The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) hosted a summit yesterday, “Conquering the Achievement Gap: The Promise of African American Males.” The summit was an opportunity for the Department to discuss the work it has undertaken since the State Board of Education identified the reduction of the achievement gap as a priority in 2012. At the summit were national partners, state partners, and local partners all standing ready to address achievement gaps in new ways.
Michigan’s Children was asked to help MDE with one of the most critical pieces of this effort: to make sure that the voices of young people themselves – their challenges, suggestions, perspectives and candor – are incorporated into any strategy development or implementation. Two focus groups were held in Ingham County, which led to a commitment to facilitation of 30 more focus groups around the state.
While the bulk of the summit focused on work that has been done internally at MDE – a necessity to demonstrate that you are practicing what you preach – movement to end opportunity gaps in this state will require more intentionally coordinated efforts through state departments beyond education, and other private sector partners as well. There is obviously plenty of work and responsibility to go around. Clearly the educational system has to change – what we’ve been doing, prioritizing, investing in has contributed to the gaps in achievement, high school completion, and elsewhere for African American students and other challenged groups. And what we’ve been doing, prioritizing and investing in elsewhere like health, human services, and other sectors, from cradle to career, has also contributed to these gaps, intentionally or unintentionally.
Equity gaps begin before birth and persist. You’ve all heard me say it and I’ll say it again – by nine months of age we can see cognitive gaps forming, and without investments in initiatives targeting that gap, they persist and expand by the time that child reaches school, and continue to persist and expand through that child’s k-12 education and beyond.
Despite our good intentions, these gaps remain. The voices of parents and young people can help us prioritize investment and better implement the strategies we pursue.
Lots of data was presented at this summit. While the disparity data is always stark, the outcomes remain strikingly similar to those in place when I began in this field in 1990. Beginning with a data and research base is important, but what we learn from the data and research needs to drive what we do next. I’ll say this again as well. There are clear research-backed strategies for investment that close opportunity gaps: programs that support better economic and health security for the poorest among us; early learning supports; and supports for the most challenged students throughout their educational career to name just a few. We passed a state budget this week that reflected very few of these things. We need to make sure that we are matching our investment priorities with our good intentions.
We have another chance to provide resource to the kind of multi-sector approach necessary for reducing the achievement gap as we move forward, most importantly in the next fiscal year budget, and that work starts now.