achievement gap

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

Race for Results in the State Budget

April 7, 2014 – Last week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Michigan League for Public Policyreleased Race for Results – a policy report exploring the role of race when it comes to child well-being in our nation.  The report features the Race for Results index, which compares how children are progressing on key milestones across racial and ethnic groups at the national and state level.  The findings for Michigan are not surprising.  Our African American children fare significantly worse than their national peers, with Michigan ranking as the third worst state in the nation when it comes to the well-being of African American children.  And, African American children fare significantly worse than their peers of other racial and ethnic backgrounds here in our own state.

For this reason – inequitable child outcomes that we know have existed for many years – here at Michigan’s Children we are dedicated to strengthening public policies in the best interest of children who face the most challenges.  We often talk about challenged families being families of color, low-income families, and families who struggle to provide safe and stable home environments – the same families whose children face too many barriers to succeed in school and in life.  The Race for Results findings prove to me and my team that our mission – to be a trusted, independent voice working to reduce disparities in child outcomes from cradle to career through policy change – is right on target as we strengthen public policies that will remove barriers to opportunity and lead to success for all children.

At Michigan’s Children, we focus on three opportunities – improving school readiness, ensuring safety at home, and improving college and career readiness – opportunities where we know that African American children continue to fare worse than children of other races.  We’ve been focused on some key priorities, like increasing state investments to support families with infants and toddlers since we know young families are more likely to be living in poverty and struggling to provide stability for their children.  The Race for Results report reaffirmed this priority, showing that too many African American children in Michigan live in low-poverty neighborhoods.  And because the academic achievement gap continues to be unacceptable – and was another major indicator in this report – Michigan’s Children continues to focus on increasing support for expanded learning opportunities to ensure that students who are behind academically have opportunities to catch-up outside of the traditional school hours and school year.

Right now, the Michigan Legislature is on spring break.  Many legislators are back in their districts listening to the concerns of their constituents.  When they return, they’ll be finishing up the state budget for fiscal year 2015 – a budget that could include increased investments for programs that support Michigan’s most challenged children and families.  One promising opportunity is to increase state funding for high quality after-school programming – a strategy proven to reduce the achievement gap.  Another is a $65 million increase in funding for the Great Start Readiness Program, Michigan’s successful preschool program for four-year-olds.  Please take advantageof the spring break and potential for new money today by letting your legislators know the persistent inequities in child outcomes outlined in Race for Results is unacceptable to you and should be for them.

-Matt Gillard

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

Supporting Effective, Equitable Investments in Education

Earlier this month, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report reflecting what we’ve known and felt all over the state – that we in Michigan, similar to many states around the country, continue to disinvest in K-12 education.  Since our ability to successfully educate all of our children through K-12 and beyond is what our future economic status rests on, this is not good news for kids, communities or Michigan’s economic recovery.  We have definitely recommended an end to this trend, and will continue to do so.  However, let’s talk about how and where we need to invest to provide our best chance to close our growing gaps in educational success.

I’ve begun to hear economists pointing out that the achievement gap is the largest threat to our already struggling economy.  We are so glad that Michigan leaders have listened to the economists who have talked about the real economic gains that result from preschool investments.  Fortunately, this is also a key gap-closure strategy, and while there are still gains to be made there, progress is happening and investment is growing.

What other investments matter in gap closure?  Yes, I’ll say them again:

  • Year round extended learning opportunities that intentionally include resources dedicated to mitigating summer learning loss and engage young people of all ages through the school year.  Michigan has in the past dedicated state appropriation for these critical programs, but has not invested consistently despite the infrastructure that exists to support quality programs.
  • Better, more consistent use of the existing per pupil funding available to support young people who need a 5th and 6th year of high school to reach graduation, and better paths that connect GED success to postsecondary for the young people who fall so far behind even the 5th and 6th year will not get them toward a traditional diploma.

One that I haven’t talked quite as much about in recent blogs, but is equally important:

  • Direct supports for the most challenged students and families.  Michigan has a long history of acknowledging the need to use state funding to try to level the financial playing field between schools that serve smaller numbers of challenged young people and those who serve more than their share.  Michigan’s At-Risk funding supports supplemental programming within the school day – school breakfast programs, extra academic help, health and safety initiatives and many others.  This resource has never been “fully funded,” that is, it has never had the level of resource necessary to support the number of challenged students on whose behalf school districts receive the funding at the level intended.

