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Published in Economic Development

Business-backed reading standards held up in Legislature

BY Sunday, May 15, 2016 10:54am

West Michigan’s business community says it has a vested interest in how well third-graders can read. 

Consider it the early stages of what amounts to a decades-long effort to maintain an educated workforce across the state.

That is why the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has been actively involved in passing a bill sponsored by State Rep. Amanda Price, R-Holland, that seeks to improve third-grade reading proficiency among Michigan students. 

Price, who chairs the House Education Committee, introduced HB 4822 last year when a governor-appointed workgroup found two-thirds of Michigan students fail to demonstrate third-grade reading levels on standardized tests. For more than a decade, reading proficiency has steadily declined among Michigan students, “while almost every other state has improved,” the group found.

Education experts often point out that up until third grade, students are learning to read and after fourth grade, they read to learn. The governor’s workgroup also points out that third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time.

Under Price’s proposal, students would not be able to enroll in fourth grade starting in 2019 if their state reading scores are more than a grade behind. The bill includes exemptions for those with disabilities, a limited understanding of English or if they have previously been held back after at least two years of intervention.

But after the House passed Price’s bill 57-48 in October, the measure was revised in the Senate to allow for more exemptions that would prevent a child from being held back a grade. A debate has emerged over the extent of parental involvement versus the need to retain students if they are not reading at grade level.

Price and her supporters say the Senate version would be a continuation of a trend that has placed Michigan among the worst states in the nation for reading proficiency. Opponents, including the, say they are opposed to mandates that hold students back.

After the House failed to pass the Senate’s amendments in March, legislative leaders convened a conference committee to resolve differences, a tactic more commonly used in budget deliberations. 

Price said the committee — made up of four Republicans and two Democrats from both chambers — has yet to meet.

“I’m concerned we’re not really going to be addressing the needs of the kids,” Price told MiBiz, referring to the exemptions added by the Senate. 

Those include exemptions for students new to a district who didn’t receive intervention at a prior school. It would also exempt students if a principal and teacher agree they are ready for fourth grade or if a superintendent allows the student to move forward.

“Schools can already do a lot of what is detailed in the bill,” Price said, such as perform assessments on students and inform parents. “The discussion around this unfortunately has fallen to the retention piece rather than focusing on this as a way to really improve literacy.”

The criticism that Price’s bill intervenes with retaining students rather than allowing parents to get involved is a “big misunderstood aspect” of the bill, she said. From kindergarten through third grade, Price says students would be assessed three times a year if they are falling behind on literacy. If they are not at grade-level reading, they would be given individual reading plans by the teacher, and the bill also calls for a “parental notification piece” at each assessment, Price said.

“That’s 12 times parents will be involved in the child’s reading plan. To me, that is a lot of information and I hope the parents then really engage,” Price said.

The Senate passed its version 31-6 in March. According to a report in MLive, Sen. Phil Pavlov, a Republican from St. Clair Township who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said of the amendments: “There’s more opportunities to involve parents in the process. I think one of the key things that we wanted to make sure happened is that we didn’t get a top-down state mandate as it related to retention, that we envisioned engaging parents in it.”

A 'LONG-TERM APPROACH'

Allie Bush, director of government affairs for the Grand Rapids chamber, said her group has been supportive of Price’s version of the bill. She said work on the issue has dated back to 2013.

“We want the bill to maintain the emphasis on the importance of changing the direction we’ve been going,” Bush said. “We look at education and workforce development at the scale of early childhood through retraining our existing workforce. Our businesses need individuals with skills right now. We also know our members are dedicated to ensure the next generation is prepared for what the future looks like.

“While we have different philosophies on getting there, I’m confident the House and Senate will come to an agreement that will work.”

Price said those in the business community “have been great advocates and supporters of mine” through the process. 

“The business community has taken a long-term approach to this,” she said.

Patricia Edwards, a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University and author of multiple books on children’s literacy, agrees that early intervention efforts can lead to a more educated workforce.

But she is concerned about the resources that are directed at students earlier and outside of class, as well as “equity issues” that make early development more of a challenge for some students.

“We need to look at the source of the problem, rather than just the problem,” Edwards said. “We can turn around literacy learning by making people accountable both ways. We talk about teacher accountability, but we also need parental and community accountability.”

She added that resources could be directed to help understand these underlying issues.

“I do think business people need to look at that and put some strategies in place,” Edwards said.

Bush said the chamber members have been “long-time supporters” of early childhood programs, including the Great Start Readiness Program, a state-funded preschool program for children who may be at risk educationally.

“By starting earlier, the hope is that we can ensure they’re all-that-more prepared before they do get into kindergarten,” she said.

'HIGH RHETORIC, LOW PRACTICE'

But Edwards at MSU believes there isn’t enough being done early on. She says lawmakers’ debate over retaining students is really just an argument above a deeper problem. She advocates for a “demographic profile” that helps school districts better understand the environments that produce students.

“Legislators are arguing after the fact,” she said. “We need to do more work before the children come to school. I think we’re always going to be fussing about this until we go to the root of the cause.”

Edwards, who has traveled the country as a consultant for school districts for decades and has an extensive resume on education issues, says most teacher preparation programs don’t really prepare teachers to deal with parents.

“At most schools, parental involvement is high rhetoric, low practice,” she said, because families come from so many different backgrounds. Retaining students doesn’t mean students won’t continue to struggle, she said, but advocating “parental involvement” isn’t necessarily a panacea, either.

“Schools in America were built on children coming from strong families, but lots of children aren’t coming from the kind of families that sometimes schools think they are,” Edwards said.

Price acknowledged “the whole point of this legislation” is to intervene with students when they’re younger, in kindergarten or first grade, to avoid holding back students. The two chambers appear to agree on that aspect, but are hung up over retaining students.

“We don’t want to retain kids,” Price said, “but we also want them to read.” 

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