Speaking For Kids

Beyond the Bickering to What Matters

I was so proud today to see the culmination of hard work from two members of our Congressional Delegation – yes, our Congressional Delegation, those guys in DC who are responsible for either coming to some budget conclusion today or partially shutting down the federal government.  In Michigan, we have some pretty important folks who represent us in DC.  Congressman Dave Camp, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee – you know, that committee responsible for coming up with government spending priorities – and Congressman Sander Levin, who is the ranking Democrat on that very same Committee.  While more often than not, the ideological gridlock in the U.S. House of Representatives seems unbearable, every now and then, there is a glimmer of bi-partisan leadership about something that really matters to the most challenged children and families in our state and nation.  This is one of those glimmers, and the leaders responsible need to have that work acknowledged and celebrated, even in the midst of larger and more polarizing conversations about how we will be spending our public resources in this nation.

Two Democrats and two Republicans, including our two delegation members mentioned above, today introduced the Promoting Adoption and Legal Guardianship for Children in Foster Care Act, which reauthorizes the federal Adoption Incentives program through 2016 and makes improvements in how the program works to help some of the kids who tend to stay in foster care longer than others – those who are older, who are over-represented by children of color.  This program was originally created by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 to help states increase adoptions by giving them some additional resource to do so.  (I shouldn’t forget the two other bill sponsors – a Democrat from Texas and a Republican from Washington state.)

In Michigan, we are again looking at the over-representation of children of color throughout our child protective services system.  This disparity begins at the time that complaints are investigated and continues to increase through removal of children from their families through permanent placements with guardians and adoptive parents or aging out of foster care with no placement option.  Incentives to target adoption and guardianship supports so that they benefit the kids who need them the most are critical.  The fact that two members of our delegation were able to overcome their disagreements on a host of issues, to work together on this critical issue, is worthy of celebration.  Now, they start working on all of their colleagues on the Hill and we are poised to assist.

Michigan’s Children is part of a national network called SPARC – the State Policy Advocacy and Reform Center – that brings advocates from around the country together to insist on better public policy for children, youth and families in a variety of areas including protecting our most vulnerable.  As Congressmen Camp and Levin work across the partisan aisle to build support for this reauthorization, we will be working with our colleagues in other states to encourage constituent pressure and support to assist.

Please, acknowledge this good behavior – too often our elected officials only hear from us when we are expressing disappointment for what we see as poor decision-making on their parts.  Right now, we think that Congressmen Camp and Levin need to know that their constituents appreciate their efforts, and the rest of our delegation needs to understand that we expect similar bi-partisan work to be done on behalf of the most challenged children, youth and families in our state – today, tomorrow and every day.

-Michele Corey

Building Successful 21st Century Learners – the Common Core and Beyond

I spent the week last week with colleagues from around the country as part of the C.S. Mott Foundation-funded White-Riley-Peterson Policy Fellowship, strategizing individual and collective action necessary to garner the support necessary to fully fund one of the most important and effective achievement gap closure strategies we have at our disposal – extended learning opportunities.  These opportunities reach beyond the school day and often the school walls to provide additional space for quality teaching and learning to occur.  The research clearly illustrates that quality extended learning opportunities can help with achievement, behavior and graduation.

Bill White at the Mott Foundation said it better than most – extended learning is not a silver bullet for all of our educational system woes, but it does represent a silver lining in our education reform conversation.  This is particularly true when we look at the best strategies for gaps that start early and layer through a child’s educational career.  We keep hammering on the fact that literacy gaps emerge by 9 months.  There is research indicating that even when gains are equal through the school year (which they too often are not), gaps in literacy and math skills increase by nearly 2 ½ years of schooling by the 5th grade due to academic ground lost over the summer for children who cannot access quality programs during that time.  We know that once you are behind by the 4th grade, particularly in reading and math, you are fighting an uphill battle in the higher grades, and kids who repeat a grade before high school have only a 20 percent chance of graduating with a diploma.  Struggling kids clearly need more time to graduate and more support to catch up than most communities currently provide.

Our Michigan Legislature is currently focused on a couple of specific topics of education-reform conversation – both critical, both extremely impactful in the educational success of our young people, and both connected to the silver lining of extended learning in ways that you might not expect.   The first, known nationally as the Common Core, is about the need for a tough, universal, consistent curriculum in our schools that reflects the skill-base necessary for success in the world today.  Whether or not we think that Michigan students should master similar skills as students in the rest of the country or the rest of the world (the “common” debate), we can certainly agree that they are at a disadvantage if they fail to master a wide skill base – a wider skill base, perhaps, than we have needed in the past, to be college and career ready and to be well positioned to assist Michigan in our economic recovery.

