Dyslexia bills advance in Michigan legislature with some changes

The sun is setting on the capitol building with a large green tree in the foreground and blue sky in the background.
Bills that would require Michigan schools to incorporate the "science of reading" into early literacy instruction have moved forward in the legislature. (Mike Kline / Getty Images)

Legislation that would require Michigan schools to use a reading curriculum and interventions for students with dyslexia that are backed by science has taken a different shape to satisfy school administrators who questioned the timeline in the bills.

The Senate Education Committee voted Feb. 20 to update two proposed bills to push back key compliance deadlines, clarify the types of classroom instruction that would be allowed, and adjust requirements for teacher preparation programs.

The amended bills are slated to go to the Senate floor for a vote. If passed, the bills would then go to the House.

The legislation, which is geared toward helping students with dyslexia, would also benefit all students learning to read, supporters say. The bills would make school systems and colleges use the “science of reading,” or early literacy instruction that emphasizes phonics along with building vocabulary and background knowledge.

Some critics of the bills agree that Michigan needs to do more to improve its falling reading scores and support struggling readers. However, they argue the state’s current efforts to improve literacy, including offering LETRS training, a professional learning course for teachers, is making a positive impact.

“Michigan has been building our literacy efforts focusing on research-supported instruction for all students,” said John Severson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, during a separate committee meeting earlier this month. “This bill shifts the focus to interventions, significantly impacting those who need instructional support but do not have dyslexia.”

Dyslexia, a hereditary reading disability, affects around 5% to 20% of people. Those who are diagnosed early and receive high-quality instruction go on to become average readers, studies show.

One bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Irwin, a Democrat from Ann Arbor, would require school districts to screen all students for characteristics of dyslexia and difficulty decoding language. It would also require interventions for struggling students to be based on the science of reading. The interventions, which would be tailored to students’ individual needs, could include strategies, such as breaking out into small groups, specialized phonics instruction, or using technology.

The other bill introduced by Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who represents parts of Canton and Livonia, would set stricter standards for teacher preparation programs. Teachers in the programs would have to learn the science of reading along with best practices for helping students with dyslexia.

Originally, Irwin’s bill would have given school systems until the beginning of the 2025-26 school year to add screeners for dyslexia to existing assessments. After hearing feedback from school officials, the committee voted to extend that deadline to the 2027-28 school year.

Ruth Johnson, a Republican representing parts of Oakland, Macomb, Genesee, and Lapeer counties, was the only committee member who voted against changing that part of the bill.

“I do not think delaying implementation a full two years serves students well, especially given that our state’s fourth grade reading scores have fallen 11 places since 2019 to 43rd in the country,” she said during the hearing.

The proposed legislation also was amended to move the deadline for the Michigan Department of Education to update its list of approved diagnostic reading assessments back by a year to December 2025. That will give the department and the companies that create assessments more time to comply.

Some school administrators had expressed concerns that the bill included overly prescriptive language, saying they worried instruction and interventions that do not emphasize phonics would be banned entirely.

The amended bill says that those strategies can be used outside of instruction on word recognition and decoding, and that they may also be part of a student’s individualized education program in special education.

School officials said during testimony on the bills that there are not enough literacy coaches, who help train teachers, currently employed in the state to overhaul early reading instruction in a short span of time.

“At what point are we going to have enough capacity?” said Polehanki in response to those concerns during the hearing. “We certainly have the funding. I know it takes time, but that’s not a reason to not test kids for dyslexia, in my opinion.”

Though more money has been allocated in the current state education budget and the governor’s 2024-25 proposed budget for more coaches, administrators said there still aren’t enough people applying for open positions.

Susan Schmidt, a former educator and current member of the Ann Arbor School Board, said she was worried that the bill would only allow literacy coaches to provide training or professional development on dyslexia to teachers.

“What we don’t need are more literacy coaches,” she said during the committee hearing. “What we do need are more highly trained teachers that sit across the table from that child in their classroom every single day.”

Schmidt said the professional training she received from the Michigan Dyslexia Institute was instrumental in her understanding of how she could help students with reading difficulties excel.

“A literacy coach may talk to you and say, ‘I want you to try this in your classroom,’” she said. “But I, the teacher, need that knowledge to empower me.”

The bill was updated after the hearing to say that districts may allow anyone who meets requirements for providing that training to do so.

A requirement for schools to report individual reading plans to their districts was removed from Irwin’s bill because of concerns that it would be burdensome to administrators and might violate personal student information.

Pholehanki’s bill was updated to make it clearer that there will be some basic requirements for all teacher education programs. More extensive parameters would be set for programs focused on reading instruction and special education.

The bill was also amended to allow the MDE to issue two-year waivers to certain teacher preparation programs that do not meet the requirements in the legislation.

Irwin and Polehanki’s bills are also tied to legislation proposed by Rep. Carol Glanville, a Democrat serving Walker, Grandville, the west side and parts of Northeast Grand Rapids, that would mandate the state superintendent establish a 10-member advisory committee on dyslexia within the MDE.

A separate House bill introduced by Rep. Kathy Schmaltz, a Republican who represents parts of Jackson and Washtenaw counties, would make districts employ at least one educator trained in Orton-Gillingham, a multi-sensory teaching methodology that research suggests helps students with dyslexia.

Both House bills were referred to the House Education Committee in October.

What would the revised bills require?

  • Irwin’s bill would require schools to screen for characteristics of dyslexia and difficulty decoding language by the 2027-28 school year. Students in K-3 would be screened at least three times a year. Every student who shows signs of having the learning disability or trouble decoding would get intervention.
  • The MDE would have to update its list of approved assessments schools can use to screen students between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31, 2025. Districts would have to select the screeners they would use by Aug. 1, 2027.
  • By the 2027-28 school year, districts would have to ensure literacy coaches, consultants, and other staff providing K-12 reading instruction or intervention have received professional learning about dyslexia and interventions.
  • Polehanki’s bill would only allow the MDE to approve teacher preparation programs, or alternative teaching programs that include instruction on dyslexia. Programs that do not grant certificates specific to reading instruction or special education may be able to get a two-year waiver from the MDE.

Hannah Dellinger covers K-12 education and state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at hdellinger@chalkbeat.org.

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