As 3rd grade reading law looms, Detroit district takes new literacy program national

By: - April 11, 2019 6:46 am

Tawanna Jordan, a DPSCD teacher, instructs students with ModEL teaching tool | Ken Coleman

Jenise Williams, a first-year kindergarten teacher at Burns Elementary-Middle School in Detroit, is enjoying her rookie year helping students become better readers.

At the same time, her district has just publicly launched one of its key new resource tools to improve student literacy called ModEL Detroit.

Jenise Willliams, Burns Elementary-Middle School teacher | Ken Coleman

The online program utilizes visuals, single words and short text on projection screens to supplement traditional textbooks and multi-page handouts.

“It has been extremely beneficial and I only see it getting better as I become better,” Williams said.

The project is a collaboration between the Skillman Foundation, a Detroit-based nonprofit, and StandardsWork and EL Education, national literacy experts. The project is fully funded by the Skillman Foundation.

Other districts — in Michigan and across the country — can now take advantage of ModEL Detroit resources by using the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) portal. The district publicly released the online tool on March 28.

In Michigan, where a new stringent third-grade reading law is set to go in effect next school year, the program could be crucial in helping districts meet government standards.

Launched last fall

DPSCD’s K-8 teachers have been using ModEL Detroit since last September. With 50,000 students, DPSCD is the state’s largest public school district.

DPCSD website

Through the use of almost 2,000 PowerPoint slides, teachers are able to use the tool to provide high-quality lesson plans to students and reduce class preparation planning time. It also provides specific support for English language learners (ELL); special education students and readers who are significantly behind grade level.

Advocates say that ModEL helps to engage students and increases knowledge retention.

“When you build on knowledge as you grow and develop as a reader, as a thinker and as a citizen, you are able to go back and pick up those pieces and make arguments and make sense of your world with voice and great confidence,” DPSCD General Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said.   

Tonya Allen, Skillman Foundation CEO and president, notes that teachers were an integral part of the development process.

Tonya Allen, Skillman Foundation, CEO | Ken Coleman

“We’re excited because this is what teachers and educators have been asking for,” said Allen. “They want to do a good job in our city. We just haven’t been able to give them the tools to do that. What I enjoy about this curriculum is that teachers were involved in helping to create these guides that they can use in a very practical way every single day.”

Officials from the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT), the school district’s largest union, are optimistic as well, but note that new teaching tools alone won’t meet the district’s urgent needs.

“It’s great that the district has made some steps to address the needs of teachers in providing a toolkit for ELA [English Language Arts],” said Terrence Martin, DFT president. “It’s great that teachers were involved in the creation of this, but we have said time and time again that taking care of the basic needs in schools will help to provide best results for students.”  

Lagging in literacy

A majority of Michigan’s third-grade students — 55.6 percent, or 56,850 students — scored as less than proficient on the 2018 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, better known as M-STEP. The test measures reading, writing, listening and language.

DPSCD Literacy Night at Academy of the Americas school | Ken Coleman

In 2017, the federal government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that only 5 percent of fourth graders in Detroit were proficient in reading and 4 percent were proficient in math — among the lowest scores in the nation in those categories.

And Michigan ranks near the bottom of the nation in fourth-grade reading, according to a report from the Early Literacy Task Force’s Executive Summary:

  • The state ranks 41st among U.S. states in fourth-grade reading scores, based on the 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress
  • It also ranks 45th among U.S. states in fourth-grade reading scores for students who are economically disadvantaged

It’s not just a Michigan problem.

In 2015, almost two out of three fourth graders across the nation failed to score proficient in reading, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislators.  

The percentage of non-proficient readers is even higher among people of color: 82 percent of Black fourth-graders were reading below proficiency, as were 79 percent of Latino fourth-graders and 78 percent of those of Native American descent.

School officials say that students who did not meet benchmarks for reading proficiency at the end of third grade are four times more likely to not finish high school.

Third-grade reading law

In 2016, the Michigan Legislature took action.

The GOP-controlled body passed a law that requires schools to identify children who struggle with reading and writing and provide them with additional assistance. If they don’t make significant improvement, however, students will be held back under the law.

Michigan Capitol, March 22, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

In a largely partisan fashion, the state House approved the legislation 60-47. In a 25-10 vote, the Senate backed the measure. Then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed it.

The third-grade reading law’s sponsor, now-former state Rep. Amanda Price (R-Park Twp.), said tougher standards were necessary because “Michigan is experiencing a crisis in literacy.”

Democrats argued for local district decision-making and cited research showing that holding back students would create emotional trauma and more harm than good.

The new law mandates that third graders repeat the grade if they are more than one grade-level behind, beginning with the 2019-20 school year.

Sixteen other states, as well as Washington, D.C., require retention for students not reading at proficiency by the end of third grade. Eight states allow for retention, but do not require it, leaving it to the district’s discretion: Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

Michigan districts have been scrambling to prepare for the new requirements. The Detroit Parent Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, held a community forum late last year to help guide families and offer strategies.

The new law has sparked trepidation in teachers, as well.