It is completely rational and realistic to allow Michigan’s education system to continue on its path to implement the Common Core and support that implementation with adequate preparation, training and evaluation structures in place for the staff who are responsible for teaching and learning through the school day.  Thankfully, the Michigan House is acting today to again allow that to happen, and we have terrific research and advocacy involved from the Michigan Coalition for High Student Standards suggesting necessary components to do that effectively.

However, it is not rational or realistic to suggest that all of those skills should or even could be adequately gained during the 20% of a student’s time that they are spending in school.  Where else can they gain these skills that we can’t argue are essential?  In their homes and communities – extended learning opportunities are connected to the K-12 learning day, but can expand on that learning, can help students get motivated and engaged, and can help them catch up.  Supporting partnerships between schools, community colleges, workforce partners, youth serving agencies, parents and many others can serve to bolster educational and life success.

Michigan has a structure in place to connect the dots between state departments and other partners to take full advantage of this silver lining, but now we are relying entirely on federal 21st Century Learning Center funding to do that, despite some history of state support that has faltered in recent years.  Our State Superintendent has bravely taken on racial equity gaps as a focus for the Department of Education, and resources in that Department are being devoted to gap-closure strategies.  We need to think about how we are going to prioritize public dollar in Michigan to make sure more students are successfully mastering the wide range of skills necessary for career and college success.

So, we must support school staff and administrators in doing all that they can within the timeframe they have to support tough, universal, consistent learning standards in our schools that reflects the skill-base necessary for success in the world today.  And, we must consider what else is needed to make sure that all of our young people are ready for the challenges ahead of them.

Stay tuned for the 2nd big Legislative conversation – teacher evaluation, which is also clearly connected to all of this discussion.

-Michele Corey

Supporting Michigan’s Poorest Families with Young Children from Birth to Age Three

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its 2012 data on poverty rates across the country and the data was bleak for Michigan.  While our child poverty rate did not increase from the previous year, it remained stagnant, demonstrating that children and families continue to struggle during Michigan’s economic “recovery”.  One out of four Michigan children continue to live in poverty and we know that even higher shares of our young children from birth to age three are more likely to be living in poverty than older children.  What’s even more dire are that young children of color are still more likely to be living in poverty than white children.  The consequences of childhood poverty – particularly in the first few years of life – have long been established and we know that the outcomes are not acceptable.  With racial and economic disparities in cognitive achievement (aka the beginnings of the achievement gap) emerging as young as nine months of age, focusing on prevention efforts that mitigate the harmful effects of poverty are essential to ensuring that children are ready for school and life.

Business leaders and economists have become particularly effective advocates for high quality early childhood programming.  The Children’s Leadership Council of Michigan played a vital role in securing Michigan’s $65 million expansion of the Great Start Readiness preschool program (GSRP).  Nationally, a group of business leaders organized by ReadyNation is carrying a similar message in Washington, DC.  And earlier this week at the ReadyNation Summit, Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman presented on the return on investment from high quality early childhood programming and reiterated that the greatest returns are seen from programs that start the earliest – programs that are targeted prenatally and during the infant and toddler stages.

Michigan is well poised to support its lowest-income young learners.  We can do so by maximizing our GSRP investment to reap the greatest return by bolstering our efforts that begin before four years of age.  We already have the infrastructure in place to expand voluntary home visiting services, thanks to the federal Maternal, Infant, Early Childhood Home Visiting program and Public Act 291 which requires the state to only support evidence-based or promising home visiting programs that are backed by research.  Now, we must focus on expanding home visiting services to reach more of Michigan’s very challenged families, since we know that home visiting programs not only provide significant benefits for young children in terms of their healthy development and learning but also supports parents on a path towards economic stability.  Furthermore, we have the infrastructure to bolster our child care program through Great Start to Quality – the state’s Quality Rating and Improvement System.  Continued efforts to strengthen the child care subsidy system can ensure that parents can maintain stable employment to support their families while supporting children’s learning and development in high quality child care settings.  These are two clear tools that Michigan can better utilize to mitigate the harmful consequences of poverty that, as James Heckman has said, provide the greatest return on taxpayer dollar.  So what are we waiting for?

-Mina Hong

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