Falling behind: How a Muskegon psychologist is fighting for reading reform in school

Children in West Michigan, and throughout the country, are being left behind when it comes to reading — and a school psychologist in Muskegon is sounding a rallying cry for change. 
A school psychologist in West Michigan public schools for nearly 40 years, David McGough understands what it is like to struggle with reading.

He credits his lower level English teacher, Marian Hinkley, for working with him from ninth through 12th grades at North Muskegon High School and teaching him how to read and write, while his friends, whom he later joined at University of Michigan, were reading Shakespeare, he says.

McGough has become a one-man crusader against what he calls an ignorant, illogical and discriminatory public education system, especially for students with reading difficulties. Run into him at a restaurant, on the softball field, or out in the local Muskegon community, and he will launch into a passionate and well-supported spiel on how public schools are failing children and why it is everyone’s problem.

“I’ve always had a personal tie to this whole thing,” he says. “I was the kid I am fighting for. I want people to think about the issue.”

After stints at Ferris State University and Western Michigan University and inspired by his own struggles, McGough transferred to University of Michigan to pursue a career in school psychology. Working on the front lines in various districts, he has supervised psychological services for emotionally impaired and learning disabled students and a youth development program through the courts for juvenile offenders, and most recently tested students in Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System to see if they need special education, special assistance or remediation.

He has witnessed the far-reaching ramifications for students and society when a pupil is either pushed through without the necessary skills to succeed or decides to quit out of boredom and frustration.

“I had a moral and ethical obligation to do this,” he says of a yearlong research project he recently conducted on the effectiveness of public education for students with reading difficulties in areas with low socioeconomic status. “When I met these kids and saw them, bright, bright kids who couldn’t read … kids with 130 IQs reading at the second-grade level, a kid with tears in his eyes asking, ‘Why isn’t anyone teaching me to read?’ They don’t have the dream of being successful through that reading pathway.”

As McGough explains, the end result of an education system that is leaving children behind when it comes to reading and literacy impacts society from the micro- to macro-level, and results in:
  • Increased crime rates; there is a correlation between illiteracy and crime.
  • Money spent on incarceration and welfare programs.
  • Students who have to take remedial reading in college and pay for it with their Pell grant.
  • Students who become disenfranchised and quit school, contributing to higher dropout rates.
  • People who are not prepared for the workforce and the high-tech jobs of today.
  • Mental health deterioration, self-esteem issues and substance abuse.
McGough conducted a yearlong project in 2015-16 that involved interviewing students, prisoners and educators (in K-12 and college) from Michigan, Florida and California, as well as a small sample of business people and one Michigan politician. He focused on the effectiveness of public education for students in low socioeconomic areas with reading difficulties, which he explains in a YouTube video, "The Ignorance of Public Education." He emphasizes it is not just a Muskegon County problem, but rather a state and national problem. In Michigan, the schools the state has slated for potential closure are in urban environments and inner cities.

“Public education is not a friend to inner city schools,” he says. “Look at the 38 on the list to possibly close.”

He asked 60 public school educators and a half-dozen nationally known college professors, department chairs and experts, “If we offered as much focused reading instruction as necessary throughout K-12, and took a number of current graduation requirements off the plate, would that increase or decrease the meaning of a high school diploma?” The response was unanimous: It would increase the value.
David McGough

While it might sound controversial, McGough says there isn’t much data to support the state’s current graduation requirements, and he particularly emphasizes his dissatisfaction with the way reading is taught in school. He believes reading needs a place in the school day, or prime time, for those who do not master it by the third grade. English class is not the same as learning how to read, which teaches basic reading skills like decoding, encoding and phonemic awareness -- all of which improve fluency and comprehension.

“If reading is so important to not being a criminal, getting a job and feeling good about yourself, why would we stop teaching it?’ he says. “It’s a dysfunctional system. We’re creating disenfranchised kids.”

Education reform: a national debate

While many people agree public education is in need of reform, the best way to go about it has taken center stage in the public sphere.

State test results show less than half of Michigan’s third-graders are proficient in reading, and other data shows Michigan slipping even further in math and reading in national rankings. In 2015, the state ranked 41st in the nation in fourth-grade reading levels, when it was 28th in 2003, according to a report published last spring by The Education Trust-Midwest, which also finds low-performance transcends race and income.