Launch Michigan is a coalition of more than 30 groups, including 30 participating organizations including Business Leaders for Michigan, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) and the Michigan Department of Education. The advocacy group in February surveyed more than 15,000 teachers and found that many are dreading the third-grade reading law, as the Advance reported.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

Only 22 percent of educators are confident their school can offer “substantial” support to students who are held back, and 24 percent don’t believe their school can offer any support whatsoever.

Current Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who was elected last fall, wants to scrap the law.

“Retention has negative impacts on kids,” said spokeswoman Tiffany Brown. “We need meaningful early intervention, as supported with the governor’s budget, for example, to triple the number of literacy coaches to make sure teachers have the support they need to meet kids’ needs. The goal is to support kids to make sure they are successful, and not just penalize them.”

But with Republicans still in control of the Legislature, it’s likely that the law will go into effect.

Detroit’s curriculum woes

Nikolai Vitti joined the Detroit Public Schools Community District in April 2017.

With the help of Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA), which provides services and support to the county’s 33 school districts, his team carried out an audit to see whether DPSCD’s curriculum met national grade-level expectations.

Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD, general superintendent | Ken Coleman

“In everyday terms, what that means is that every day when teachers went into the classroom, whether it was kindergarten, third, fifth or eighth grade, they were engaging students at a lower level than the standards expected them to be engaged,” Vitti said.

To help address the problem, DPSCD has held dozens of “literacy nights” across the district, where students, school staff, parents and others participate in workshops designed to help with student achievement.

District officials see ModEL as another tool they can use to reach that goal.

“On one level, it’s about creating awareness,” Vitti said. “Beyond that it’s about empowerment. We want our parents to help us help their child be successful readers. So we have shifted the curriculum with diagnostic tools to know where children are and help them during the school day. There is a support process at home that needs to happen involving having children read to them.”

A meeting on third-grade reading standards
People attend a community meeting on third grade reading standards at the Dexter-Elmhurst Center, Dec. 4, 2018 | Ken Coleman

Vitti said the program assists with homework and help families understand what the new curriculum looks like — and why it’s more challenging.

“[It’s about] what children are learning, and why, so that parents can be better support to teachers as we go about this change,” he said.

Battling child poverty

So what’s different about Detroit compared to other districts?

The concentration of poverty, Vitti said.

“We see it in every urban school district, in every area of the country, but the concentration is much broader and deeper in Detroit,” said Vitti, who has worked as a teacher and administrator in both New York City and in the state of Florida.

“And that has a corresponding effect on literacy.”

More than one in every three — 34.5 percent — of Detroit residents lived below the poverty level in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The child poverty rate, however, is about 48 percent, among the highest in the nation.

The statewide averages for both measures are 14.2 percent and 19.3 percent, respectively.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Vitti also said that the district’s revolving door of leadership over the last two decades has contributed to the literacy problem. It has been under the thumb of state control for 15 of the last 20 years due budget and academic achievement woes.

Since 1999, the district has had 13 leaders who have been either a general superintendent, a CEO or an emergency manager. The average tenure for a superintendent among the nation’s 100 largest public school districts is between three and six years, according a 2018 study from the Broad Center, a foundation for the training of school administrators.

Citing poor academic performance, Michigan’s former Republican Gov. John Engler led a state takeover of Detroit Public Schools in 1999. Through mayoral and state appointment, a reform school board was created, and a CEO was hired who had unilateral power to enter into contracts and make curriculum and staffing decisions.

During the five-year period following, from 2000 to 2005, the district lost more than 30,000 students and closed almost 50 schools. In 2004, then-DPS CEO Ken Burnley announced that the district was facing a projected general fund deficit of $150 million.

By 2006, the district closed Cooley High School and Redford High School, both located within four miles of Jenise Williams’ Burns Elementary-Middle School.

After the state law ended and a locally elected school board regained control and appointed its own general superintendent, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm declared in 2008 that the district was undergoing a financial emergency.

Direct state intervention therefore returned, and continued through 2015. In June 2016, then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a $617 million state aid package bail out the school district. The plan approved by the Republican-led Legislature helped to pay off $467 million in operating debt and provide $150 million for the district to move forward.

Snyder said at the time that the legislation gave “Michigan’s comeback city a fresh start in education.” Today, the district manages day-to-day operations through a locally elected school board and general superintendent, but with oversight by a state-appointed Detroit Financial Review Commission.

Some educators believe that the ModEL resource tool will help bolster student achievement and right the ship toward a more independent future for the district.

Tawanna Jordan, a DPSCD teacher, instructs students with ModEL teaching tool | Ken Coleman

“During my 22 years, we’ve seen a lot of reading curriculums come and go,” said Tawanna Jordan, a first grade teacher at Burns. “ModEL is the most rigorous curriculum thus far. Not only rigorous for the students, but rigorous for the teachers.”

Vitti agrees and said that this is a chance for Detroit to be a rare national leader.

“How often have we seen something coming out of DPSCD that is going to be used across the nation in large urban school districts?” he said.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.