Urgent! Improving literacy in Michigan

Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Last week over 50 literacy experts from throughout the state gathered at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Center to brainstorm critical goals for a comprehensive literacy plan for Michigan.

The plan, which will be submitted for funding from the federal Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program, must address the needs of children from birth through grade 12. Workgroups focused on the literacy needs of multiple populations, including English Language Learners and alternative education students, as well as issues in teacher preparation, certification and ongoing professional development.

This effort comes at an opportune moment as the need for a more highly skilled and literate workforce is becoming urgent in order to attract better employment opportunities to the state.

The literacy level of Michigan students is a concern as reflected in the recent report by the national KIDS COUNT project at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report  sounded an alarm at the relatively small share—less than one-third of the nation’s fourth-graders—who could demonstrate proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test. Most children who cannot read by the end of the third grade continue to struggle with reading as high schoolers. They are also more likely to be retained in a grade or drop out.    

Although Michigan’s test results were not significantly different from the national average, they earned the state a ranking of 34th among the 50 states. Massachusetts, which ranked first among the states, had almost half of its students performing at or above proficient.

Massachusetts was one of the first states to develop and implement a state literacy plan to create cohesive policies to help all students achieve proficiency in reading, writing, and oral language. It’s worth noting that the very first literacy goal defined in the Massachusetts plan is to prevent the literacy achievement gap from starting. To that end a number of Early Education and Care initiatives have been launched for children, ages 0-5.

Michigan policymakers should take note of this emphasis on prevention and the importance of investing in young children and their families. Unfortunately they are dismantling such programs in their “cuts only” approach to the state budget.

— Jane Zehnder-Merrell


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