disparities

What it Really Means to Put Kids First

October 2, 2017 – Community leaders and advocates convened at Wayne State University for a community forum hosted by the United Way for Southeastern Michigan and the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child and Family Development.

Dr. Herman Gray, CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan, shared an experience from his time as president of Children’s Hospital of Michigan. A child was being treated for an ailment which was not very serious but required several weeks of antibiotics. After keeping the child in the hospital receiving the medication through an IV, it was time to discharge the family with a prescription. When given directions to refrigerate the antibiotic, the child’s parent surprised the staff:

The family did not have a refrigerator at home.

I took two important lessons from this story:

  1. Poverty is real, and its impacts are real. How healthy can a family be if they are unable to keep perishable items at home? And, if there is no refrigerator in the house, what else might they be missing?
  2. Important instructions are given to parents and families every day for the care of their children. With what assumptions are well-intentioned professionals delivering these instructions and advice?

Writer and radio host Stephen Henderson, who keynoted the event, shared his experience with the Tuxedo Project, which he started in an effort to improve the quality of life in his old neighborhood by repurposing the house he grew up in on the west side of Detroit’s Tuxedo Street. The home had been abandoned in the years after his family moved out.

Based in part on conversations had throughout the past year with current Tuxedo Street residents, such as an elderly man living without power or running water and around the debris where a fire caved his second floor into his first floor, Henderson argued that urban poverty has become increasingly like rural poverty, characterized by isolation.

These stories stayed with me until later in the day, when an attendee shared information about a program run by her agency to benefit young children who have experienced trauma. When her team members began planning for the program’s implementation, they took a step back to think through and identify desired outcomes. Then, they determined what would be needed to achieve those intended outcomes for the children and families who would be enrolling in the program. It was then that I realized something I do not often hear in public discourse relating to social policy. We often hear about what the government’s role should be, how much funding should be allocated, and which programs and services should be prioritized. What I do not remember hearing much of, however, at least in bipartisan conversations, is what we actually want to see for all Michigan children.

Maybe we should start there. What do we want for kids? This is the conversation we need to be having. What do we want to see for Michigan’s children, and what do we need to do to get there? What do kids need to get to that point, and what policies, funding levels, and services will take them there? If we can start there – and truly prioritize those outcomes – we can begin to make long-term, positive improvements for Michigan’s children.

And, in a society where very few decision-makers have personally experienced poverty and its effects, it is critical that we think carefully about which voices are at the table when discussing solutions to these issues.

If we fail to include the voices of those most impacted, we risk wasting time and resources providing solutions which will not address the complete problems and therefore fail to be impactful – or, in other terms, we risk continuing to provide medications needing refrigeration to people without refrigerators.

Kayla Roney-Smith, Executive Director of the Hazel Park Promise Zone and College Access Network, attended the “Families First for 100 Years” community forum at Wayne State in Detroit. Here, Roney-Smith shares what major lessons she took from the event.

Boosting Michigan’s Literacy: No Time Like the Present

July 29, 2016 – This week, Governor Snyder signed an Executive Order creating the Michigan PreK-12 Literacy Commission. Like many previous efforts, this Commission is charged over the next two years with assisting the K-12 system to improve student literacy skills. The group will be determined through appointments by the Governor, the Superintendent and legislative leadership from both parties.

The focus on literacy is warranted, and clearly not new. It is obviously a gateway skill – that is, the poorer your reading skills, the harder all classes are for you as you progress through the grades. Michigan students don’t test well on literacy compared to their peers in other states; in fact, at the same time that the nation as a whole has improved on 4th grade reading tests, Michigan’s performance worsened, resulting in a national rank on that indicator that places us solidly below 42 other states. And, some specific populations of kids continue to test more poorly than others – Black and Hispanic kids, kids from low-income or homeless families.

It isn’t as if we have not acted at all on this situation. There have been numerous initiatives within our K-12 system and the state Department of Education, including current Top 10 in 10 efforts. In the current legislature there has definitely been increased attention to the problem, and we even saw some investment in the last two state budgets, driven by concerns and efforts around improving our status. This investment was not enough, and some of it could have been better focused, as we’ve talked about before. Now we have yet another effort tasked with pinpointing strategies.

For candidates in this election year, for new legislators in 2017, for the Governor and for the new Commission members, here are some key facts. They are well known, and well researched.

