Speaking for Kids

Building Champions for Education and Life Success

January 28, 2014 – Bridge Magazine released their ranked list of Academic State Champions – the Michigan schools considered to be over-achievers, that is that their students have better test scores than other schools with similar student and family demographics. We applaud the Bridge and Public Sector Consultants in their efforts to examine student achievement a little bit differently, acknowledging that different schools serve different families and students, and that success for schools with higher educational resources available to them and higher resources available to their families needs to be measured differently from that of schools and families with fewer resources available. And beyond resource and demographics, we also need to listen to young people themselves on the challenges they face and how well their schools and communities assist them in overcoming those challenges.

I just emceed a YouthSpeak event yesterday at the Washtenaw County Chambers. Michigan’s Children, the Washtenaw Alliance for Children and Youth, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and State Representative David Rutledge brought together State Representatives, County Commissioners, School Board members and administrators from several school systems in the area, and 18 young people from a variety of geographies and circumstances together to talk about building more educational success in their communities. As always, the young people articulately expressed their concerns and recommendations.

Based on this and many other conversations with young people, in addition to the Bridge’s evaluation of success, we would like to see Michigan evaluate and congratulate school systems on several other essential components:

  • On their ability to provide alternatives to disciplinary practices that cause young people to miss educational opportunity and access community resources to assist.
  • On their ability to reconnect with young people who have disconnected – through support of programs for the 5th and 6th year of a diploma path, and through support of GED and other alternatives for students with extremely challenging circumstances to continue on their post-secondary paths.
  • On their ability to individualize educational strategies to accommodate life challenges, and their ability to support real and consistent supportive relationships between adults and students inside the classroom and beyond.
  • On their ability to connect their students with extended learning opportunities beyond the school day that help young people better see their own strengths and build on their own successes and leadership potential.
  • On their ability to assess early issues outside the school walls that impact educational success like mental or behavioral health needs, homelessness and mobility challenges and intervene with the help of community partners.
  • Finally, and maybe most importantly, on their ability to consistently involve the voices of the most challenged young people in policy decisions and priority setting.

None of these suggestions are new. They come up every time we allow young people to tell us about strategies that matter to them and to their success. Let’s listen and act. Policy conversations are happening right now about the state budget, about teacher evaluation, school discipline and “any time, any way, any pace” learning opportunities. Michigan can prioritize resources and options for the most challenged children, youth, families, schools and communities in proven effective ways that can make a difference in our state’s success. We will continue to work with policymakers to help them see those policy options and we need your help to show policymakers that you support those decisions.

-Michele Corey

Raising Our Voices in 2014

January 24, 2014 – With the holiday season behind us, the 2014 election season will soon take center stage. Unfortunately the future of children, youth and families in Michigan often gets lost during campaign hullabaloo, despite the fact that it is consistently a top priority for voters. Now is our chance to change that.

Of course Michigan’s Children will be closely following this year’s state budget process that began with clues in the Governor’s State of the State last week and will continue with his budget release in early February.  Of course we will be working with national partners like First Focus to intervene in strategic federal budget and policy conversations.  We will be keeping you posted about all of that, as we always do.  But my thoughts today are focused on the core of our democracy – how we chose the people who represent us and who we expect to make the best public policy decisions on our behalf.  Voters like yourselves around the state and around the country are deeply concerned about the challenges children, youth, their families and their communities face today and their prospects for the future. We know that the majority of voters believe that children’s lives are worse today than they were 10 years ago, and that our own children will be more challenged in building their lives, families and communities than we were.   Here’s the good news:  voters want to help. Even voters who believe government does too much want the federal budget to prioritize investments in children.  The dilemma is that people don’t always cast their votes with this in mind.

