Monthly Archives November 2013

Extending Educational Accountability Beyond the School Doors

We have high expectations of our education system, and rightly so.  Educators have one of the most important jobs with the greatest ability to impact Michigan’s economic recovery.  Do we want and need effective teaching and learning?  Of course.  Do we want and need accountability for educational outcomes?  Of course.  Do we want all schools to be of the highest quality?  Of course.  The need and impact are too great and we certainly don’t have public funds to spare.  The Legislature is currently debating the best way to communicate our schools’ effectiveness, but the question that we should be grappling with is how do we support and evaluate our education system to be best able to promote that effective learning.

Effective learning demands a great deal of things.  I like the ASCD’s Whole Child language, which I’m paraphrasing here.  Michigan children and youth need to:

  1. enter school healthy and learn about healthy practices as they progress;
  2. learn in physical and emotional safety;
  3. be connected to the broader community through their learning;
  4. have access to learning tailored to their challenges and strengths;
  5. have access to caring and competent adults involved in their learning; and
  6. be challenged throughout their educational careers so that they can be prepared for college and career.

Much of this is obvious, and all is well documented in research.  When kids are hungry, when they haven’t slept, when they aren’t feeling safe at home or at school, as just three of many possible examples, their ability to engage with even the highest skilled teaching in the best run school is challenged.

The responsibility that falls on classroom teachers and other school and district staff for effective teaching and learning has been and continues to be discussed, and the best way to measure its effectiveness hotly debated.  What is perhaps less obvious and certainly not discussed enough, is the responsibility that falls on other systems that impact students for the rest of their learning, beginning well before kindergarten and continuing outside of the classroom through their educational careers.

The question has always been, and rightly so, how do we ensure the best use of public dollar for education – how are we using what we know, in this case what we know about effective teaching and learning, to assess the best use of the resources that we spend within the education system, and within other systems that impact learning as well.

Can we assess and support and reward educators, schools and communities in addition to skill in subject area and teaching and learning pedagogy, and also in their prowess in those practices that serve to close achievement gaps?  In the ability to connect early and often with children, youth and their families?  In the ability to consistently engage each student?  In the ability to move students individually on their own trajectory? In the ability to provide 2nd and 3rd chances for the most challenged students to succeed?  Can we assess and support and reward the ability of educators and schools to collaborate together and connect with outside supports – parents and community resources?

Can we not punish educators and schools for structures and impacts beyond their control, BUT not end the conversation there?  Can we expand responsibility for educational success a little to rest with us all, and support that responsibility accordingly?  At this point, the Michigan Legislature is discussing yet another school accountability system.  We urge them to expand this conversation to evaluate how all of the components of our teaching and learning system are doing and invest support and resources accordingly.

-Michele Corey

Shining a Spotlight on Third Grade Reading

Last month, House Bill (HB) 5111 was introduced to address the significant challenges Michigan students face regarding third grade reading proficiency.  The 2012 Michigan Kids Count Data Book reported that 69 percent of Michigan fourth-graders had reading skills below the proficiency level according to national standardized tests, and significant disparities were prevalent by race and income.  Specifically, nine out of ten African American students, eight of every ten Hispanic/Latino, and eight of every ten low-income students could not demonstrate reading proficiency, rates that are significantly worse than for white and higher-income students.  Clearly, the Legislature must shine a spotlight on this critical benchmark, which can negatively impact students’ future educational careers beyond fourth grade if students fail to master needed literacy skills.

HB 5111 would ensure that students could not enroll in the fourth grade until they demonstrate third grade literacy standards.  However, merely retaining students to repeat the third grade will prove to be insufficient if the goal is to increase third grade reading proficiency.  Other evidenced measures to support children’s literacy development must be in place to ensure more students can reach this critical benchmark.  In response, HB 5144 was introduced this week and would require the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) to adopt policies and programs that would enable more Michigan children to attain reading proficiency by the end of third grade.  This bill is tie-barred to HB 5111, meaning that neither bill would be implemented unless both bills are passed into law.

HB 5114 makes the critical first step of working to identify some strategies, led by MDE, to move more children towards reading proficiency.  However, we already know what it takes to ensure that children are meeting this critical benchmark.  Michigan took the first step by significantly expanding the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) – the state’s preschool program for four-year-olds at-risk of being underprepared for kindergarten – to ensure that thousands of additional children could access this program.  GSRP has proven to not only better prepare youngsters for kindergarten but also increase third grade reading levels.

But access to high quality preschool is only one piece of the puzzle.  Last week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a Kids Count policy report on the first eight years of life, which I blogged about, that also addresses third grade reading.  As laid out in that report and as we know to be true from research, creating a high quality birth through third grade (B-3rd) system would support seamless transitions between early childhood and the early elementary years by merging the best and most critical components of early childhood and K-3/K-12 that result in better outcomes for kids, and ultimately eliminate achievement gaps.  A B-3rd system will ensure that children develop strong foundational skills in literacy/communication and math well before kindergarten and develop social and emotional competence that begins early – all of which will be sustained once children are in school.  Children and their families will establish patterns of engagement in school and learning while having the supports they need at home and in their communities – supports that can mitigate the challenges that are often associated with racial and economic disparities.  Brain development is at its peak in the first three years and cognitive gaps can be seen in infants as young as 9 months of age.  Thus, early, continued and coordinated supports are essential.

