We are in the first year of implementation of Michigan's new 3rd grade reading law, the law that has at its heart a desire to ensure that no child falls through the cracks–missing out on the necessary skill of reading proficiently.
Legislators in Lansing felt it was incumbent upon them to fix Michigan's terrible 3rd grade reading proficiency rate; currently, roughly half of third graders in the state of Michigan tested as proficient or advanced on the last M-STEP. Their bandaid method of choice was retention. In the first draft of the law, a mandate was put in place to retain any third grader who tested one year or more below grade level in reading. Thankfully, this version was revised to allow for multiple exceptions and to ensure that a child would not be held back for more than one year.
If you talk with proponents of this law, many will use a word we are using a lot in education lately: equity. They will state that we need to ensure that every child has every opportunity for success, and this law will ensure that no child slips between the cracks.
I think we can agree that equity is important. No one wants a child to grow into an illiterate adult.
In the implementation process for this law, the legislatures laid out the following guidelines for the 2017-2018 school year:
(Credit: MEA 2017)
You will note who the onus of this work falls on: educators. They must test more, contact parents more, complete more paperwork, learn more, give up more of their time. In fact, the requirements even mandate that their professional development is "intensified."
An outsider might say, "Yeah, so what? Isn't that their job to make sure that all of their students can read?" Yes. It is the responsibility of the teacher to grow and develop students.
When we add more and more on the plates of teachers, we forget about a different issue within equity in education. We forget about the ways that educators are humans too. They have a finite amount of emotional, physical, and mental energy. What happens when that is depleted? Burnout.
Imagine with me. Your soon to be third grader has an option of two different teachers.
Teacher A has a reputation. You have heard the horror stories about how he sometimes forgets to collect homework assignments but then loses it on the students when they turn in work late. He sometimes just puts on a movie for the students when he is tired of dealing with managing them, and he is said to be terrible at getting back to parents who voice concerns. He sometimes doesn't return phone calls at all.
Teacher B has a reputation too. You have heard he greets every student at the door in the morning with a special handshake, that he sometimes raps the instructions to assignments, and sends out pictures of the classroom to parents in a blog.
I am only guessing, but if you were able to, you would probably try to request Teacher B for your student.
Here's the thing, though, both Teacher A and Teacher B have been through the same training, they get the same reading specialist help, and if you were to dig down even deeper, both teachers have gotten similar evaluations from their administrator who visits their classroom twice a year.
So what's the difference? Teacher A is experiencing burnout. He has lost creativity because he feels incapable of meeting the growing demands in his classroom, he has lost his ability to empathize with his students and their parents, and he has lost his ability to regulate his emotions.
If you're an involved parent in your child's education, you have probably requested one teacher over another at some point, but what about all of the children who ended up in the other classroom? Does that really exhibit equity?
If we keep loading more and more on our teachers, we will actually increase the disparity between classrooms because we will continue to burn out our teachers at an increasing rate.
What that law should have included is a mandate to send teachers on a weeklong retreat every year to learn the skills they need to care for their emotional, mental, and physical health. Or, at the very least, the law should have stated that schools build significant supports into their schools for teachers to support their emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing.
Truth is that without healthy teachers, we will never have equity in education.
Thriving teachers. Thriving students.