As in each election, decisions made by those we elect this November to local, state and federal offices will have direct and immediate consequences for our communities.  As the recent Kids Count in Michigan Databook again revealed, increasing shares of children, youth and families in Michigan are becoming even more vulnerable as poverty continues to rise and child abuse and neglect reaches additional victims.  To change this trajectory, Michigan needs leaders who will champion policy and program decisions proven to work.  Consider…

  • The federal Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) lift five million children out of poverty every year, but Congress will decide whether those defenses shelter more children or fewer from poverty’s reach. One-fifth of children live in homes affected by hunger, and with nearly half of Food Stamps funds going to children, Congress will decide which children get the food they need and which go hungry. Efforts over the last several years by the Michigan Legislature to cut supports for low wage workers like the state EITC are counter-productive.  Michigan’s subsidized child care system needs major changes to make staying on the job the best family choice for parents struggling to meet children’s needs.  Workforce development resources need to be much better targeted toward the most challenged families and include better supports for education and training.  Members of our Legislature and the Governor will determine if we will chart a more family-friendly course in the coming years.
  • Our schools continue to struggle, in large part because a parent’s income rather than a child’s ability determines whether kids begin school ready to learn, have great schools to attend, and can continue with the extended learning supports that are so critical to building life and career success.  A federal-state pre-school partnership could help to level the playing field, but whether that proposal advances or falters will be up to the men and women we send to Washington. Michigan has taken huge steps in improving pre-school access, but has not advanced programming for infants, toddlers and their families, failing to close literacy and other gaps when they first appear – as early as nine months. And, our elected officials have failed to prioritize programs that improve the educational success of the most challenged young people and adults.
  • The most vulnerable children and families – those at risk of becoming or already involved in Child Protective Servies, foster care and juvenile justice systems continue to share with us that we’ve done little to prevent their suffering, even though we know so much about the factors that contribute to parents’ inability to appropriately care for their children.  We know so much about the relationship between involvement in juvenile crime and the failure of systems to help young people succeed.  We’ve seen some leadership from members of our Congressional Delegation on these issues, and hope that they continue to press for more investment and better services.  We have also seen a disinvestment in prevention by our State Legislators and need to expect more from them.

If citizens remain on the sidelines, these are not the issues that will dominate the airwaves this election year.  You have to be clear about what you want to hear from the candidates.  When a candidate gives a speech in your community, go, and ask about child poverty, about child maltreatment, about educational success. When a campaign calls you for a contribution, a yard sign, or to attend a rally, tell them to first send the candidate’s position papers on topics to improve the lives of children, youth and families in your community. When the local TV anchor signs up to moderate a candidate debate, send an email urging her to ask real questions about preventing child abuse and neglect, or improving the educational outcomes of all children, regardless of their race or ethnicity, where they live or how much their parents earn.

Don’t ever doubt that in a democracy, our voices are still enough to make a real difference.

-Michele Corey

Portions of this blog were published as an opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press on 1/22/14 and offered to other news outlets around the state.

Improving the State of our State

January 17, 2014 – The Governor’s annual State of the State address last night was his opportunity to talk about what he sees as the status of Michigan over the last year, and what he expects to prioritize over the next.  It is pretty easy to document the current state of our state:  rising poverty for kids and families, tied to many costly challenges from cradle to career; some economic progress in Michigan that, while on a positive note is improving the state of our budget revenues, is also a result of shifting economic realities that maintain low wage workers’ high unemployment, underemployment and tenuous connection to the workforce.

How can we change this circumstance?  Because education levels are so directly related to consistent, family supporting employment and the income tied to that employment, at least a part of that answer has to do with building college and career readiness in more of our young people.  At this point, some of our Michigan young people have it, and some don’t.  Why such disparity in this outcome?  High school graduation and subsequent success in post-secondary and career options are symptoms of the success and failure of many systems.  We choose which of these systems we are interested in supporting with public dollars and how they are supported by our public investment each year through our state’s appropriations process.

While the Governor’s budget recommendation (which kick starts the budget process each year) won’t come for a couple of weeks, his State of the State address last night gives an early glimpse into the priorities he will later work with the legislature to fund.  As last year, we are so excited about the Governor’s continued commitment to pre-school access.  It is an essential piece of a more comprehensive strategy for increased college and career success.  In addition to preschool, how should we expect some of the other main points that were made last night be translated into the budget recommendations to come to ensure that Michigan’s economic progress is felt by our most challenged children, youth, their families and communities?

