'Third Grade Guarantee' Laws Give States a Great Opportunity

'Third Grade Guarantee' Laws Give States a Great Opportunity
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Our national literacy statistics are staggering and concerning – as are the well-documented social and economic ramifications of a country in which twenty percent of adults read below the level needed to earn a living wage.  

Literacy is a known and complex issue with lots of money and earnest attention working towards fixing the problem.

Recently, there has been growing attention on, and a lot of hope in, retention laws.  More and more states are passing laws that offer a “Third Grade Guarantee”—the promise that all children will leave the third grade able to read or else they will be held back.

The “Third Grade Guarantee” focuses on improving childhood literacy and is based on critical research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation – a private charitable organization dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children in the United States.

The foundation released results from a study that tracked nearly 4,000 students born between 1979 and 1989. The students in the study who did not read proficiently by third grade were four times more likely than proficient readers to leave high school without a diploma.

Today, more than half of the states have implemented some variation of the bill, each with its own implementation strategy, and of course, results.  

Over twenty years ago, I founded the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education with the goal to arm teachers with specialty tools and knowledge so they can effectively teach in today's diverse classroom. We’ve worked with thousands of educators, many from states implementing their own retention law.

Our organization was founded and still holds its main offices in Michigan, and with the recent passing of the bill in our home state, we’ve taken a focused look at the law and how to minimize retention.

Starting in the 2019-20 school year, Michigan’s reading law will, with certain exemptions, prohibit third-graders from advancing to fourth grade if their reading proficiency is too low.

The stakes are high; thousands of Michigan third-graders could be held back in the first year. Our state has a great opportunity – and a few year's notice – to implement key, strategic changes to help students and teachers advance, instead of falling back.

A Focus on Prevention, not Retention

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder said, “Many people will view this as a third-grade issue or a promotion issue.  It's much broader than that. This needs to be about pre-K through 3 reading, and it needs to be about all the positive tools ... to help these young people be successful."

 Retention laws can be understandably frightening for schools and parents, and repeating a grade is rarely ideal.  By focusing on this one controversial element of the bill though, we miss the greater opportunity to work towards eliminating the root cause of the state’s literacy problem.

Michigan’s third-grade reading bill also outlines the need for literacy coaches, impactful professional development for teachers, early intervention and more parent involvement.  

States that have worked to implement these proactive initiatives have seen some incredible results. In 2015, three years after the adoption of the law in Ohio, 91.5 percent of third-graders in Columbus passed Ohio’s proficiency testing, compared to only 63.9 percent in 2014.  Ohio’s focus on prevention has paid off. 

Building Confidence in Teachers and Students

We need to move forward strategically and efficiently. Keeping students in third grade can have emotional ramifications and causes an unnecessary financial burden to the school district and state, including an inflated budget.

I see the passing of Michigan’s version of the “Third Grade Guarantee” as a window of opportunity for school districts to empower our teachers and arm them with new tools and a new confidence.  

The districts we have worked with that have seen the greatest results have planned and committed to a strategic plan that is right for their individual community.  There is no silver-bullet that will solve the literacy problem statewide.  The unique makeup of each district must drive the strategy, which lends itself to ongoing fidelity to the plan.

If districts make the decision to view the “Third Grade Guarantee” as a prevention program, rather than a retention program, the sky is the limit for what our teachers and students can achieve.

Jeanne Jeup is the co-founder and president of The Institute for Multi-Sensory Education. To learn more about IMSE go to https://orton-gillingham.com.

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