Fact One: Gaps in literacy emerge as early as nine months. Some kids have stronger nutrition and better health, some kids are ready to more often, some kids are spoken to more often, some kids experience more stress and trauma in their early years. All these things impact literacy skill-building, and their impact starts right away. Efforts to support families early are critical to the state’s literacy success.

Fact Two: There is ample evidence (and common sense) that says that the educational success of parents has everything to do with the literacy success of their children. Family literacy efforts targeted toward building the skills of parents and other caregivers are critical to the state’s literacy success.

Fact Three: The 6,000 hour learning gap, experienced between lower income children and their financially more better off peers, contributes to a variety of skill gaps, including literacy, by the time young people are in middle school. As I’ve already stated, starting early and maintaining opportunities that expand learning through elementary, middle and high school are critical to the state’s literacy success.

Fact Four: Kids have to be in school in order to take advantage of even the most effective school-based literacy programming. Making sure barriers to attending school are addressed for families and young people, including unsafe streets, unsupportive school climates and exclusionary school discipline practices are critical to the state’s literacy success.

We have many effective strategies at our disposal inside and outside the school building to improve literacy, and it never hurts to focus efforts on learning more about what can be done. However, we hope that the Governor and Legislature don’t have to wait for this Commission to finish its work to continue to recognize and commit to needed investments in literacy. 2017 will bring shifting legislative leadership and the Governor’s final two years of legacy. There is no time like the present to reiterate what needs to be done, marshal the resources and take action!

– Michele Corey

The ESSA Needs Our Help to Make Every Student Succeed

December 11, 2015 – In previous blogs, we’ve outlined the federal role in education policy falling squarely on promoting quality and innovation and promoting equity – mitigating the impact of students’ learning challenges on eventual educational success. After years of discussion and somewhat rare bi-partisan work in Congress, the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by the President yesterday, again setting the path for federal policy and investment in K-12 education. So, what do we see?

  1. Proven equity-building strategies remain intact. Investments that provide access to pre-school, integrated student services and expanded learning opportunities will continue. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program that supports after-school and summer learning programs is well researched and provides evidence for this strategy that requires school-community partnership and goes well beyond just expanding hours in a school day or days in a school year. Newly titled, “Community Support for School Success” continues investment in full service schools and Promise Neighborhood grants. The use of Title I and Title II dollars for early childhood education beginning at birth is more explicit and requirements to improve school stability for young people in foster care are strengthened.
  2. New priorities reflect new evidence and recognition of specific needs. Despite opposition, the law expands requirements to track how different groups of students are doing and on what. Understanding what groups are doing well and which not so well is the first step toward building more equitable practice. States will now, for the first time, be required to consistently track and report outcomes for kids in the foster care system. It has been difficult for advocates to move better educational investments in that population without adequate information that could point to better strategies for practice and investment. States and districts will also have to start tracking critical outcome indicators beyond achievement scores like school climate and safety and student and educator engagement, improving their ability to address student needs.
  3. Some strategies proving ineffective are discontinued. What has been termed a “cookie cutter” approach to improve struggling schools has not served to improve very many of them, and this bill recognizes that there need to be a broader scope of possible strategies that are much more targeted toward local needs. We continue to contend that building investment in equity-promoting strategies have a stronger evidence base than simply removing school leadership and punishing educators for the woes of all systems that serve children, youth and their families.
  4. Additional state and local flexibility in other programs COULD increase equity in Michigan. Read on…

So, what are some of the early takeaways?

  1. Evidence and advocacy matter. Some positive shifts were the result of coordinated, strong advocacy efforts in Michigan and around the nation, like the coordinated efforts to maintain the 21st CCLC program and supports for integrated student services, as well as expanding initiatives before kindergarten. Some negative shifts were too, but those who were talking with their elected officials had definite impact on the final negotiations.
  2. Funding will obviously matter – this law outlines what COULD be funded by Congress. We still don’t have an actual federal funding bill for the current fiscal year, and continue to operate under resolutions that maintain FY2015 spending levels. This has avoided the disinvestment proposed by some conservative members of Congress, but also avoids any conversation about shifting or increasing investment strategies.
  3. Engagement at the state and local levels will matter more than ever before. For example, Congress increased the ability to address learning challenges early by allowing a variety of funding to be used for activities before kindergarten. Additional flexibility was added for the Title 1 program, which provides consistent and significant investment in the most challenged schools. There is always risk and opportunity in this flexibility to avoid taking resource from evidenced programming for one group of students to pay for expanded programming for others.