Nationally, eyes have turned to West Michigan’s Betsy DeVos, a divisive figure in the education field and a longtime proponent of school vouchers and charter schools in Michigan, as she steps into the role of U.S. Secretary of Education. Her entrance into the national educational arena follows being confirmed with a historic tie-breaking vote by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence after two members of her own Republican Party turned against her.

DeVos isn’t without her share of controversy, especially among public school supporters, but McGough says “the thing I like about her is she feels that public education is broken.”

“If Betsy DeVos wants to make major, and I mean major changes to public education, I'm fine with that. How can she hurt us? How could it get more irrelevant and dysfunctional?" he adds.

However, when it comes to literacy efforts in Michigan, DeVos has taken a series of hits, being accused of, for example, helping to create a “deeply dysfunctional educational landscape” in Detroit, as the Detroit Free Press writes, by advocating for charter expansion throughout the city -- and the state. The deeply rooted problems in Detroit’s public school system have prompted widespread and vehement criticism of DeVos, among others, and in September of 2016, a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of a group of Detroit schoolchildren who allege the state failed to provide them with basic literacy. In response to the lawsuit, Michigan attorneys argued that literacy is not a constitutional right.

At the statehouse, a Lansing committee on improving Michigan competitiveness is considering a bill that would scrap the national “Common Core” curriculum in Michigan schools and tests, and replace it with guidelines the state of Massachusetts used in 2008 to 2009 in an effort to return local control to districts and give parents more authority in Michigan’s schools.

And last fall, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a third-grade reading bill designed to improve childhood literacy, but it includes a controversial provision on third-grade retention. The law, which takes effect in 2019-20, requires schools to hold back third-graders who are more than a grade level behind. It includes various exemptions and calls for schools to implement screening and intervention programs designed to identify struggling students and boost early-elementary reading skills.  

The Michigan Legislature HB 4822, which became Public Act 306, is based on research showing that literacy after third grade is a key predictor of student academic success. Under the new law, third-graders must demonstrate proficiency in one of three ways: Through Michigan’s state standardized test, an alternative assessment, or multiple work samples that show competency on all third-grade English language art standards.

Educators, experts and lawmakers have various theories as to why students are falling so far behind in critical subject areas like math and reading, and many point to poverty and other social factors as part of the problem. However, they do not believe holding back children who are doing well in other subjects but struggling with reading is the answer.

“It only makes sense if you limit your thinking to the current dysfunctional system,” McGough says. “Why separate kids from their peers? Why not just keep systematically teaching reading? The weight of the importance of reading at grade level by the end of third grade is dictated by the fact that’s when we stop systematically teaching it. There’s nothing about a child’s neurological development that defines third grade as the magic moment in time.”

Marcia Hovey-Wright, a former state representative from Muskegon, voted against the third-grade reading bill. She is a psychotherapist and licensed social worker and felt the possibility of retaining children would be more inclined to hurt them based on numerous studies and articles.

Wright, whom McGough mentions in his video, says she had an informal conversation with him and “thinks he’s credible.”

The Michigan Department of Education also opposed the bill in its original form, but was satisfied with the revisions that included intervention and support programs and exemptions, according to William DiSessa, a spokesperson in the Office of Public & Governmental Affairs.

Focused reading instruction does stop at the end of the third grade because studies show students typically learn to read by the third grade and then read to learn after that, the spokesman notes.

“Third grade is a pivotal point, and so there is certainly quite a bit of attention and focus paid to that period,” DiSessa says. “Now that said, I would say the Department would agree to a point with the school psychologist (McGough). After the third grade, those students who are still struggling to read, the districts should cater to those students’ individual needs.”

McGough also reached out to UCLA’s Center X for perspective for his project. Center X brings researchers and practitioners together to design and conduct programs that prepare and support K-12 teachers and administrators committed to social justice, instructional excellence, the integration of research and practice, and caring in low-income urban schools.

While continuing to teach reading beyond the third grade or offering specialized instruction and corrective reading programs may be part of the solution, another area that needs to be addressed is adequate teacher training, says Shervaughnna Anderson-Byrd, director of the Reading Programs/California Reading and Literature Project at Center X.

In general, most educators receive a semester of training on how to teach reading. It takes another year or more to earn a specialized reading certification, which teachers have no incentive to pursue because it’s extra time and money.

“That’s a big problem,” Anderson-Byrd says. “That’s part of my job, to do teacher professional development because so many teachers didn’t learn how to teach reading. It’s one of the most important skills and strategies because they (students) need it for every other subject.”

