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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

Michigan’s Illiterate Children

September 8, 2017 

It is simply unacceptable.

Imagine your child or grandchild going though life, without the ability to read. In the 21st Century, where ideas and jobs can and do move around the globe instantaneously.

Does unacceptable – with a huge dash of anger – wash over you? It should!

Michigan is breeding illiterate children.

Nolan Finley, editorial page editor for The Detroit News, was worked up this past week and penned a scathing editorial last Sunday, blistering the sheer unacceptability of this state of affairs in Michigan saying, “New statistics on reading achievement were released for Michigan last week, and they should sicken us all. We can look away from the failure, but we can’t pretend not to know what it will mean to children who don’t develop adequate reading skills.

The number of state third-graders who passed the English language arts test (reading, writing and comprehension fell to 44.1 percent this year, down nearly six percentage points over the past three years.

More than half of our youngest students are not proficient in reading.

Think about that for a minute, and ask yourself what return Michigan is getting on its more than $14 billion annual investment in public schools? We shouldn’t rest until every kid can read.”

Finley went on, calling this failure “disgusting.”

We must attack these unacceptable reading score statistics now with blitzkrieg abandon or they will be an anvil on these children and our collective future.

The greatest predictor of the likelihood of a student dropping out of high school is the failure of a child to be able to read as they exit third grade.

The individual, city, region, state and nation with an educated population will thrive, all else will wither.

A child without the ability to read becomes an adult without a future. If you don’t care about what is happening to these children we are not educating, shrugging your shoulders and saying, “not my kid, not my problem”, think again. These illiterate kids will be coming to your place of business in the future as a potential employee, customer or with some other nefarious ideas in mind. They don’t simply disappear.

More Than Schools

While our public schools (traditional and charter) where these failures are perpetuated must accept a significant part of the blame, there are other culprits as well including parents and policymakers. There is much blame to go around when it comes to the educational failure in Michigan.

Simply pointing fingers at the state superintendent, state board of education, governor, legislature, teachers and the unions that represent them is not going to help a child learn to read.

We need to embrace the collective vitality of our local public schools and invest wisely in them to get the results we want and our children deserve.

Statue Of Liberty

Our public schools are the true Statue of Liberty of the great nation of ours; taking the tired, hungry, the poor, the huddled masses, children who speak English as a second language or children with disabilities and give them hope and a future. Yet, we disparage public education today as if it is to blame, when we as a society have a collective responsibility to lift up our kids.

And if you believe as I do, that our public schools are the true Statute of Liberty, than you know our great teachers are the torch lighting the way for us all.

Yet, ask a teacher today if they feel supported and appreciated and your likely to hear, “I feel as appreciated as a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe.”

We need to stop the historical ideological fights around public education and get dead serious about fixing the problem. Casting blame will not take us where we need to go.

Education Trust – Midwest

Their are few honest brokers in the public education debate. One is the EdTrust-MidWest.

As described in their March 2017 analysis of the Governor’s executive budget recommendations, the state budget provides important opportunities to advance equity and educational excellence.

Money alone, however, will not improve our schools. As leading education states have shown, bringing about extraordinary improvement in student learning requires strategic investments in sustained, transformative and systemic changes. This is missing in Michigan today.

There is no shared vision, nor common agenda to lift up our reading scores, let alone our schools, teachers and most importantly, our students.

The state’s superintendent of schools Brian J. Whiston is quite capable. He spelled out an agenda. Obviously it has not not been embraced by the legislature who control the purse strings and the education policy for Michigan.

The legislature seems to have multiple heads when it comes to education policy and ideology.

Education Trust – Midwest has its vision and a plan too, yet the players that need to buy in haven’t. They paint an ugly picture for Michigan that “if we don’t get our act together our public education system will not rebound.”

Michigan’s student learning rankings, compared to the rest of the country, has plummeted over the last decade. Since 2003, Michigan has fallen from 28th in the nation to 38th in fourth-grade reading.

If Michigan stays on its current course, we will be ranked 44th nationwide for student learning in fourth-grade reading by 2030, according to a new analysis conducted by The Education Trust-Midwest. Within five years, if nothing changes, Michigan will be trying to catch up with what had been America’s chronically low-performing education states like Arkansas and South Carolina.

There ought to be a plan. Tragically, there’s isn’t one.

Without a vision the people will perish. As Nolan Finley so eloquently stated its “disgusting.”

Tom Watkins served as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools 2001-05 and as the special assistant to the President of Wayne State University 1990-96. He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


September 7, 2017 · Filed under Tom Watkins

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 john telford // Sep 8, 2017 at 7:47 am

    We all have to do our part to fix this, Tom. At 81, I’m back teaching at Southeastern for the first time in almost sixty years, and I donated a year of my life in 2012-2013 serving as Superintendent pro bono under state-imposed emergency financial mismanagement. Com on my radio show again–I’m now on WEXL1340AM Saturday mornings at 9:30.

  • 2 Ed Rivet // Sep 8, 2017 at 9:34 am

    For years, maybe decades now, I’ve been reading news stories and editorials like this about the need for reforms and plans to fix what’s broken in our educational system. It runs the gamut – we need a new assessment test, or better teacher training, or charter schools or more money, or fill-in-the-blank.

    I’m not in the education field, so correct me if I’m wrong, but schools fail when students fail, and students fail when parents and the home life fails. My sense is if you ask teachers and principals, they’ll tell you that a disrupted home life, with little or no engagement and support from the parents is the strongest indicator of academic failure.

    I recall a state legislator telling me about a teacher friend in his large city district who had only 18 students in class because those kids needed more attention academically. When the school year’s first parent-teacher conferences came around, NOT ONE parent showed up. The teacher sat alone the whole time. Little wonder these kids score poorly on standardized tests.

    It is wildly unfair to ask educators to “fix” this problem with new teaching methods or curriculum or the data from a “better” assessment test. Far more of our children are being raised in single-parent homes, with an over-stressed, economically challenged, mom or dad who also did not do well academically.

    There is a plethora of social problems related to family dysfunction, illiteracy is just one, along with our opioid epidemic, criminal and gang activity, domestic and child abuse, human trafficking… You get the point. Illiteracy is the symptom that our schools confront. But the most innovative educational techniques can’t treat the underlying disease.

    If my friend Mr. Whiston or Education Trust – Midwest’s plans and agendas are focused on interventions within what I’ve dubbed “failing homes,” then maybe implementing them will produce positive results. Otherwise, you’ll be back writing this same editorial in 5 or 10 years, like so many of them I’ve read in the past.

  • 3 Anagnorisis // Sep 8, 2017 at 9:48 am

    Indeed, “it’s” disgusting, not “its”. Further, Commentaries to articles are way over the top on typos and illiteracy. Maybe it’s our topsy-turvy convoluted world at present, maybe it’s peer pressure or lack thereof, something is very lacking in scholastic development here and elsewhere in this country. Leadership certainly provides no incentives. Nolan’s an excellent writer, crosses his T’s and dots his I’s, is able to disseminate wit and wisdom. I experienced this downturn throughout the 1950s in public schools – imagine now. What I find as a writer is that one cannot edit and proofread too many times, until exhaustion sets in and published anyway. Off the top writing – like Jack Kerouac – doesn’t work anymore. Beginnings are essential, as in Junior Kindergarten, learning ABCs on mother’s knees while learning the piano keyboard simultaneously. And then the cost of higher education needs be abrogated by federal decree, paid for with money saved by elimination of discretionary spending on things not needed, like military overkill, literally and figuratively. Then we can talk – and write articulately.



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