At this moment, Michigan’s Children and others are engaged in the Superintendent’s call for suggestions on how to move educational success in our state over the next decade. With more flexibility in federal education spending, being a part of state priority conversations becomes more important than ever. And, of course, we have already begun another state budget conversation where we will need to continue to fight to keep and build critical state investments while still not seeing education funding levels return to where they were before the recession in 2008. And with other budget pressures resulting from continued disinvestment in our most challenged school systems and spending decisions mandated by road funding compromises, our voices are critically important to ensure that our state is providing equitable educational opportunities for all students.

– Michele Corey

Additional Resources

More on Early Learning: Every Student Succeeds Act and Early Learning
More on Expanded Learning: Senate Passes ESEA, 21stCCLC: Sends to President for Signature 
More On Foster Care: President Obama Reauthorizes ESEA, Affording Groundbreaking Provisions for Children in the Foster Care and Juvenile Justice Systems 
More On Integrated Student Services: Community School Prominent in Every Student Succeeds Act 
More on Equity Building Strategies: ESEA Reauthorization Shows Promise
More on Accountability: The president just signed a new ed law that teaches the naysayers a thing or two
More on Local Decision Making: President Signs ESEA Rewrite, Giving States, Districts Bigger Say on Policy 

What Does It Take To Make A Great Teacher?

November 13, 2015 – What does it take to make a great teacher? An expert group of educators, policymakers and others had been working for quite some time to answer that question and came up with a better, more consistent system in Michigan for making sure that our teaching force is the best it can be, for our most advantaged and most challenged students alike. One of the takeaways from that process demonstrated in the teacher evaluation legislation recently signed by the Governor is that better training and support is necessary so that teachers can use their talents to the best of their abilities.

What supports a great teacher? Certainly the ability to have time in the classroom to use what they have spent years learning – to help students build knowledge and skills. For some, that is in specific topic areas; for some, that is about fostering and supporting a love of learning for younger kids; for some, it is about getting kids who are struggling back on track; and for some it is about making sure we continue to challenge the imagination and creativity of those who excel. Not surprisingly, teachers report that they can better utilize their skills when kids come to school ready to learn. Unfortunately, there are a host of things that prevent kids from optimal learning in the classroom that are impossible for teachers to address on their own. Teachers are better able to teach and students are better able to learn when:

  • – kids don’t come into the classroom hungry, or when they don’t come in with a toothache as supported by integrating nutrition and health services in the schools;
  • – kids are not feeling intimidated by other kids or school staff, or feeling unsafe at home and on the way to school, which is improved by utilizing positive behavior supports and other evidenced discipline strategies;
  • – older students have a manageable job after school that they want and need, and when students have had the opportunity to catch up when they fall behind and stay motivated after school and in the summer, made possible through investment in community partnerships and expanded learning;
  • – young people have been able to manage their addictions, mental health or other special needs and other members of their family have been able to do the same through access to those services in school buildings and in the community;
  • – student behaviors are managed well in the school system by recognizing behaviors borne of trauma and addressing them through that lens; and
  • – their parents are able to build their own skills to help and encourage them at home and have the time together at home to use those skills, as supported through adult and community education programs and family friendly work supports.

Everyone knows that educational, career and life success are not built in the classroom alone. Because all of our systems, not just the K-12 system, don’t work as well as they should and often don’t work together, disparities in literacy emerge as early as nine months of age.  Those gaps can continue to grow throughout educational careers without appropriate attention and intervention. In addition, future state budgets will be stressed by recent road funding decisions and inadequate revenue putting other critical state investments at risk.

Despite these challenges, Michigan must find a way to commit investments for teachers and the children, youth, families and communities they serve. To do otherwise would fail to move ahead in the work started by this teacher evaluation legislation. As we better evaluate teachers, we must also ensure that they have the support they need to succeed.

– Michele Corey

September is a Time to Tackle Root Causes of School Absenteeism

September 10, 2015 – While working as a student teacher in a local high school some years ago, I was introduced to the mind-numbing business of taking attendance before each class hour. The routine process, involving some quick key board clicks on a digital report across 156 student names and six class hours, wasn’t itself time-consuming except for assembling lesson materials that needed to be set aside for absent students each day. Doing so gave them and their families some sense of what took place in the classroom that day. But in reality, it didn’t entirely replicate the learning process, the active exchange of questions, discussions, ideas and those wonderful unexpected ah-ha moments that come from the daily teacher-student experience. And not everyone was able to take advantage of take-home material.

