Speaking For Kids

Helping vulnerable children early is key to closing achievement gaps

September 9, 2015 – No longer a top tier state for education, Michigan today has larger gaps in student outcomes among its diverse populations than many other states, jettisoning our state to 37th in the nation according to the National Kids Count project. These learning gaps start early and persist and grow throughout educational careers without appropriate intervention and support, threatening our state’s future and the futures of thousands of our children.

New State School Superintendent Brian Whiston has begun his tenure focused on asking groups (many with competing interests) to talk with the State Board of Education about fixing that, and restoring Michigan to a top 10 state in education within 10 years.

At Michigan’s Children, we believe the answers lie in shrinking these achievement gaps and reducing student disparities through known evidence and practices that works best for children, youth and families, and their schools and communities. Positive change can happen even as state decision makers face unique pressures to fund costly road fixes while determining investments in the most struggling schools and districts.

We shared our recommendations that support students within and beyond the classroom to assist with their eventual success in a presentation to State Board of Education and School Superintendent Brian Whiston this week, outlining a strategy that includes several specific areas for attention.

Start early. Education is a lifelong process beginning at birth with differences among children becoming evident as early as 9 months. By 6th grade, children from low-income families have 6,000 fewer hours of learning than their peers due to fewer opportunities for early, consistent and expanded learning. The education system must continue to focus early to head off future problems by increasing parent coaching and supports through voluntary home visiting options, building state investment and maximize federal investment in Early On, and continuing to improve our child care subsidy system.

Because children succeed when their parents do well, the education system must support parents’ role in children’s learning. The evidence on this is clear, particularly for early literacy skills and retention in the early grades. Today, four out of 10 Michigan schoolchildren aren’t reading proficiently by third grade, and the rates are much higher for children of color. The education system must expand support to help parents reach their educational and career goals through investments in Adult Education, workforce supports and family literacy options, and promote effective two-generation programming where families can learn together.

Trauma from family stress, mental and behavioral health issues, violence and loss, abuse or other social or emotional issues can undermine a child’s ability to learn and grow academically. Yet, we don’t fully recognize its impact on learning gaps and educational achievement in our policy and practice. The education system must implement good practices in schools and provide educators with the necessary tools to deal with symptoms of student and family trauma. Improving connections with community partners who can help is vital.

When schools are able to unite families with other community resources, there are more chances to find and address the causes of school absence, behavioral issues and academic problems be they caused by health issues, unstable housing, bullying or disengagement by parents or students. There is ample evidence that after-school and summer learning programs help to integrating community services for students and families, and support their academic progress by getting students motivated and engaged with their learning, helping them get caught up when they get behind and keeping them on a successful trajectory.

Finally, there is no one-size-fits-all for student success. Because children are inherently different and come with an array of challenges, young people need multiple pathways to success beyond the traditional, arbitrary four years of high school. Therefore, we must invest in second-, third- and fourth-chance programs for high school completion. In addition, we must prevent unnecessary expulsions that leave too many students adrift from college and career by promoting school attendance and adjusting school discipline policies.

It is clear that the Superintendent and School Board are uniquely positioned to provide needed robust leadership for this difficult work by taking into account the expertise of many sectors of work, including family and community resources. To do so recognizes a universal truth: A child’s ability to succeed in school and life relies on multiple factors, most that aren’t exclusive to what happens inside the classroom, but extend far beyond that learning environment. Improving the state’s ability to build success in more students is possible and essential, will require a commitment from many partners. We encourage our educational leadership to join Michigan’s Children and many others to put all of our children and families at the forefront of what it takes to make Michigan’s education great again.

– Matt Gillard

This blog first appeared as an opinion piece in Bridge Magazine on September 8, 2015.

Starting Today a Step Ahead or a Step Behind

September 8, 2015 – Yesterday I walked across the Mackinac Bridge with my family, the Governor and tens of thousands of other people in celebration of the end of summer.  It was the first time that we had ever made the walk and participated in the throng of humanity that makes it, many year after year.   This was truly an awesome experience, making us all feel a little prouder of our state, for sure.  However, as we started across the bridge in the rain, it was obvious that some of us would have an easier time of it than others.  There were people pushing strollers that slipped on the wet concrete and got stuck on the metal grates, there were people with canes, limps and other indications that the long walk would be a struggle for them.

With my three kids, all very healthy, we had a pretty easy time of it, but there were clearly people who were better prepared than we were.  Sometimes we, and those going at a faster pace than we were, found ourselves frustrated by the extra time needed by the folks who couldn’t go as quickly or who needed some extra help by the many National Guard members who were there to make sure that everyone who started across would make it to the finish.

