Why Are Michigan’s Literacy Rates So Low?: A Conversation with Mitch Albom

Elementary students raising their hands
In celebration of our 20th anniversary, we hosted four panel discussions on Mitch Albom's radio show on WJR 760. In this segment, Mitch Albom explores Michigan's literacy crisis in depth with a panel of the educational leaders in Michigan's early literacy movement.

When it comes to literacy scores, Michigan ranks incredibly low in the national context. Over the past fifteen years, while other states across the nation have improved tremendously, our state’s literacy ratings have flat-lined. This fact has caused great alarm among Michigan’s educational leaders.

Why is this such a big deal?

For starters, there are tragic consequences to low literacy rates that affect every aspect of a child’s life. In fact, many researchers argue that what we’re calling a “literacy crisis” is actually a public health crisis.

To address these issues and generate momentum for a sea change, Michigan’s Early Literacy Task Force convenes monthly to address our state’s most pressing literacy issues.

Together, they’ve agreed upon 10 essential instructional practices that serve as a “minimum standard of care” when it comes to fostering literate students and literate citizens. These instructional practices are designed to be used in every classroom for every child every day.

As part of this initiative, Michigan Virtual, has created a series of free online training modules for Michigan educators on the essential instructional practices for early literacy.

Our goal? To make the research-based practices in literacy instruction freely available for all Michigan educators.

In celebration of our 20th anniversary, we hosted four panel discussions on Mitch Albom’s radio show on WJR 760. In this segment, Mitch Albom explores Michigan’s literacy crisis in depth with a panel of the educational leaders in Michigan’s early literacy movement, including:

Watch the 7-minute video below or read the abridged transcript to learn more about our state’s literacy crisis and what steps educational leaders have taken to combat it.

Want to hear more from Mitch’s conversation with Michigan educators and students? Check out his other panel discussions on how online learning really workswhat factors have historically impeded progress in Michigan education and how methods of delivery in instruction have changed dramatically to meet the needs of today’s students.


Mitch Albom (MA): We run an academic rec center down in Detroit, and our huge emphasis is on literacy, young. I also have an orphanage in Haiti. It’s the same exact thing. It seems no matter where you go in the world, if you don’t get to kids early on and teach them to read, you can spend the rest of their educational lives trying to catch up. I imagine we’re dealing with some of that in the state of Michigan. Tell us where we are and what are doing to try to make inroads in that area?

Naomi Norman (NN): You are absolutely right when you talk about how important early literacy is. In Michigan, one of our big indicators for how we’re doing is our 3rd grades scores, as well as our comparison in 4th grade across the country to other states on a test called the NAEP test. What we found is over the last, probably, 15 years, Michigan has remained really flat. Our scores are not improving at all while across the country we see other states doing really really really well. The question is: What can we do as a state?

Particularly, as you heard from the previous folks who were here, you know, we’re in an interesting place in a state that has incredible diversity — geographically we’re really quite spread out, rural and suburban — and we have tremendous control at the local level for how we do education. So, we feel that focusing on early literacy is one of the most important things to bring up not only our scores in Michigan and how our literacy is doing in our students, but also to help us as a state do better relative to the other states.

MA: Well, what are the other places doing that are enabling them to shoot ahead while we are not? 

Erin Brown (EB): Well, we know that other states have had the opportunity to focus for a long time on specific, explicit practices and stick with it, like our previous group named. Now, in Michigan, through the Early Literacy Task Force and through a tight partnership with researchers, we also have chosen to sink into very explicit, research-based practices for all kids as a minimum standard of care for every single child in Michigan, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today.

MA: It would seem to me that if there were one place where you could start even in education, it would be at the earliest level. Because clearly if, you know, you’re trying to deal with kids in 7th grade in Detroit versus 7th grade in Grand Rapids, you already have such a disparity of their previous experiences. But if you’re talking about three-year-olds, four-year-olds, when you’re beginning, everybody’s raw, everybody’s new. So shouldn’t we be able to find some level that would work in all the different places? In diverse Michigan, as you describe it? 

Susan Townsend (ST): That’s the beauty of the work that we’re doing. We are collectively working together across our state through the Early Literacy Task Force with several partners to really focus on the essential practices, the minimum standard of care, not only Kindergarten through third grade, but birth to third grade, as well as fourth and fifth grade and sixth through twelfth. We have a whole comprehensive list of essential practices that every child should have in their classroom every day, and there’s no exception for that.

MA: Ken, we’re talking about the challenges of getting our kids to learn how to read. I’m sure there are a lot of people who are listening, thinking, “It’s not hard! You get a Sally, Dick and Jane book and you start to learn how to read. We did it! How come they can’t do it?” What, if anything, has changed and what are the particular challenges? I know from an online perspective, you can talk about that, too. 

Ken Dirkin (KD): Research has evolved quite heavily over the last decade or so on what early literacy practices should look like. That’s the critical work that Michigan Virtual and the ISDs and the Michigan Department of Ed are embarked on is trying to figure out what those research-based practices are and then bring them to light for every teacher in Michigan. So, the online component that we work very collaboratively on is to help show those practices for free to teachers, which you can get access to by going to literacyessentials.org. Teachers have access to these for free, educators in Michigan have access and there’s a lot of work that’s going into those modules to help demonstrate, from a real core, solid foundation, what you should be doing every day with every child in every classroom.

MA: Answer me this, one or two of you, very quickly on this: 80 years ago had to trace letters, they had one or two basic readers early on, and that was it. Today, we have TV shows that can teach you, little computers that kids can play and press buttons that can teach you. One thousand different exciting, fun ways that kids can learn how to read. Why are we behind where we used to be when we had such simplistic tools? 

EB: Well, kids are still learning how to read in Michigan very consistently. The issue is when they’re put up against other states at fourth grade, and they not only need to read the text well, but analyze that text, write about that text, compare, contrast. These higher-level skills are what is being assessed of our third graders here in Michigan.

MA: So, it’s not just “A” is an “ahh” sound and “B” is a “buh” sound. It’s not just about comprehension. 

EB: Yes, our kids are learning to read.

MA: Okay, those remain big challenges. Susan, Erin, Ken, Naomi, thank you for slotting in. More people will sit down with us as we continue in Lansing talking about education at 760 WJR. 

Learn More About the Essential Instructional Practices in Early Literacy

Nikki Herta

Nikki Herta

Nikki’s love for writing, editing and pedagogy brought her to Michigan Virtual as their Content Creator/Editor. A Michigan native, she studied writing at Grand Valley State University before continuing on to the University of Minnesota for her master’s degree. While there, she also taught first-year writing to college freshman. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, playing table-top board games, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book and her sassy, ancient cat, Princess Eugene.

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