Even though I frequently shared the importance of keeping up by coming to class with the teens and parents I worked with, I knew the problems some kids faced attending regularly were varied and complicated by their personal challenges. Chronic asthma; sick parents at home; early morning jobs teens took to support their families; struggles with mental illness and family trauma. Rarely could skipping school be explained by teen obstinacy alone. But absences did cause them to struggle in school and ultimately put roadblocks to their post secondary schooling and career training. Now, new information from Attendance Works and the Healthy Schools Campaign this month gives a deeper look into chronic school absences – an issue gaining priority in education as a national crisis.

Released this September during Attendance Awareness Month, the report, “Mapping the Early Attendance Gap: Charting a Course for Student Success,” spotlights a problem bigger than many people would expect with 7.5 million students missing nearly a month of school a year. It’s a problem that can be tracked to preschool and kindergarten whose absentee rates are nearly as high as teen’s rates, according to the report. The life-long consequences are serious, too. Children who are repeatedly absent in kindergarten and first grade are less likely to read proficiency by third grade. In middle school, students with chronic absences are more likely to drop out in high school. School testing and performance measures are negatively impacted, resulting in limited opportunities for success as students move on.

Using survey data taken during national testing of 4th and 8th graders, the report also pinpoints who is missing school, and in Michigan it doesn’t bode well for children of color, children with disabilities and children from low-income families. Once again, a national educational issue is hitting our vulnerable populations hardest and the numbers are compelling.

  1. The report found 32 percent of Michigan’s African-American 4th graders missed three or more days in a given month compared to 22 percent nationally. The rate was the same for Michigan 8th graders, 32 percent, compared to 23 percent across the country.
  2. Michigan’s Hispanic children also missed more school than the national average: In 4th grade, the Michigan rate was 28 percent compared to 21 percent nationally and in 8th grade, 26 percent compared to 22 percent.
  3. And Michigan children with disabilities also missed more school then peers nationally: 31 versus 25 percent in 4th grade, and 34 vs. 28 percent among 8th graders.

Attendance and truancy have gotten attention from political leaders in Michigan in recent years. Gov. Snyder’s Pathways to Potential program launched in 2012 as a means to reduce truancy by co-locating Department of Health and Human Services staff in schools. Some communities have developed successful strategies that are seeing progress in attendance, like the Kent School Services Network and others. Michigan needs to learn from success and build whole-community approaches statewide.

The State Board of Education and School Superintendent Brian Whiston are taking a serious look at what’s needed to make Michigan a top 10 state in education. Addressing the causes of school absenteeism should be a part of those conversations as we set our sights on helping all kids learn and achieve in Michigan.

– Teri Banas is a communications consultant working for Michigan’s Children.

Moving Toward the Top

August 20, 2015 – Trying to get better at things is good, particularly trying to get better at things that are in the best interest of children, youth and families in our state. New leadership in the Department of Education has come with new opportunities to get better, and Superintendent Whiston has already shown that he is committed to setting goals and working with others to achieve them. In a state where we ranked 37th of the 50 states in education in the last National Kids Count Data Book, this is essential. The Superintendent and the State Board of Education are spending some time over the next couple of months getting feedback about what it would really take to move Michigan to a top 10 education state.

Michigan’s Children is weighing in on that conversation with what we’ve talked about consistently for years – a focus on shrinking achievement gaps by investing in what works for children, youth and families, and their schools and communities. Six specific areas rise to the top, each with a myriad of strategies that can and must be forwarded:

Take responsibility for early strategies beyond pre-school by increasing parent coaching and supports through voluntary home visiting options, building state investment and maximizing federal investment in Early On and continuing to improve our child care subsidy system.

Support parents’ role in their children’s literacy by expanding initial efforts to help parents in their role of first and best teachers and to help them reach their own educational and career goals by better investments in Adult Education, workforce supports, and family literacy options so that parents can fully support their children’s literacy journeys.

Change school practice related to student and family trauma by providing school personnel the tools they need to recognize and deal with symptoms of trauma in their students and families and evaluating their ability to do so. It also includes building better connections with community partners who can assist.

