Today, Sarah Lenhoff, director of policy and research, and Jason Mancini, director of government affairs, at The Education Trust-Midwest, testified to the Michigan House Education Committee about how Michigan can raise third-grade reading levels. Their testimony follows.


Thank you for the opportunity today to share best practices about how Michigan can dramatically raise third-grade reading levels. I am Jason Mancini, director of government affairs. With me is Sarah Lenhoff, director of policy and research. The Education Trust-Midwest is a nonpartisan, data-driven, education research, information and advocacy organization. We serve as a source of nonpartisan information and expertise – and a partner to state leaders, educators and others – about Michigan education and achievement gap closing.


Over the last several years, our organization has researched our country’s leading education states to understand the strategies that have propelled them to become the nation’s leaders for public education. Our goal is to make Michigan a top ten education state for all students. These leading states, like the nation as a whole, have made significant progress in raising the achievement of all students and closing achievement gaps, particularly in early literacy, which lays the foundation for all other learning to come.


Unfortunately, Michigan is among the lowest performing and improving states for early literacy today. Compared to other states, Michigan’s student performance has declined dramatically in recent years, with our relative rank in 4th grade reading falling from 28th to 38th between 2003 and 2013 for all students and from 13th to 45th for white students. In fact, Michigan is one of only six states in which 4th graders are learning at lower reading levels today than they were a decade ago.


This is unacceptable. In a global economy, our students are competing for jobs all over the country and world. Our public education system must prepare students with the foundational skills they will need to advance in college and career after high school. Right now, we are failing to do that. We are not even keeping pace with the national average in student learning growth, much less with the world’s education leaders. We will do our children, our economy, and our future as a state a huge disservice if we do not get on track to dramatically higher achievement – now.


States across the nation have come to understand the significance of early literacy as the foundation for economic and academic success. The states that have seen the most dramatic growth in early literacy levels have taken a whole systems approach to educational improvement. They haven’t looked for quick fixes or solutions that spur marginal improvement or put band-aids on deep, long-standing systemic problems.


Instead, in these states, dedicated state and district leaders committed to targeted investments in proven, comprehensive state-level strategies. They have shown why, when done right, whole system reform spurs truly dramatic improvements in third-grade reading levels — for all students, no matter where they live.


Massachusetts, for example, is the nation’s leading state for student performance. It’s so high-performing today, if it were a country, it would be a one of the leading nations in the world. Some key strategies in Massachusetts’ comprehensive plan included:

  • Investments in effective teaching and school leadership, including supports for all teachers.
  • Strong accountability systems for both schools and educators, ensuring they are held responsible for teaching at higher levels to produce higher learning levels.
  • Career- and college- ready expectations for all K-16 students.
  • Fair funding for schools.


We can also learn a lot from a state like Tennessee. Tennessee is now the nation’s top improving state. Once behind Michigan in student achievement, Tennessee has made huge strides, particularly in early literacy, and has continued its improvement trajectory by staying the course through political transitions and the challenges of implementation. These gains are being made not just for white students but for African American students, too.


Tennessee’s leaders attribute this extraordinary growth to their implementation and investment in a statewide educator support and evaluation system, along with higher standards and aligned assessments. Leaders there acted on decades of research that show teaching quality is the most important in-school factor for improving student achievement.


The key strategies in Tennessee’s comprehensive plan included a balance of greater accountability and increased support for teachers:

  • Laser-like focus on improved teaching quality: Tennessee has implemented a model educator evaluation system that pairs sophisticated student growth data with observations from trained evaluators.
  • Support for students and teachers in the transition to learning and teaching higher standards: The state identified more than 700 teachers with strong learning gains and trained them to be coaches to their peers across the state.
  • Rigorous assessments and state data system: Tennessee created a statewide student growth data system that tracks student and teacher performance over time. It gives teachers information they can use to adjust their instruction. It also gives administrators valuable data to make informed decisions about teacher hiring, placement, and retention. Many districts in Tennessee have also adopted master teacher pathways to give the best teachers opportunities for leadership. These master teachers help to support their peers to improve their practice.


Michigan can follow Tennessee’s sensible path toward improvement. Indeed, it’s clear that we need to do so. Due in large part to foundational work by the Michigan Legislature and Governor, we currently have the opportunity to get this right.


The FY16 budget is an excellent place to start. We strongly support Governor Rick Snyder’s recommendation to invest more than $14 million in the FY16 state budget for educator evaluation and support. States like Tennessee spend just $3 million on a student growth data system to support evaluations and $1.5 million on evaluator training, data infrastructure, and coaches. These should be key investments for the Michigan Legislature this year.


We also recommend supporting the following policy and targeted investment strategies to help jump-start Michigan’s comprehensive approach to school improvement:

  • Teacher support and coaching to ensure educators are teaching at higher college- and career-ready levels. Tennessee’s master teacher-led mentoring and coaching system provides Michigan with an excellent model.
  • Implementation of a statewide educator evaluation system that will drive dramatic improvements in teaching quality and learning levels, as leading states have demonstrated.
  • Improved K-12 data infrastructure to not only drive more effective interventions and instructional strategies, but also provide reliable growth data, inform teaching quality strategies and empower parents to support their children more effectively.
  • Greater teacher supportvia a digital library of instructional tools.
  • Alternate assessments to better inform the transition from pre-school to kindergarten and the K-12 system.


Thank you for your time today. We are eager to work with the legislature to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to make Michigan a top ten state in education. We would be happy to hear any comments or address any questions.