As Michigan aims to do, California has returned a lot of autonomy to local districts in the way of budgeting, curriculum and even textbooks and course materials they want to use, Anderson-Byrd says, and everyone is watching and waiting to see how it works.

DiSessa says local districts do have flexibility with their curriculum, but thinks it’s unrealistic to offer dedicated reading classes in high school. Instead, he says, schools need to identify the issue as soon as possible through assessment and teacher observation and offer early, targeted intervention programs to struggling students on an individualized basis.

“We have a set of standards here in Michigan, but we do not dictate the curriculum to schools,” he says. “This is a local education state; decisions on what to teach, textbooks are local district decisions.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to have a reading class throughout K-12 education,” he continues. “They need to have the basic literacy skills in place as soon as possible. It should not be left up to a class in ninth or 10 grade as an example.”

Center X provides professional development to California teachers in the areas of language, reading and literacy using CRLP’s Literacy and Framework for Assessment and Instruction developed by John Shefelbine. One side of the framework, traditionally taught in pre-K through third grade, focuses on decoding and encoding, including word recognition, spelling strategies and fluency, while the other side for grades four through 12 deals with vocabulary, syntax and comprehension strategies.

“The decoding side of the framework impacts the comprehension side of the framework,” Anderson-Byrd says.

Common Core has upped the ante as far as more rigorous reading requirements, and is built on the assumption that children know how to read by fourth grade.

“All the levels of reading have increased and the expectations have increased,” says Anderson-Byrd, who agrees with McGough that there is no definitive research out there to support that children should know how to read by a certain age. “They won’t be successful in comprehension if they’re not strong on the other side of the decoding/encoding.”

Anderson-Byrd also questions the effectiveness of retaining (holding students back) without doing something differently, whether that’s pairing them with a different teacher who specializes in reading or providing a solid intervention program.

“If they didn’t get it the first time, there’s not a real benefit to retaining kids at a high rate,” she says. “Reading is developmental, and we teach it chronologically. In France, they understand it’s developmental.”

Poverty & prison: Tackling socioeconomic issues

Every time McGough hears of a student getting into trouble, he wonders where things started to go wrong in school. Over the past couple of years, he interviewed several teenagers in juvenile detention or incarcerated at Muskegon County Jail and found reading was a deficit area, and their rage and anger really started toward the end of elementary school.

“It’s pretty easy to connect the dots,” he says. “Illiteracy. No job. Lots of anger, prison. … If you can’t read, it’s really, really hard to succeed -- period.”

Other findings he shares include:
 People love to blame parents, teachers and administrations, but McGough says a one-size-fits-all curriculum is not working. He believes local districts should have more control over curriculum based on their student population and unique needs.

He cites the results of the Michigan Merit Exam as a good example. In the 2009-10 school year, Muskegon Heights, the district where McGough previously worked, ranked eighth in math and last in reading proficiency, whereas Bloomfield Hills, a suburban district located north of Detroit, ranked first. The recent SAT state comparison also ranked Muskegon Heights last and Bloomfield Hills first.

He says teachers in urban environments have to deal with a host of issues related to behavior management, which hinders classroom instruction.

“The issue is that the product of a state-mandated curriculum that is not research driven and doesn't take into consideration a child’s history and individual needs in terms of instruction is dangerous and devastating,” he says. “The difference between teaching in the inner city and in the burbs is astronomical. Poverty brings frustration and all kinds of stuff that doesn’t lend itself to being learning ready.”

McGough also encounters many urban youth who tell him they are going to become a professional athlete, but they have no plan, and they don’t know how to read. And unlike past generations, there are no more foundry and factory jobs waiting for high school dropouts.

A sports star in high school, Doug Burse, a Muskegon Heights resident and graduate and now head basketball coach at Mona Shores High School, can relate. He helped Muskegon Heights’ basketball team earn two state championships in the 1970s, yet never learned to read. He told everyone he planned to join the military, but knew he wasn’t going anywhere.  

Doug Burse

He says he talked girls into doing his schoolwork for him and made it through school by talking and smiling. His parents didn’t know he couldn’t read or write, but he doesn’t blame them, or his teachers or the district. He says he chose not to engage.

“My struggles through school were all individual,” he says. “I thought I was being the big man on campus.”

Reality hit him when he was filling out an application for Muskegon Community College and couldn’t read it. He made it through one basketball season at MCC, then started selling drugs and later doing them.