  1. Easing the tax burden for hard working folks.  Well, that is easy enough.  Reinstate earlier cuts to the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit.  Improve the structure and resources directed to our child care subsidy program to increase its ability to serve as an effective work support.
  2. Improving truancy and school safety.  Reward educators for building better bridges to families and community resources that strengthen the ability of parents to support their children’s education, including their consistent attendance at school.  Reward the utilization of best school discipline practice that doesn’t result in loss of educational time.
  3. Expanding education year-round.  Provide year-round educational options for kids beyond the school building by better supporting extended learning opportunities to mitigate summer learning loss and assist in skill building and engagement, particularly those that focus on community, higher education and workforce partners.
  4. Assessing educators and education well.  Assess, support and reward educators, schools and communities for the ability to connect early and often with children, youth and their families and for the ability to make sure that the most challenged students are progressing.  Expand responsibility for educational success beyond the school doors, and support that responsibility accordingly.  Support current work that allows for more competency-based assessments – taking time out of the equation for school success.  Work that has broad agreement through the K-12, workforce and higher education communities.

Other priorities of Michigan’s Children that we expect to see addressed in the Governor’s budget conversations in the coming weeks?   We are really just expecting that our investments match the facts about children, youth and families:

  1. The trajectory toward college and career success begins before birth through disparities in maternal health and education.  Disparities in literacy are evident as early as nine months, and much of the brain is wired by the age of three.  To capitalize on the essential investment the state is making in 4-year old preschool, investment needs to be made earlier.
  2. College and career success is dependent on a variety of factors far beyond the reach of educators and schools.  Consistent support for integrated services like physical and mental health, basic needs, and other things that help kids and their parents focus on education; and providing 2nd and 3rd chances for high school graduation for those who need that extra time and different kinds of opportunities to succeed are also essential.

Michigan’s Children looks forward to working with the Governor and the Legislature to put our public resources behind proven effective strategies that will indeed improve the state of our state.

– Michele Corey

Resolve to Better Serve Michigan’s Youngest

January 8, 2014 – As gym membership purchases skyrocket and cookie sales take a hit, there’s nothing like the start to a new year to have folks think about all the hopes and wishes they have for a new year.  While I’m not a new year’s resolution kind of gal, I do have some hopes and wishes for young children in Michigan.  And 2014 is a year where much progress can be made with the help of your advocacy efforts as well as Michigan’s recently awarded Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant.

At Michigan’s Children, we’ve long been advocates for the state’s young people who face the greatest barriers to opportunities that promote education and life success – children who are disproportionately disadvantaged like children of color and children from low-income families.  And we know the greatest avenue to success is to focus on prevention efforts to mitigate the disparities that emerge early and can persist over a lifetime.  As a state, we’ve clearly made great progress in this arena as evidenced by the significant expansion of the Great Start Readiness Program.  However, we know we have to start before preschool since disparities in cognitive development – which leads to the achievement gap – can emerge as young as nine months of age.  When we provide services for young children prenatally through age three coupled with a high quality preschool program like the Great Start Readiness Program, we can make significant strides towards ensuring all children are prepared for kindergarten while preventing the achievement gap.

As we ramp up preschool services for four-year-olds, Michigan must expand services to families with very young children prenatally through age three. Two key opportunities for bolstering services for this population are to strengthen the subsidized child care system and to expand evidence-based home visiting services.  In essence, ensuring that very young children have the best environments for their learning and development in the two places where they spend their days – at home and in child care while their parents work.  At the same time that the federal government has improved access to home visiting by increasing available funding, Michigan has bolstered the quality of home visiting services by mandating that publicly funded programs be evidence-based or promising programs.  Now, the state must also take responsibility for expanding access to these services since they still reach only a small fraction of the families who are eligible.

Additionally, our subsidized child care system continues to be one of the worst in the nation with woefully low reimbursement rates that are paid on an hourly basis.  And, with infant and toddler care being the most expensive, accessing high quality (read: 5-star rated programs in Great Start to Quality) is next to impossible with the current subsidy structure.  But opportunities to strengthen the child care system exist – especially with Michigan’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) Grant award.  With our RTT-ELC grant, Michigan will focus on bolstering child care services to the most challenged families.  For infants and toddlers, a scholarship will be available to families in high needs communities, which will allow more young children access to the highest quality care that promotes healthy development and eliminates the school readiness gap.  While these scholarships are a great model that Michigan can replicate across the state, the RTT-ELC grant will only provide scholarships to a small fraction of the thousands of infants and toddlers who currently receive subsidized care.