Close equity gaps by integrating services and expanding learning opportunities. This includes building assurance that state and federal resources for service integration would go to the best models of service and that supporting services needed by children, youth and families would be available throughout the state. It also includes investing in after-school and summer learning at the state level, in addition to maintaining federal investment.

Give young people multiple chances to succeed by promoting attendance through adjustments in school discipline policies and investment in programs beyond the traditional, arbitrary four-years of high school. The effectiveness of these programs is increased when young people themselves are involved in planning and are clearly connected to a pathway leading toward college or career.

And finally, we suggested that the Superintendent and the State Board provide real leadership in this difficult work that often requires the efforts of many areas of expertise and many sectors of work, including the family and community resources. With so many things impacting a child’s ability to succeed in school and life – many of which are not within the walls of a school and the purview of education pedagogy – it is essential to bring efforts together.

As we’ve said many times before, our educational leaders have their work cut out for them, and as public and private partners available to help, we have our work cut out for us as well.

– Michele Corey

Support Kids in Families of All Kinds

May 21, 2015 — During this year’s Foster Care Awareness Month, the National Kids Count project released a report, Every Kid Needs a Family: Giving Children in the Child Welfare System the Best Chance for Success. The report suggests that Michigan overuses congregate care options when a family setting would better serve children in our state’s foster care system. The report puts forth three simple recommendations:

  1. Expand the service array to ensure that children remain in families. Michigan has experienced several decades of disinvestment in programs that strengthen families, and has eliminated most state funding from abuse and neglect prevention programs. One bright spot – the recent focus on investments in home visiting programs, proven to identify needs early and connect families to necessary support. Better investments in preventing and intervening with some of the most common reasons for removal are essential. We need to invest more in keeping families stable in the first place, helping parents rebuild their lives, and supporting reunification once situations have improved.
  2. Recruit, strengthen and retain more foster families, and increase the utilization of family members other than parents as caregivers for foster children. In Michigan and elsewhere in the United States there have not been enough available and trained foster families or relatives; and not enough supports for family placements. The Michigan League for Public Policy, who directs the Kids Count in Michigan project, outlines this well in their blog about the recent release.
  3. Support decision making that ensures that children removed from their homes are placed in the least restrictive setting. The public and private systems in Michigan need to be held accountable for developing and maintaining appropriate placement options for children and youth depending on their needs, and adequately investing in these options. In addition, we need to reframe more restrictive care settings as a treatment option, where custody during that placement remains intact with a parent or foster parent, and remove impediments to maintaining existing caregiver relationships during those placements.

Michigan’s Children has talked to many young people over the years, some who have experience in the foster care system (see our most recent guest blog from Ronnie Stephenson, and discussions from a recent KidSpeak on the issue.) All of the young people Michigan’s Children has spoken to about the foster care system talk about the need for the stable support that comes with family ties, including a stable place to call home and adults who are committed to their success for the long-term. Many talk about the need for adequate treatment and intervention settings where necessary. They also talk about wanting to help direct their own services within the foster care system, including establishing or maintaining connections with their birth families and others in their home communities. In addition, young people want better access to the same opportunities for involvement in their learning, peer group and community that other young people do – access to what is now termed as a more “naturalized” environment – whether they are in foster homes, group homes, other congregate care or supervised in their own homes.

In part due to the powerful voices of young people expressed over the last several years, through our work, the Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative and Fostering Success Michigan and the work of many other partners, Michigan’s Children met this week with a bi-partisan group of Legislators, staff and other advocates to begin to frame out changes that Michigan needs to make in order to better support the range of families that care for young people – their birth families, their foster and adoptive families, and other relatives who serve as caregivers. While Michigan has recognized some deficiencies in its child welfare system, there is still a long way to go before we are giving all children the best chance for success. The Departmental merger between Community Health and Human Services and the Governor’s articulation of the need to better connect services to serve families are opportunities to further this work. Recognizing that reform needs to center around providing family support in whatever way possible for those young people we are responsible for is a necessary step for moving in the right direction. Michigan’s Children is very excited to be part of this effort.

— Michele Corey

What Children, Youth and Families Need in the New State Superintendent

March 10, 2015 – The search for the new Superintendent of Schools is in the homestretch. Six candidates have been identified.  All but one have led local and intermediate school district work in Michigan, the other is a deputy in Massachusetts’s education department.

