Recommendations for Improving Early Literacy

Over the last several years, the Education Trust-Midwest has studied and consulted with dozens of experts in leading education states to learn the best practices and highest-leverage strategies for creating sustained improvement. We focus not only on which states have produced the most dramatic gains, but also whether their most vulnerable students — low-income students and students of color — have witnessed strong gains as well.

Here, we highlight key levers that have been deployed in leading education states, along with quality implementation and key conditions, to produce major learning gains for their students.

Sustained and Committed Leadership: Ensuring Strategic Investments Create Long-term Change

In leading education states, state leadership has a real commitment and urgency to improve. Leadership must be research-based and guided by evidence on what is best for their students. A genuine commitment to results also matters most in any initiative. Leading education states show that if there is not buy-in for a plan at the highest levels, the signal to schools and districts is that the initiative is unimportant. And when these reforms are not a priority — again, as often signaled with a lack
of guidance or supports to local districts or schools — it also leaves these districts or schools to figure out successful implementation on their own

Recommendations for Michigan:
  • State leaders should fundamentally rethink the role of the MDE, moving it from a compliance agency to an agency of change, providing thoughtful and research-based guidance on best-practices to districts, with a newfound focus on revamping delivery models for educator professional development. Such a fundamental change will require bold and sustained leadership at all levels.
  • The MDE should be much more transparent on the funds allocated from state and federal sources. This must include both how dollars are being dispersed to local districts or intermediate school districts and the impact of these findings. Appropriate data collection and evaluation of the state’s early literacy investment is also essential.
  • The MDE should leverage financial incentives through competitive grants for local districts and other providers of literacy pilot innovative strategies. At the same time, districts that are unable to show positive gains should be held accountable —
    including through financial stipulations on state and federal funding for early literacy programs.

Quality Early Childhood: Creating Alignment Between the Early Childhood and K-12 Sectors

The years prior to kindergarten are vital to a child’s development. To ensure quality results, leading states have stressed strong alignment between the preschool sector and K-12, commonly referred to as P-3 alignment. Creating these linkages ensures a seamless continuum of learning for children. Lack of alignment may cause the positive gains children make in early childhood to be lost. Indeed, new research from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that when poor children are given access to both well-resourced early childhood and K-12 systems, they are much more likely to see long-term academic benefits. When done right, long-term benefits of early literacy strategies can be seen for adults as well, including higher incomes, better health and fewer incidents with crime, among others.

Recommendations for Michigan:
  • Prioritize quality alignment between the early childhood sectors and K-12, including academic standards, curricula, data, educator training and instruction. For example, establishing a common data system encourages communication between
    early childhood programs and K-12 districts about a child’s learning and development and would provide educators with the information they need to support students academically during their transition to elementary school.
  • Promote partnerships between the early childhood and K-12 sector, including strategies to engage families, business leaders, philanthropic leaders and community members.
  • Develop a common high-quality kindergarten readiness assessment that evaluates if students are being adequately prepared for kindergarten and identifies students in need of additional academic supports early on. Consistent and comparable data from a common kindergarten readiness assessment would also provide vital information on the impact
    of early childhood programs and their effectiveness.
  • Evaluate state-funded early childhood programs for their impact on student development and alignment with K-12 learning standards and share this information with parents and families choosing where to enroll their students.

Strategic Capacity-Building and Systemic Support: Improving Effective Instruction by Educators

If there is one strategy leading states have demonstrated to matter the most, it is effective teaching. It is no coincidence that every leading education state puts quality teaching at the heart of their reforms. That’s because research shows that it matters: the number one in-school factor for student learning is quality teaching. Research also shows that our country’s most vulnerable students often don’t have the same access to quality educators as their peers

Recommendations for Michigan:
  • Michigan should fully implement a quality statewide educator evaluation, feedback and support system based on leading state models, including a vision and definition for effective teaching; and greater capacity-building for districts to deliver effective annual evaluations and data-driven feedback.
  • Through quality implementation of the educator evaluation and support system, the state should identify a cadre of the state’s top educators to serve in new performance-based teacher leadership roles, including the reading coach positions already funded by the state. To ensure Michigan’s top educators are eligible to serve in these new “master teacher” roles, we recommend the following:
    • Eligibility should be limited only to those educators that have received “highly effective” ratings for three or more consecutive years — demonstrating that they are truly masters of their craft, ideally through evaluations that integrate state-provided growth data.
    • Research shows that credentials alone are a weak predictor for student performance, and should not be used as a primary criterion for identification.
    • Qualitative evaluations of eligible master teacher candidates on their ability to coach other adults is critical. Mentorship and guidance are the primary responsibility of master teachers, and these skills should not be overlooked.
  • Understanding that the state’s most vulnerable students need quality instruction, yet are less likely to have effective teachers than their wealthier peers, the state should develop a robust plan to ensure equitable access to quality teaching and principals. This must be an intentional and explicit strategy that engages district leaders and principals on strategic
    staffing decisions.

High Academic Standards and Honest Data: Setting High Expectations

The nation’s leading education states began their education transformation with higher performance standards for teaching and learning for good reason. When states set low bars for teaching and learning, they often get low results. One common criticism is that raising the bar can actually be detrimental to students — particularly those from impoverished communities that are already behind. The evidence says quite the contrary: research shows that access to rigorous coursework and high-quality instruction in high school is one of the best predictors of post-secondary success. Not only that, a consistent and rigorous bar ensures that students of all backgrounds are given access to high-quality academic content. And while standards provide the minimum expectations students need to meet, a common measuring stick — an aligned assessment — confirms that this goal is actually being met.