More broadly, Michigan will use its RTT-ELC grant funding to provide incentives for more child care providers to participate in Great Start to Quality so that parents can be better informed about the quality of care they select for their children.  And, Michigan will make a concerted effort to support both licensed and unlicensed home-based child care providers to increase the quality of their care.  This is a significant step in the right direction since we know that many families – particularly families with very young children – opt for home-based care for many reasons including affordability, trust, cultural alignment, and convenience.  These opportunities will support parental choice so that parents can make the best possible decision about the care they purchase for their children.

While we have a ways to go to better serve Michigan’s youngest children, I am encouraged by the efforts we have already made and the plans we have laid out in our RTT-ELC grant.  While it would be overly optimistic to say that I hope the state’s “new year’s resolution” is to provide all young children prenatally through age five with the high quality services they need to be prepared for kindergarten, 2014 will prove to be a year where we can make great strides towards this goal.  Won’t you join us in these efforts?  The Governor will be unveiling his state budget proposal for the next fiscal year in February and shortly thereafter, the Legislature will be building the state’s budget.  Now is the time to talk to your legislators about how we can better support Michigan’s struggling children even before they reach preschool – by increasing access to evidence-based home visiting services and expanding and embedding opportunities available through the RTT-ELC into state policy.  2014 must be the year that we make significant strides so that all of Michigan’s most challenged young children can have access to opportunities that will help them thrive.

Learn more about Michigan’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant on the Michigan Office of Great Start website.

-Mina Hong

Information for Action

December 17, 2013 – It is that time of year again.  No, I’m not talking about snow, ice or family gatherings.  I’m talking about comprehensive county-level information about children and their families through the 2013 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book released today.  Every year for the last 20 or so, the Michigan League for Public Policy has compiled easy to understand information about Michigan counties across systems and age groups.

For nearly that long, Michigan’s Children and other advocacy partners across the state have been using the information with decision makers to guide policy and program investment priorities, as well as policy and practice improvements in this state.  Over those years we’ve seen improvements and unfortunately some outcomes where we just haven’t been able to move the dial.

One of the serious challenges again highlighted in this year’s Data Book is the continued increase in child poverty across the state.  Michigan’s consistently poor outcomes on this indicator point to the need for different policy and program decisions that actually improve the economic situation of families.  Unfortunately, many decisions made over the last several years have served to further disadvantage families economically.  Cutting supports for low wage workers like the Earned Income Tax Credit are counter-productive.  Michigan’s subsidized child care system needs major changes in order to be a real work support for families in the state.  Workforce development resources need to be much better targeted toward the most challenged families and need to include better supports for education and training.  Beyond workforce supports, programs that improve the educational success of the most challenged young people and adults need to be prioritized.

Another area of grave concern is the continued increase in child abuse and neglect.  The Data Book again indicates disturbing trends in the share of children who have been identified and those confirmed as victims of child maltreatment.  Several things contribute to this distressing information.

  1. Poverty, as mentioned.  Increases in economic stressors for families impact their stability.
  2. At least a decade of disinvestment in programs with proven effectiveness in preventing child abuse and neglect.  We know so much about the risks that lead families into the system, and we need to actually invest in preventing those risks – maybe even state resources, rather than relying entirely on the whims of the federal investment.  Better investments in domestic violence prevention and treatment; in behavioral health assessment and intervention, mental health and substance use/abuse, are required.  And, perhaps most importantly, better supports for parents of the very youngest children are necessary.  Infants are the largest share of any other age group as confirmed victims of abuse and neglect.

As always, the Data Book helps us better define what work needs to be done.  And, as always, it is our responsibility to help our elected officials use that information to make better decisions in the coming year.  So, use Kids Count as a conversation starter.  Even if you haven’t talked with your elected officials before, your county Kids Count data can provide a topic of conversation.  Ask your policy makers what they think about the data, and what plans they have to help address some of the issues of concern.  Help your policy makers understand the context behind some of the numbers.  If you’ve seen improvements in an area, have there been community efforts that have impacted the situation?  Or have there been cuts in programs and services that have resulted in worsening data in an area?  You can access your county information and other resources to assist with your advocacy at the Michigan League for Public Policy’s website.

We are here to help you, and here to remind policymakers that there is a lot they should be doing to make Michigan better for children, youth and families.