Beginning with early supports and creating a seamless transition between early childhood and elementary school is essential to making substantial strides in third grade reading proficiency.  As the Michigan Legislature continues the dialogue on what it takes to ensure more students are successfully reaching this critical benchmark, policymakers must look holistically at what challenges young children face to read proficiently and knock-down the systemic barriers that stand in their way.

Learn more about the birth to third grade system in Michigan’s Children’s Issues report.

-Mina Hong

Cross-Sector Coordination Essential in the First Eight Years of Life

Today, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a Kids Count Policy Report titled The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success.  This report takes a close look at how young children are faring and makes some public policy recommendations that could improve their first eight years of life.  As we’ve said many times at Michigan’s Children, we know that our next workforce will be the most diverse yet, so improving educational outcomes for all children – particularly children of color and children from low-income communities – is critical to Michigan’s future economic vitality.  This means setting the right foundation in those first critical years and continuing to build upon that solid foundation in the K-12 setting to ensure lifelong success.

We know that by the time children reach third grade, they must be successful readers in order to continue to succeed in school.  As they say, until third grade, children are learning to read; and beginning in fourth grade, they are reading to learn, with proficiency in every other subject – math, science, social studies, art – dependent on reading ability.  We know that too many Michigan children fail to achieve this critical benchmark indicator and children of color and children from low-income families struggle even more so.  Unfortunately, a focus simply at reading improvement at the school building and within the school day once children enter kindergarten is not sufficient.  Reading proficiently by the third grade is a symptom of system successes and failures up to that point in the life of a child.  Only when we look at this system holistically will we be able to ensure more children can successfully achieve this crucial benchmark.

As the Kids Count policy report shows, our nation – including Michigan – must do better when it comes to child well-being in the first eight years of life as this will impact third grade reading outcomes as well as future life success.  As today’s report lays out, an effective system serving children from birth through age eight would:

  1. support parents as they care for their children;
  2. improve access to quality early care and education, health care, and other services; and
  3. ensure that care is comprehensive and coordinated for all children from birth through age 8.

Keeping a focused goal on reading proficiency, the Kids Count report reiterates the myth that classroom learning is isolated from other aspects of child development and that in fact, cross-sector collaboration that reaches outside the classroom doors is necessary to ensure that Michigan’s most challenged children can read proficiently.  These early years of a child’s life provide a perfect opportunity to illustrate how health, human services, workforce, and other sectors can work closely with the education community to foster children’s success.  Public policies can support and incentivize cross-sector and inter-agency coordination.

One example already in existence is Early On, which identifies infants and toddlers with developmental delays and works with families and their young children to provide appropriate interventions.  Early On oversight lies within the Michigan Department of Education but works closely with health and human services to ensure that families can support their young children.  Early On providers teach parents how to foster and support their child’s growth and development, connects children to appropriate interventions such as speech or physical therapy, and can connect families to other needed services as they relate to socio-emotional services, home visiting needs, and the like. Early identification of developmental delays can ensure that appropriate interventions can be administered and that children can get back on track to succeed in school.  While Early On provides a critical service for Michigan’s most challenged infants, toddlers, and their families, this program is woefully underfunded and too many families can’t access the wraparound services their children need.

Additionally, there are innovative practices happening around the state and nation that facilitate connections between schools and other public and private service providers.  Communities in Schools is a well-researched national model currently utilized in several Michigan communities.  Another relatively newer program that targets children in elementary schools is Pathways to Potential, which was modeled after the Kent School Services Network – a well-established county-based strategy that has demonstrated student outcomes.  These programs formally coordinate needed family supports through the Department of Human Services – supports like food assistance, child care assistance, and housing assistance – in a school setting, which is significantly less intimidating than a DHS office.  Pathways to Potential Success Coaches also integrate child and family health needs, parental needs, and other critical pieces that support struggling children with the ultimate goal focused on school attendance.  The work remaining is to ensure that Pathways to Potential results in the outcomes that we want and that it can be replicated in communities across our state while catering to individual community needs.

These types of holistic programs focus on the individual child’s success while also providing the needed services to ensure that other challenging factors in a child’s life can be addressed.  We know that these types of services can ensure that more Michigan young children from particularly challenging circumstances can reach the third grade reading benchmark.  Thus,  more coordinated programs and services are needed to ensure that Michigan can better support our young children from birth through age eight.

-Mina Hong

See the Michigan League for Public Policy’s blog on the Kids Count policy report and their corresponding news release.

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