This choice has enormous implications for Michigan, particularly in how we build educational success with the most challenged among us. Clearly, we can assume that the candidates are steeped in education pedagogy expertise, and know what they are doing running a classroom and a school building during the school day. The job requires that expertise and more as they face Michigan’s big challenges – some of the largest achievement gaps in the nation; consistently poor showing compared to other states on education measures; and limited improvement on state assessments.

Current Superintendent Flanagan is certainly leaving a legacy. He helped to facilitate the enormous expansion of 4-year old preschool, and has been an outspoken advocate for the importance of the early years for later educational success. Under his watch, the state committed to closing gaps in educational outcomes for African American boys, resulting in shifts in Department practice, and support for local system efforts. In addition, he helped to facilitate several public/private task forces that looked closely at some of the critical issues feeding these gaps including truancy and school discipline practices.

There also have been enormous strides to broaden our methods of attaining, measuring and documenting college and career readiness skills. Partnerships have begun to form with employers, post-secondary institutions and community partners who provide learning opportunities outside the school day. This work points to the need for significant changes in our system that will not only benefit all kids in K-12 schools, but would be a game changer in skill building and credit accumulation for the most challenged young people in this state.

The new Superintendent will need to redouble all of that work. And to be successful, they will need to skillfully collaborate – not only with the Governor and the Legislature (both of whom hold the purse strings), but with the leaders of other state departments, with the rest of the education and workforce continuum, and with other community resources. They will need to capitalize on the broad recognition that what happens beyond the school doors impacts educational success, and call on resources beyond their own purview to help.

Beyond continuing support for current initiatives, what are some specifics priorities for the new Superintendent?

  1. Better address the educational needs of parents. The most consistent predictor of educational success for children remains the educational success of their parents – the research couldn’t be clearer on that. If we want to improve 3rd grade reading and college and career readiness, we not only have to look earlier than kindergarten and bolster children’s experiences beyond the school doors, we also have to look at our support of adult literacy through our adult education system. This system has not successfully served the most challenged adults for quite a while, many of whom are the parents of the most struggling learners.
  2. Focus investment on expanding learning options for children, youth and families beyond the traditional school day. At this point, Michigan relies almost entirely on uncertain federal funds to support before- and after-school and summer programming evidenced to cut equity gaps. In addition, fully coordinating community services through evidenced integrated student services models needs to be given priority.
  3. Extend leadership in improving care for young children beyond pre-school. While Michigan has taken and made strides in improving the quality of our child care system, we’ve done that with fixed federal rather than state investment, limiting our ability to drastically improve access to high quality care. Our subsidy system for the poorest working families consistently ranks us at the very bottom in the nation.  A few years ago, Michigan brought the state’s child care system under the auspices of the Office of Great Start, and additional strides to improve that system are needed.
  4. Develop consistent ways to engage young people in reform strategies and priority development – particularly those experiencing the most challenging educational and life circumstances. This is not easy, but could be done with the help of partners, including Michigan’s Children.
  5. Lead cross-department efforts.  Early on in his 1st term in office, the Governor developed a strategy to connect the dots between state departments by establishing what he termed, the “People Group.” This group is comprised of the directors of the Departments of Human Services, Community Health, Civil Rights and Education. The new State Superintendent is ideally suited to lead that group, in light of the transitions occurring with the merger of DHS and DCH, and the space to focus the group’s work on building college and career success.

Whew!  They have their work cut out for them and we have our work cut out for us.  We realize that this is a lot to ask of the next state Superintendent, but there are a lot of public and private partners available to help, if they can take advantage of them.

– Michele Corey

Starting School and Staying There

September 2, 2014 – Here we are, the day after Labor Day, with all eyes toward young people returning to school.  Now that they are back, we need to keep them there – making sure that they aren’t losing opportunity because of multiple absences, and making sure that they stick it out until high school graduation and beyond.

September is national Attendance Awareness Month and the noteworthy Attendance Works national organization released today a study about the impact of attendance, or lack of attendance, on educational success in Michigan and around the country, titled Absences Add Up: How Attendance Influences Student Success.  As the report authors discuss, and Michigan’s Children has discussed many times in our blogs and elsewhere, it has never before been so essential that we move all of our young people to educational success.  One of the barriers to doing this is when young people aren’t getting all of the learning opportunities that they could.  This happens during the summer, it happens during the 80 percent of waking hours that children and youth aren’t in school and it happens when they are absent.  Bottom line:  they miss out and have limited opportunity to catch up.