-Michele Corey

Seventeen Years of Expert Testimony

December 16, 2013 – Decision-makers gathered last week, representing the Governor’s Office, a bi-partisan group of 17 members of the Michigan Legislature, the State Board of Education, the Departments of Community Health and Human Services, philanthropy, municipalities, law enforcement, education associations, after-school, school health, researchers, and other youth advocates to listen to some Michigan experts.  Young people from a dozen communities around the state came to the Capitol to share their challenges, successes and recommendations for improving program and policy.   Programs that serve some of the most challenged young people in the state braved the snow and cold weather to bring these articulate young people before our listeners.

One young man brought out his specific concerns about the family he was planning to have – concerns that he would be successful enough to support them and that the education and other systems would be able to serve them better than they had served him.  He is a young adult now, part of an amazing program that gets young people back on track to a high school credential and onto a post-secondary path.  Reflecting that he had been out of school for several years, realizing that his future was compromised, there was a program that re-engaged him.  Instead of a path of unemployment and potentially criminal justice, he is now on a path to personal success and building success for the next generation.

This same experience was repeated over and over – young people who had been failed by and often pushed out of those systems that are charged with moving them toward adult success, often with personal consequences that were difficult for our listeners to hear.  Also repeated was the experience of these young people, who our public and private sector dollars had failed, finding a path to success.  These programs blend together different funding sources and share a commitment to providing many paths to success and many chances for moving down those paths.  What they also share is a space to make up for the failures of other systems.

As we move into the next budget year in Michigan, and try to keep up with federal budget decision-making, the testimony of the sixteen young people can provide some guidance:

  1. 2nd and 3rd chance programs for successful movement toward high school completion/post-secondary paths are not consistently available across this state, nor are they consistently accessible for all young people who need them.  As Michigan’s Children says all the time, resources need to be devoted to alternative, adult and community education to provide these chances to everyone.  This requires innovative strategies to utilize resources from a variety of sectors.  We can learn much from current programs who successfully serve our most challenged young people, families and communities.
  2. While we are making strides in how we serve the young people under our guardianship – those who the state removed from their challenged families and often their communities as well because of abuse, neglect and delinquency – we are still not successful enough.  These kids deserved better from us, and their stories continue to shock and dismay us.  This also requires multiple sectors working together to make sure that under our care, they are better able to rebuild what has been lost and move successfully toward supporting themselves and their own families now and in the future.
  3. Both of those intervention strategies scream for more investment in the prevention of poor outcomes in the first place.  This includes focusing resources on fragile families early on, and taking steps early and often to ensure young people can make it through high school successfully the first time.

If we take nothing from KidSpeak, we must take that we must do better.  I heard a great quote yesterday that fits perfectly here.  “Better is possible.  It doesn’t take genius.  It takes diligence.  It takes moral clarity.  It takes ingenuity.  And above all, it takes a willingness to try.”  Atul Gawande

We look forward to working with our experts, our listeners and others in the new year to invest in strategies that can change the trajectory of more young people, their families and their communities in 2014 and beyond.

– Michele Corey

Prosperity in Michigan: What Do We Need for the Climb?

December 3, 2013 – Kurt Metzger is perhaps the most experienced demographer in Michigan.  He is currently the director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit, an initiative of the Michigan Nonprofit Association.  I mention him because he published an article recently in Bridge Magazine, Michigan still has a long climb back to prosperity, that illustrates in data what we all know to be true:  Michigan has been through a tough decade or so economically, and while some folks are starting to do better, the bulk of Michigander’s have not yet started that climb.  Michigan is a starkly different state than we were a dozen years ago, and nowhere is this more evident than in the disinvestment of state resources in programs supporting the most challenged children, youth and families over that same period.

In addition, economists at the UofM and elsewhere are predicting above average job growth over the next two years AND increasing money in the state coffers as a result.

