October 14, 2016 – Last week, Governor Snyder signed into law a new measure aimed to improve literacy by third grade. We’ve all heard it before – the critical importance of learning to read in the early grades and Michigan’s ongoing challenge with this important benchmark with 37% of kids unable to read at a basic level and 71% not reading proficiently by the end of third grade – statistics that are far worse for students of color and students facing other learning and life challenges.
Michigan’s Children played a unique and specific role in the conversation, focused primarily on how this bill might impact students whose parents also face their own challenges – whether they are related to parents’ illiteracy, language barriers, parental mental health challenges, housing instability, or work schedules that make parents literally unavailable to support their children’s reading struggles. Through our advocacy efforts, we were glad to see in the final law the following provisions included.
- The law includes other caregivers to help support students with “read at home plans,” which are designed to supplement school-based learning with a home-based plan. The original language of the bill did not include other caregivers, and we are glad they were included as they could be and often are critical partners in education such as afterschool providers, neighbors, church members, or other family members who could be implementing a read at home plan when a parent may be unable to.
- The law also requires schools to document efforts to engage parents and whether or not those efforts are successful. This as an opportunity to get a better handle on the barriers currently in place that make it challenging for schools to better partner with parents. This could include all of the issues previously laid out around parental literacy, language, ability to be home to support their children’s read at home plans, and other factors. Whatever the issues, understanding them are essential to then figure out how to address them. For example, if a significant barrier around engaging parents are parents’ own literacy challenges, then an opportunity to address that systematically would be to increase access to adult basic education.
While Michigan’s Children was ultimately supportive of the final bill due to these shifts around parental engagement, things we worked specifically on, we know that this is just one step to improve literacy, which will also require a significant resource investment. I was personally glad to see my own state legislator – Rep. Adam Zemke who worked very hard on the third grade reading bill – bring up a potential inequity in the way parents are allowed to request a good cause exemption to not retain their child who may be behind in reading. We know that parents will advocate for their children as best they can, but some families may not have the capacity or time to do so, thus the possibility for some groups of kids to more likely be held back (like kids in foster care) while others are promoted. Rep. Zemke pushed to allow other adults to be able to request exemptions for students besides their parents, an amendment that was ultimately not included but would’ve made the law stronger.
As more information is gleaned from the implementation of the third grade reading law, Michigan’s Children will be monitoring the equity impact and the barriers that schools identify with parental engagement. And we will continue to advocate for a variety of supports to ensure that literacy needs are met for children that span beyond the classroom based on these identified barriers as well as research on what works. This also means making sure that necessary interventions are adequately funded. As candidates are pounding the pavement over the next few weeks, be sure to talk to them about the importance of early literacy and what you think are critically important to move the dime – things like family literacy, high quality child care to prepare kids before they reach kindergarten, and high quality afterschool and summer programs that can reduce the literacy gap through the early grades and beyond.
– Mina Hong