Burse was addicted to crack cocaine for a decade, in and out of several rehabs and banned from staying overnight at his mother’s house. One night, sitting on her porch steps in the midst of a storm with nowhere to go, he decided to walk to Teen Challenge, a Norton Shores-based organization that works with individuals struggling with addiction.

There, he had to study and read the Bible. He was asked to read a scripture out loud, and couldn’t, and that’s when a group of men started praying for him.

“That was the first time I was put on the spot,” he says. “Teen Challenge really saved my life.”

Burse says he still struggles with reading, and strives to be a role model for students. He tells his story to students of all ages to emphasize the importance of school, as well as staying away from drugs.

Burse believes a variety of social factors are contributing to the current literacy problem, from poverty and crime to too much technology and video games.  

His son, Kobe Burse, graduated from Mona Shores, and received a Division I college football scholarship to Miami of Ohio.

“He said ‘Mona Shores prepared me,’” he says. “In my situation, I wasn’t prepared.”

McGough’s daughter also graduated from Mona Shores and took college classes in high school. McGough says she could afford to be bored, but inner city youth can’t be.

“We’re creating disenfranchised kids who are going to turn to other means for money and respect,” he says. “It’s unfair to deny kids a quality instruction that addresses their needs. When we have kids in urban environments, they become bored in school, and we lose them. We lose them to crime.”

Implications beyond high school
The issue of illiteracy becomes an even larger problem beyond high school, when college students have to pay to take remedial courses which do not count toward a certificate or degree. Many of them use their Pell Grant and then run out of money, McGough says.

Dr. Dale Nesbary, president of Muskegon Community College, agrees with much of McGough’s findings, but says the problem is not isolated to urban districts.

Dale Nesbary“Students do come to us not as well-prepared as they should be,” he says. “I would say to not just think it’s a problem in that district or this district. We see students from everywhere, and it’s not just reading" with which they are struggling.

While McGough says he has heard upwards of 90 percent of community college students need remedial courses, not just in Michigan, but across the country, Nesbary says between 50 and 60 percent of MCC students have to take some remedial courses, whether in math, reading or writing, and composition.

MCC also has a College Success Center and Writing Center and pairs students with tutors for more individualized help. Beyond remedial courses, community colleges also teach courses on how to succeed in college.

Nesbary has a doctorate degree in law, policy and society and agrees social, economic and educational issues prevent children from coming to school ready to learn and keeping pace with their peers. Having an unstable home life impacts school performance, and it’s well-substantiated that the more poorly a child performs in school, the more likely they are to end up in the criminal justice system, he says.

Nesbary and his wife still read to each other, and it’s something that should be a lifelong habit. He asks parents, or anyone who cares about a child, to consider: “When is the last time you read to your child? When is the last time you read with your child? ... Reading is just so important and it’s something that should never, ever stop.”

They all agree home factors cannot be ignored as part of the discussion, including: children being left at home alone while a parent works, not having someone to help them with homework, parents not knowing how to help or not having the time, and children coming to school hungry.

While policy can change and teachers can be better trained to teach reading, there is no denying economic and social barriers hinder some students’ success. They might lack supervision, conversation, and reading materials in the house, or families may not have the money to afford a tutor or have the means to transport children there several days a week, Anderson-Byrd says.

Like everything, the question also comes down to who pays for professional teacher development, for tutoring, or for specialized intervention programs in schools. In his video, McGough highlights how corrective reading programs and intensive intervention for a certain amount of time has been shown to work.

Anderson-Byrd concurs, but says not only would districts have to create room in the schedule for students to meet with a reading specialist, but they need to give teachers some sort of incentive to earn that credential.

“It’s got to be consistent and you have to sacrifice something … you need to have a reading specialist teaching those support classes not just a regular teacher,” she says. “We keep sending our kids to general practitioners rather than a specialist.”

“If they could figure out a plan to train and hire reading specialists in the state and put those reading specialist in schools, they might see a different result than retaining a whole group of kids,” she continues.

Finally, she circles back to the CRLP’s Literacy Framework, encased in black with the word “motivation” at the top and “success, pleasure, relevance, purpose” written under it.

“If you’re teaching the phonics part, it has to be meaningful,” she says. “It’s about making all of this meaningful in general. If you’re not motivated to do something, it’s not going to happen. Motivation is about success, pleasure, relevance, and purpose. Teachers need to be mindful of that when they are instructing.”

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Marla R. Miller is an award-winning journalist and professional writer based in West Michigan. Learn more about her by visiting her website or Facebook.

Photography by Adam and Kristina Bird
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