So, if we are indeed beginning the slow trek back to economic prosperity, let’s be deliberate about assessing how the trek is going so far, and what we need to do as a state in this next budget year to aid us on the climb.  What do we know:

  1. We’ve lost ground.  Kurt points out, is that Michigan ranked 37th in per capita income in 2012, and was one of only three states who lost ground in that indicator from 2000 – 2012.
  2. Economic downturns are tougher on folks with less education.  Kurt also points out that Michigan has traditionally made a poor showing in that area as well – ranking 31st on the share of young adults (ages 25-34) with at least a bachelor’s degree.  In addition, according to the U.S. Census, we remain right around the national average in the share of young adults in that same age range without a high school diploma – around 10%.
  3. A well educated citizenry is the path toward economic success.  Yes, this point is well researched by many and embraced widely.
  4. The educational success of parents is a strong predictor of the educational success of their children.  If nothing else, parents who have had less educational success themselves, are on less stable economic ground and often have a more difficult time interfacing with systems serving themselves and their children, including the schools and other providers of services that could assist.
  5. Unacceptably high shares of new moms do not have adequate education levels themselves.  You may recall from the release of the Right Start in Michigan last spring that fully 4 in 10 moms of Michigan newborns in 2011 had no college education, and more than a third of those didn’t even have a high school credential.

With these facts in mind, what do Legislators need to do include in their budget priorities as we move into 2014 in order for Michigan to have what we need as a state for our climb toward economic prosperity?

  1. Get kids through to high school graduation the first time.  Michigan’s Children blogs consistently about what the research says are investments needed to be able to do this better, including investments in challenged families well before children enter kindergarten, solid connections between home and school throughout the child’s educational career, consistent opportunities for extended learning programs to assist in skill development and engagement, and 2nd and 3rd (4th and 5th…) chances to reach that high school diploma, just to name a few.
  2. Provide opportunities for adults to reconnect to GED and post-secondary paths throughout their lives.  Target these opportunities for young mothers and fathers.

The Governor is working on his recommendations for the upcoming budget season right now.  We’ve had a mixed record of investment and disinvestment in programs and initiatives that matter to our state’s success.  Now is the time for us all to get real about what it takes to improve economic prosperity in Michigan and share that knowledge with policymakers.

-Michele Corey

Those Precious First Days

Two weeks ago, I welcomed my son – Lennon – into this world.  Being my first child, I must admit that I was less anxious about the actual labor and delivery process and much more anxious about those first few days at home with him and figuring out how to keep this little person alive.  While we’re a fortunate family to have both of Lennon’s grandmas living in the same town as us and many supportive friends (including those who are already parents) that we could lean on for support, it still felt a bit daunting to have this little human being completely dependent on us for his survival.

Even with our vast network of support, one of the great things we got to experience on our second day at home with Lennon was a home visit by a registered nurse.  That’s right.  Though our family doesn’t qualify for any specific home visiting service for more challenged families, the University of Michigan hospital where Lennon was born provides a home visit to all families after they go home.  This was such an amazing opportunity to ask the many questions that we were having both about Lennon’s health and well-being as well as my own recovery.  The visit provided an opportunity for us to ask about what’s normal infant behavior, offer guidance on nursing, sleeping, and other developmental questions we had about our three-day old baby, and offered guidance to my partner and me as we navigated this whole new world.

As I mentioned earlier, we have a great network of support but having a trained person come to our home to provide guidance and expertise early in Lennon’s life was extremely helpful.  It made me think about the evidence-based home visiting services that are available in our state that target the most challenged families.  How exciting yet daunting it is to care for a newborn baby.  Yes, the love is overwhelming and I know all mothers are willing to do whatever it takes to do the best by their child.  But to have other stressors in one’s life may make it significantly more challenging to tend to the needs of a newborn while also recovering from one’s own physical experience of delivering a child.  These voluntary home visiting programs have demonstrated improved outcomes for both mom and baby in terms of baby’s health and development and mom’s ability to provide a stable home for baby.  Based on the one home visit that I experienced, I could see how they can be extremely beneficial – to have a trained professional to talk about specific baby challenges and to have a support person to lean on when times are rough.

Here in Michigan, the Governor and the Legislature are gearing up to build the fiscal year 2015 state budget.  Michigan has high quality home visiting programs that already exist around our state.  Unfortunately, these programs are vastly underfunded, only reach a fraction of the families that are eligible for services, and rely far too heavily on federal dollars to support them.  At Michigan’s Children, we hope to see these home visiting programs expanded using sustainable state funding, and have been working with key partners towards this endeavor.  In the meantime, won’t you talk to your legislators about the challenges that new parents face and how home visiting programs can support our state’s most challenged new parents?  Learn more about home visiting programs in Michigan by visiting the Michigan Department of Community Health website.

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-Mina Hong

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

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