Governor on right track with 3rd-grade reading plan

Michigan started the conversation about third-grade reading levels on a pretty sour note last year, when legislators debated a hard do-not-pass requirement for kids who weren’t making the cut.

Thankfully, the conversation has matured. Now, Gov. Rick Snyder is proposing a broad suite of reforms to boost third-grade reading, and his focus is where it belongs: on teaching, support, curriculum and assessment. The price tag is $48 million — enough to show Michigan is serious about the problem.

The other numbers driving this effort are staggering. About 31 percent of Michigan’s third-graders cannot pass the National Assessment of Education reading test, and under bills introduced by the Republican majority in last year’s legislative session, nearly all of them would be held back.

But blaming the kids — rather than holding schools accountable and investing in the teacher training needed to produce better outcomes — is a shortsighted policy imperative.

The governor’s approach is better.

He would start early, with classes for parents who are doing the crucial work with kids before they even get to school. He would also expand preschool opportunities and early in-home intervention for low-income children. Kindergartners would be assessed when they arrive at school to see where their reading levels are.

The governor’s plan also would enhance teacher training and assessment, and invest in literacy coaches — aides trained specially to boost reading levels — for Michigan schools.

An oversight commission outside of state government would make sure goals are set and met.

What’s notable about the governor’s plan is its holistic approach. He’s not just looking to make teachers and schools perform better; he’s also focused on boosting families’ abilities to get kids ready for school when they get there.

The stakes here are immeasurably high. Brain research performed in the late 1990s helped confirm that the most important skills are needed by age 9, right around the third grade, for reading skills to take off. If kids don’t get it by then, the chances that they’ll ever pick it up plummet appreciably.

And there’s the dramatic shift in instruction that comes after third grade. Schools stop focusing as much on reading skills and begin integrating reading into other, higher-level instruction.

Snyder announced his plans for third-grade reading without so much as a whisper about last year’s foolish dalliance with a get-tough approach that left little room for developmental investment.

But that doesn’t mean the Legislature has forgotten.

One of the authors of last year’s bills, Rep. Amanda Price, R-Holland, recently named third-grade reading as one of her top priorities for 2015. Her bill would have seen 35,000 third-graders held back last year — and it would have provided no new money to tackle the problems that underlie low reading scores.

The governor has the right idea, and his approach should prevail over the Legislature’s shortsightedness.

This editorial originally was published in the March 2 edition of the Detroit Free Press.

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