yet conservative leaders continue casting-about for alternative explanations for the negative fallout from their skeletal education budgets. In fact, Michigan’s schools are so underfunded, many of them cannot afford sufficient bandwidth to support the switch to electronic testing. The Detroit News reports that only 62 percent have the recommended capacity to participate fully in the roll-out of online testing in the Spring of 2015. Another 14 percent barely meet the minimum level requirements and may have to test students in small batches, with the remaining schools stuck with pencil and paper. Many of Michigan’s schools are operating with dated technology which they are unable to upgrade under the squeezed budgets of the Snyder administration.
The Michigan Dashboard reports that it’s not just schools being left behind. While high-speed broadband is available at a rate of 98 percent across the state, only 67 percent of households are accessing it.
It is clear Michigan has plenty of room for improvement, and the problem is much bigger than 39,000 nine-year olds having trouble reading — yet Republicans continue to just rearrange the deck chairs.