Speaking For Kids

Shining a Spotlight on Third Grade Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mina Hong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mina Hong

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

Michigan’s Child Care System Continues to Struggle

Today, the National Women’s Law Center released its annual state-by-state report on the status of child care. This year’s report, Pivot Point: State Child Care Assistance Policies 2013, examines five critical factors that determine the affordability, accessibility, and quality of assistance in each state: income eligibility, waiting lists for assistance, co-payments required of parents receiving assistance, reimbursement rates for child care providers, and eligibility for parents searching for a job. What the report shows us is that Michigan continues to fall behind other states in these critical areas and must make policy changes to bolster its child care system to truly embed it within our P-20 education system. Here are a few critical pieces of the report.

One area where Michigan has gotten progressively worse is in the area of eligibility. The original intent of the child care subsidy is to support low-income working parents who struggle to afford child care while maintaining their employment. Between 2012 and 2013, nearly half of the states increased their income eligibility limits to keep pace with or exceed inflation; and forty-six states increased their income eligibility limits as a dollar amount between 2001 and 2013. However, Michigan did none of these.  Between 2012 and 2013, our state did not adjust its income eligibility limits for families to access the child care subsidy, maintaining eligibility at an annual income of $23,380 for a family of three. Since no adjustments were made for inflation, this means that families now living at 122% of the federal poverty level (FPL) could access the subsidy. Moreover in 2001, Michigan allowed families of three making $26,064 annually (178% FPL) to access the subsidy. In essence, Michigan has shifted its eligibility such that working families need to be poorer to access this critical support.

Beyond the fact that the subsidy is supposed to help parents maintain family-supporting employment, the reimbursement rates in Michigan make it extremely challenging for parents to afford quality care. Federal regulations recommend that rates be set at the 75th percentile of current market rates – a rate that is designed to allow families access to 75 percent of the providers in their communities. However, Michigan does not come close to meeting this recommendation. In fact, for a four-year-old in center-based child care, a family can receive up to $433 in subsidy per month, though the 75th percentile averages $974 per month. For a one-year-old in center-based care, families can receive up to $650 in subsidy though the 75th percentile of the market rate is $1,000 per month. Clearly, the reimbursement provided is insufficient to ensure families can access high quality care, and families can be charged co-pays to make-up the difference between the true cost of care and the subsidy amount. This is a significant financial stretch for Michigan’s poorest working families who are served by the child care subsidy system.

Beyond the low reimbursement rate, Michigan is one of three states that provides child care subsidies on an hourly basis that’s dependent on a child’s attendance. Most other states provide child care subsidies on a daily, weekly, or monthly rate, which we know is aligned with what high quality child care programs need and charge private-paying families. This consistency in payment, that’s not dependent on attendance, is critical for programs to maintain their business model to provide high quality care and is the way that the child care market operates. Providing an hourly reimbursement makes it challenging for providers to anticipate continued revenue from subsidized families, making it difficult for providers to support quality improvement efforts – efforts that are critical to ensure the best outcomes for children.

Finally, Michigan fails to promote continuity of care, which we know to be critical to the healthy development and learning of young children. Michigan is one of only five states that does not allow families to maintain their child care assistance while looking for a job if they become unemployed while receiving the subsidy. We know this to be problematic not only because families need to be able to access child care to attend job interviews but it also allows parents to start working sooner if they already have child care available when they secure a new job. For children, having consistent care from a high quality provider ensures the best outcomes for their learning and development.

Michigan has a long way to go towards ensuring a robust child care subsidy system that truly supports working parents while promoting the learning and developmental needs of our most challenged children. Other states have shifted their child care subsidy systems to promote school readiness for young children through high quality early childhood settings, promote school success for school-aged children through high quality after-school programming, and support low-income working families to access these quality programs. As a state, we must ask ourselves what is our ultimate vision for children and families served by our child care subsidy system and how can we transform our policies and procedures to achieve that?

-Mina Hong

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