Today marks the first day of school for most students in Michigan.  The bridge walk made me think a lot about the summer learning graphic illustrating the different impact of the summer months that serves to increase the learning gaps between poorer kids and their more affluent peers.  In the summer, kids who have expanded learning opportunities through family travels, summer enrichment programs and specific assistance to build literacy and numeracy skills or catch up where they have fallen behind, continue to progress educationally.  Kids who don’t have any of those things actually fall behind over those months, starting school today even further behind than they were when they left in June.

So, in the case of the bridge walk, those who made it across the fastest would be like the kids who start school today having gotten those 6,000 hours of extra learning by the 6th grade – through literacy and other enriching activities with family members able to spend that time with them; and through extra learning time during the school year and in the summer in quality expanded learning opportunities.    Those who moved more slowly needed that additional time and assistance to be able to complete the trip.  Many students are starting school today who have not been afforded that time or assistance, and are beginning the school year further behind than they left it.

Michigan’s Children is testifying before the State Board today about investments that are necessary if Michigan really wants to become a top ten state for education, reiterating the pieces we’ve been talking about through our August Issues edition, Making Michigan a Top 10 Education State by Shrinking the Learning Gap and our Bridge commentary.  One of those necessary investments is in expanded learning – before-and after school programs, summer learning programs and other opportunities to bolster the learning that goes on during the typical school day and year.

The most challenged children, youth, families, schools and communities need to have better access to learning in the summer.  There are amazing programs across the state that serve to close those gaps.  Evaluation of a small summer learning investment that Michigan made a few years ago showed stark differences between the typical educational loss for students without those summer experiences, and the significant academic gain for the students who participated.  Funding that supports those programs has not been included in state budgets for several years, and high quality programs are not accessible through the state for families who cannot afford to pay for them.

Let this be the last first day of school where we allow students to start further behind than when they left.  Let’s commit this year to investing in expanded learning through the school year and in the summer, allowing everyone to begin in September a step ahead.

– Michele Corey

Want To Stop Kicking Kids Out of School? Start Earlier

August 21, 2015 – Renewed attention has been placed on the disproportionality in school suspension and expulsion rates, and efforts here in Michigan and nationally to reduce suspension and expulsion continue to take shape.  The White House is leading a national push to rethink school discipline with a focus not only on general discipline practices but also as part of their My Brother’s Keeper efforts to improve outcomes for boys and young men of color.  These conversations, thankfully, have included the need to better understand the role of trauma, as schools are demonstrating that providing trauma-informed training to teachers and school personnel is a highly effective way to reduce inappropriate school discipline.  Research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) has played a clear role in these efforts as more and more is known about how to properly identify children who have experienced trauma and to best support them.

However, much more needs to be done to put what we know into practice in schools in Michigan, particularly since traumatic experiences that are exhibited through difficult school behaviors begin far before kindergarten.  With the increased focus on ACEs, attention is being placed on how to prevent and mitigate adverse experiences in early childhood.  Critically important in this discussion is a recent report by Child Trends that sheds light on how prevention efforts can and should focus on better supporting families with young children to prevent bullying behavior – clearly tied to later school discipline issues.

As the Child Trends report indicates, young children are developing social skills in those early years, and early aggressive behavior is a potential indicator of anti-social behavior later.  Michigan’s Children and others have been concerned about recent data on the extent of expulsion from early childhood education settings.  In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education put out a joint policy statement on reducing suspension and expulsion rates in those settings.  Clearly kicking young kids out of child care or preschool is not the way to go, but rather we must identify the root cause of early aggressive behaviors and address those underlying issues.  The brain science that undergirds current focus on preventing the academic achievement gap before kindergarten-entry also points to the need for earlier efforts to mitigate bullying and aggressive behavior, taking advantage of the time when young children’s brains are developing most rapidly and brain structures to promote pro-social behavior can be built.

How does that happen?  With a focus on the family and ensuring that parents have the supports they need to be their child’s first and best teachers.  ACEs experienced in those early years – like child maltreatment, witnessing domestic violence, or having a parent with mental health challenges – shape early experiences and potentially long-term outcomes in ways that may result in aggressive behavior.  Since parents serve as role models to their children, what they do leaves a lasting impression on what young children perceive as appropriate or inappropriate behavior.  For families identified as having unstable or unsafe home environments, providing intensive family-focused supports that promote positive parenting while addressing the root causes of violence or maltreatment – like mental health or substance abuse issues – are essential to not only ensure family stability but also to reduce behaviors leading to bullying and school discipline problems.

Michigan is piloting in several communities efforts to improve trauma-informed practice through the Great Start systems to better recognize early signs of trauma and to intervene more appropriately in early childhood settings.  Connecting the outcomes of this work with local and statewide efforts to reduce bullying, suspensions and expulsions is critical to improving education outcomes to prevent and mitigate trauma so that all Michigan children, youth and families can succeed.

-Mina Hong

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