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Bill to stop social promotion in Michigan's schools might help

Jack Lessenberry

There are bitter disputes over many aspects of education these days, but there is widespread agreement that how well children are reading by the time they finish the third grade is the best way we have of predicting their future success.

We also know this: In Michigan, things are bad and have been getting worse.

Thirteen years ago, this state ranked 28th in fourth grade reading proficiency. Now, we are 41st, and the Education Trust-Midwest estimates that soon we will be 48th.

Unless that changes, that is a pretty clear sign that when it comes to the economy of the future, we are doomed.

The bill, however, doesn't come up with new funds for curriculum development, or afterschool or outreach programs designed to reach families and instill a love of reading.

So yesterday, the Legislature completed passage of a bill designed to improve the percentage of students reading where they should be when they finish third grade.

The bill, however, doesn’t come up with new funds for curriculum development, or afterschool or outreach programs designed to reach families and instill a love of reading.

That would, after all, cost money.

What this bill does do is attempt to limit so-called “social promotion,” in which students are passed along with their peers, whether or not they can really read. There are, unfortunately, still loopholes in this bill.

Parents, for example, can apply for a “good cause” exemption, as if there could ever be a cause good enough to allow a child to move on to the next grade level if he or she can’t read well enough to keep up with their peers.

The lawmakers did strip out a provision that would have allowed students who couldn’t read well enough to advance if their reading teacher and principal felt that they were otherwise “academically prepared.”

Had I been in the Legislature, I would have probably voted for this.

I feel much the same way as Gilda Jacobs, a former state senator who is now head of the Michigan League for Public Policy, and whose observations I’ve always found trustworthy.

Yesterday, she said, “literacy is the cornerstone of all other learning through school and into the workforce. This bill will help turn things around and get Michigan students back on track.”

What is dismaying, however, is that support or opposition fell almost completely along party lines.

Andy Schor, a Democratic representative from Lansing, initially supported but then opposed the bill, because, he said, “it is going to prevent those children who are good at one of those other subjects, specifically math, from moving up to the fourth grade.”

Perhaps he thinks that when they become engineers, there will be other people to read them the project directions. Teachers have a number of reasons to be legitimately gun-shy about this bill.

.... social promotion does nobody any good.

The Snyder administration and especially the Legislature have been waging war against public education, and much of education has been distorted for years by a moronic focus on teaching to various constantly changing tests.

Yet, social promotion does nobody any good. This bill will be hopelessly inadequate too, however, unless lawmakers act on something else, Jacobs said.

“While this addresses one part of the equation … more targeted efforts are needed to address poverty and hunger, which significantly affect learning for kids of all ages and grades.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if our leaders were interested in making that happen?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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