What Michigan Can Learn from Leading States on Early Literacy

Last month, the Literacy Center of West Michigan held its annual Community Literacy Summit, which was focused on early literacy this year. While there were many speakers and break-out sessions to learn from, one subject stood out to us: how Michigan can learn from other leading states to improve early literacy.


How Michigan is falling behind

Amber Arellano, Executive Director of the Education Trust Midwest, first stressed the importance of early literacy. Children who can read by the third grade are better prepared for success as they continue through school and even after they graduate.


Unfortunately, Michigan is one of just five states with declining achievement in literacy since 2003. While overall the US performs poorly in reading compared with other nations, individual states and communities have done better than others. For example, Massachusetts would be among the top 10 nations globally if it was a country. The same improvement could be seen in Michigan by following the leading practices of other states, said Arellano.


Training (and re-training) teachers

States with improving literacy have seen success from mentorship and re-training efforts for teachers. These initiatives offer teachers a chance to learn new ways to improve their students’ literacy, as teachers are tremendously important to student success. Students with high-performing teachers rank in the 90th percentile on standardized tests, while those with low-performing teachers fall in the 37th percentile.


Florida, for example, invested in high-quality professional development for elementary reading teachers. This training is, according to the Education Trust Midwest, “perhaps the best in the country.”


Massachusetts partnered with other states to help teachers evaluate their lessons and placed a greater emphasis on teaching through:

  • Raising certification requirements,
  • Accountability for teacher prep programs, and
  • Investing in development and retention of their best teachers.

Some states, including Tennessee, have adopted a “Train the Trainer” model, in which additional training is offered to some (but not all) teachers in one school. These re-trained teachers may then offer support, advice, and professional development to other teachers in their schools. In Tennessee, 70,000 teachers gained new skills through this model.


Higher standards for students

Raising standards and increasing accountability can lead to success for students. Too often, economically disadvantaged or racial minority students receive “watered-down” instruction. With more rigorous reading instruction and higher expectations, students are able to achieve more. Adopting higher standards that are aligned with research and data with has led to increased early literacy in Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Florida.


Reaching the most vulnerable students

A critical component to raising literacy is increasing attention to the most vulnerable students. Economically disadvantaged and minority students more often have low literacy levels by third grade. These children in high-poverty district also receive 6% less per-student funding.


Targeting investments helps raise the reading test scores for the most vulnerable students. Massachusetts, for example, increased literacy for its young African American students by utilizing funding for at-risk populations. According to Arellano, African American students in Boston are three years ahead of those in Detroit as a result. Similarly, Latino students in Florida are top-ranked nationally because of targeted funding.

What lessons from other states should Michigan follow to improve early literacy? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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