Recommendations for Michigan:
  • To ensure quality implementation of the state’s academic standards, Michigan should better support its educators by:
    • Working with proven external providers to deliver professional development opportunities in concert with a statewide strategic plan for early literacy.
    • Requiring a separate training for the state’s principals and school leaders. It is the job of the school leader and principal to set the academic vision for each of their schools, and must have the resources and tools to do so. Often,
      principals receive fewer professional development opportunities, even though their role is crucial for long-term school or district success.
    • Stop any efforts to modify or drop the M-STEP, and instead continue to administer this fully aligned, independently reviewed, high-quality assessment that can provide data comparable to many other states.

High-Quality, Content-Rich and Aligned Curriculum and Instructional Resources: Creating a Pathway for Students to Meet Rigorous Expectations

Unlike academic standards — which set out the expectation for what students ought to know at the end of each grade level in each subject— an aligned curricula defines how a student will actually get there. Aligned curricula are the instructional guides that educators use to support their instruction. Aligned curriculums not only include actual teaching materials like textbooks or classroom assignments, but the pedagogy for effective instruction. Unlike academic standards — which are largely determined at the state level — local districts and schools have the flexibility to choose their curriculum and instructional materials. Ensuring curriculum is aligned to the state’s college- and career-ready standards is also essential, especially given the new and much more rigorous level of comprehension that is required. For example, Michigan’s college-and career-ready standards ask third-grade students to understand characters and how their motivations or traits contribute to the story’s plot and major events – which requires deep comprehension and critical thinking skills.

Recommendations for Michigan:
  • The state should convene a group of national and local experts and educators to provide guidance on high-quality, content-rich and aligned curriculum materials and resources. Resources should be aligned to the state’s college- and career-ready standards, with an intentional focus on addressing P-3 core knowledge building. Efforts should leverage local resources as well, namely those developed by the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators around aligned curriculum.
  • We recommend the state provide local districts incentives, including financial, to adopt curriculum materials that the expert panel has clarified for alignment and quality, including subsidized aligned professional development and training. Professional development on curriculum should only occur with expert external vendors.

Additional Instructional Time: Strategic and Guided Time to Ensure Results for Students

When states raise their academic expectations for performance, many educators and students need additional time to reach these higher expectations. This is especially important for impoverished students who may need additional instruction to catch up with their peers. Research also shows that dedicated blocks of instruction in reading can be an essential strategy for reaching proficiency. This is especially true in schools with large proportions of low-income or vulnerable students, who are likely behind their more affluent peers. But just having more time isn’t a magic recipe for success: additional time must be focused on high-leverage and aligned strategies — ensuring that extra time is focused in the right places.

Recommendations for Michigan:
  • The state should develop comprehensive support and guidance to districts in providing additional instructional time for students, with an explicit responsibility around improving student outcomes. Unlike Michigan’s current strategy, the state should encourage districts to adopt best practices while requiring evidence that additional instructional time is making an impact.
  • Data should be collected to identify the most effective strategies for improving student achievement, which should then be disseminated to districts and stakeholders statewide to inform Michigan’s collective P-3 literacy efforts.

Additional Supports for Overcoming Literacy Barriers: Creating Positive Learning Opportunities for Students with Dyslexia

Often ignored in the strategies to improve literacy is an inherent focus on dyslexic students. Dyslexia is a disability that makes it difficult for people to sound out or decode certain words. To be clear, those with dyslexia are just as capable of reading and understanding text as their peers. This is proven by the countless doctors, lawyers, engineers, governors and many other Americans who are able to lead successful lives despite having this disability. Rather, it requires much more time and effort for these students to comprehend written materials. And through targeted intervention strategies, these students are able to thrive. Too often dyslexia remains undiagnosed, untreated and unaccommodated. And while dyslexia affects one out of every five people in the United States, diagnosis and treatment are least likely among the most vulnerable students. Indeed, it is these students — already behind for other reasons — who are most in need of careful diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia.

Recommendations for Michigan:
  • Guidance and training should be provided to local schools and districts on the screening and diagnosis of dyslexia and other barriers. Educators also must be given guidance on how to support these students, including intervention strategies and effective instruction in reading.

Strong School and District Accountability Systems: Holding Leaders Responsible for Results

In education, accountability and data are critically important. Accountability systems communicate whether schools are meeting clear expectations around raising academic achievement — both for students overall, and for each group of students they serve. They celebrate schools that are meeting or exceeding expectations, and prompt action in those that are not. They also direct additional resources and supports to struggling districts and schools to help them improve.

Recommendations for Michigan:
  • The state should rethink the role of intermediate school districts and of the Michigan Department of Education, ensuring that they are accountable to the schools and districts they are meant to serve. This must mark a shift from compliance toward local support.
  • Michigan should commit to a simple, transparent and honest system of accountability and public reporting that clearly identifies the state’s top performing and lowest performing districts and schools. This should incorporate schools and districts that fail to serve their low-income students and students of color. And when schools are identified as low-performing either overall or for their most vulnerable groups of students, the state should provide quality support that puts schools and districts on a long-term pathway of success.