So, not surprisingly, what Absences Add Up reports is that in Michigan and around the country, your assessment scores have EVERYTHING to do with how often you are absent.  Being present in school matters to academic performance for each grade and subject studied, for every group of children and in every locality.  The report states that “in many cases, the students with more absences have skill levels one to two years below their peers. While students from low-income families are more likely to be chronically absent, the ill effects of missing too much school hold true for all socioeconomic groups.”

In Michigan, there was a 15 point difference in average math assessment scores between 4th graders with no absences in the past month and those who missed at 3 or more days.  Similar gaps are seen in 4th and 8th grade reading.  The largest gap in Michigan is the 23 point difference for 8th grade math.  I see the impact of the cumulative nature of math instruction with my own kids, which is clearly hampered by multiple absence.

What are the keys to keeping kids in school?  Ah, that is the complication.  There are many reasons why children and youth are absent from school, some of which are under the control of the school system and some that are not.  The State Board of Education and the Michigan Department of Human Services recently staffed a Truancy Task Force with the purpose of building a common definition for truancy that could be utilized across the state.  In the course of that discussion, what was also apparent is that there are as many reasons for absence as there are absences themselves and a myriad of ways that local school systems both report and deal with absence.  So if it is this complicated, what can be done?

  1. Support integrated services in schools.  When schools are able to connect families with other community resources, there are more chances to find and address the causes of school absence – be they related to physical and behavioral health issues, unstable housing, bullying or disengagement by parents or students.
  2. Support expanded learning opportunities.  There is ample evidence documenting the impact of quality afterschool and summer learning programs on in-school attendance.  When expanded learning opportunities are utilized to engage and re-engage young people in their learning, they are more likely to engage and re-engage with school as well.

As we’ve been saying over and over again, this election season gives all of us a platform to see what the candidates for office suggest we do to keep kids in school and learning.  When kids miss school, they miss opportunity.  They can’t afford it and neither can we.

Summer Learning Matters for Students and Policymakers

July 11, 2013 – The Michigan Department of Education recently released assessment test scores documenting that fewer than one in five Michigan high school students are prepared in all subjects for college and career as evidenced by scores on the ACT College Readiness Assessment. In addition, when we look at this spring’s Michigan Merit Exam (the high school MEAP tests), there are huge scoring gaps in every subject by race, economics and other challenging student and family circumstances.

So we look to the reasons why, well documented in the research. One of those reasons is the difference in experiences that children and youth have access to in the summer.

There is a pile of research documenting that all kids lose some educational gains over the summer. I see that in my own three kids and try to make sure that they are engaged in activities that keep their minds moving ahead. Okay, that doesn’t always work. Sometimes the activities that I’d love to have them do, or that they are really excited about doing, are just too expensive, or just too far away from our house, or they just don’t work for our complicated schedule with all parents working. Now think about that for more challenged families with less access to transportation and less flexibility in their jobs.

Research suggests that fully two-thirds of the reading achievement gap by the 9th grade is attributable to summer learning loss alone. Each year, we look at MEAP and ACT test results for our young people. Each year, we express disappointment that more of them aren’t doing better and we express particular concern about the gaps between our highest achievers and our lowest. So, let’s do something about that.

In the last budget cycle, as we have for many years, Michigan’s Children joined with others in the Michigan After-School Partnership to call for state investment in expanded learning opportunities – those opportunities that take place outside of the traditional school day: primarily before- and after-school and during the summer. Those same opportunities that research points to as a solution to summer learning loss and that go far to lessen the achievement gap. As you likely know, Legislators in the Michigan House included a small amount of money to support those programs, a start back onto the path of larger, necessary state investment. But that small investment didn’t make it into the final budget passed last month, despite the efforts of our Legislative champions and ourselves.

In this campaign season, we need to remind those vying to represent us that they can commit to make decisions backed by years, often decades, of research that can change the educational odds for kids in Michigan. It does take investment, and we can help them better understand where that investment can really matter by inviting them to see great programming, talking with them about what is needed in our communities and then making sure that they are addressing those needs while they are on the campaign trail.

Our work this summer is to do just that.

– Michele Corey

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