Teacher survey: Dreading 3rd grade reading law, tired of being called ‘loser socialists’

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A new survey shows Michigan’s educators have major concerns with their profession, including a vast majority who believe their schools aren’t prepared for a new third grade reading law.

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The advocacy coalition Launch Michigan surveyed more than 15,000 teachers and administrators last month on topics including classroom size, funding allocation and professional development.

The group released results Wednesday showing that although educators are “generally content” with their work climate, they harbor serious concerns about their capacity to meet student needs — and about their relationships with Michigan’s politicians.

The survey summary describes educators as “worn down by heavy workloads and what they see as a lack of support or respect, and sometimes active hindrance, from political leaders.”

One anonymous respondent wrote about “a true lack of respect for the field by some politicians who call us ‘loser socialists,’” alluding to recent remarks by Donald Trump Jr., and lamented “less pay, crappy insurance, and lame retirement” for new teachers.

Large majorities cited similar concerns, leading to a full quarter of educators saying they would not recommend education as a career for others.

Rick Snyder | Susan J. Demas

Launch Michigan was founded in June 2018 by more than 30 participating organizations including Business Leaders for Michigan, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) and the Michigan Department of Education, who partnered together to organize for “meaningful and lasting change for [Michigan’s] students.”

Literacy was another key concern in the survey. Former Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law in 2016 that will require students who don’t meet certain reading standards to repeat the third grade, starting in the 2019-20 school year.

The survey, however, found that just 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.

Dayna Polehanki

Freshman state Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), minority vice chair of the Education and Career Readiness Committee and a former high school teacher, echoed survey respondents’ concerns about the law.

“If I had a magic wand, I’d remove the retention portion of that [law] immediately,” Polehanki told the Advance. “I understand the teachers who say it’s not going to work.

“The majority of the research shows that retention is harmful. … Let’s take all the funding that goes with the law; let’s put that in place; let’s keep the IRPs [Individual Reading Plans]; let’s keep all the interventionists and the supports, but let’s remove the retention piece.”

The legislation was signed into law in 2016, the same year the Department of Education announced its “Top 10 in 10” program, which aimed to boost Michigan from the bottom third of states to the top 10 in performance. A study last year found Michigan dead last among a group of comparable states in third grade reading deficiency.

Among the teachers and administrators surveyed, the policy changes with the broadest support were reducing class sizes and expanding preschool access.

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

Long-standing geographic disparities were present in the survey’s findings, with educators in Wayne, Macomb and Genesee counties rating their schools lower on everything from class size to building condition. Building conditions were rated more highly in Oakland and Kent counties, as well as West Michigan overall.

Launch Michigan compared its results to those of a similar 2018 study conducted in Tennessee by Vanderbilt University and the Tennessee Department of Education. Michigan lagged Tennessee, a state whose ratings were comparable to Michigan’s as of 2011, but has undergone significant reforms.

Michigan Education Association Director of Public Affairs Doug Pratt noted on Wednesday that “Tennessee’s improvements have made it … a comparable benchmark … in terms of places that would see rapid improvement growth in the education space. [It’s] certainly not the only state, but a state that has done this [improvement] and could provide a good data pool to check against.”

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Survey researcher Emma White was asked if teachers were confident about the state’s ability to do so. She noted that although teachers weren’t polled on that directly, their overall responses had a similar tone.

“They’re a little discouraged about the quality of education in Michigan, overall,” she said.

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson covers local government, education, health care and the social safety net, and LGBTQ issues. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington, and before that covered local politics in Chicago. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He enjoys film, the Detroit Pistons and his cat. He once competed in the National Spelling Bee, but was eliminated before any potential ESPN appearances.

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