As we suggest reinvestment in education, which we encourage everyone to do, let’s also think about smarter investment toward programs proven to improve equity.  As we move further down the path of tying school funding to certain priority practices, which is going to happen whether we recommend it or not, let’s use those incentives to promote more achievement gap closing strategies.

-Michele Corey

Conquering the Achievement Gap Is Worthy Goal: Take Steps to Make it Happen

The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) hosted a summit yesterday, “Conquering the Achievement Gap:  The Promise of African American Males.”  The summit was an opportunity for the Department to discuss the work it has undertaken since the State Board of Education identified the reduction of the achievement gap as a priority in 2012. At the summit were national partners, state partners, and local partners all standing ready to address achievement gaps in new ways.

Michigan’s Children was asked to help MDE with one of the most critical pieces of this effort:  to make sure that the voices of young people themselves – their challenges, suggestions, perspectives and candor – are incorporated into any strategy development or implementation.  Two focus groups were held in Ingham County, which led to a commitment to facilitation of 30 more focus groups around the state.

While the bulk of the summit focused on work that has been done internally at MDE – a necessity to demonstrate that you are practicing what you preach – movement to end opportunity gaps in this state will require more intentionally coordinated efforts through state departments beyond education, and other private sector partners as well.  There is obviously plenty of work and responsibility to go around.  Clearly the educational system has to change – what we’ve been doing, prioritizing, investing in has contributed to the gaps in achievement, high school completion, and elsewhere for African American students and other challenged groups.  And what we’ve been doing, prioritizing and investing in elsewhere like health, human services, and other sectors, from cradle to career, has also contributed to these gaps, intentionally or unintentionally.

Equity gaps begin before birth and persist.  You’ve all heard me say it and I’ll say it again – by nine months of age we can see cognitive gaps forming, and without investments in initiatives targeting that gap, they persist and expand by the time that child reaches school, and continue to persist and expand through that child’s k-12 education and beyond.

Despite our good intentions, these gaps remain.  The voices of parents and young people can help us prioritize investment and better implement the strategies we pursue.

Lots of data was presented at this summit.  While the disparity data is always stark, the outcomes remain strikingly similar to those in place when I began in this field in 1990.  Beginning with a data and research base is important, but what we learn from the data and research needs to drive what we do next.  I’ll say this again as well.  There are clear research-backed strategies for investment that close opportunity gaps:  programs that support better economic and health security for the poorest among us; early learning supports; and supports for the most challenged students throughout their educational career to name just a few.  We passed a state budget this week that reflected very few of these things.  We need to make sure that we are matching our investment priorities with our good intentions.

We have another chance to provide resource to the kind of multi-sector approach necessary for reducing the achievement gap as we move forward, most importantly in the next fiscal year budget, and that work starts now.

-Michele Corey

Investing to Expand Minds and Opportunities in Michigan

Despite the crushing pressure of the fiscal cliff and the federal economy, I came back from Washington, DC last Thursday after spending several days with some Michigan colleagues and colleagues from around the country at the Afterschool Alliance National Network meeting feeling quite proud of my Michigan Congressional Delegation.

Some members of our delegation have been, of course, champions building extended learning opportunity (before- and after-school, summer learning, other opportunities outside the traditional school day) over their entire political careers.  Some are just beginning their careers in Washington and are thinking strategically about how support of extended learning may fit into their own political legacies.  And some, who are not always supportive of public spending, were indeed intrigued by the way that the largest federal investment in afterschool, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, maximizes federal investment by encouraging innovative and targeted partnerships geared toward the needs and strengths of each local community. These partnerships have demonstrated impact on the educational and life success of young people; provide support for families; and build stronger communities.

The evidence is crystal clear that high quality afterschool and summer programs accelerate student achievement, particularly for those most at risk of school failure – closing the achievement gap.  In case there was any doubt, the Afterschool Alliance has brought together literally decades of research that brings together best practices and the impact of those practices in a new compendium, Expanding Minds and Opportunities:  Leveraging the Power of Afterschool and Summer Learning for Student Success.

Unfortunately, upon my return to Lansing, I was not so proud of the way that the Governor has again left off his priority list, as evidenced by the FY14 budget release last week, investment in one of the most powerful tools toward increased educational achievement and equity at his disposal – afterschool.  While I am extremely excited about the impact of the kinds of investments to our early childhood system he is proposing, these investments early will fail to reap all of the successes that they could without continued, targeted investment intended to build equity in outcomes throughout children’s educational careers.

Michigan’s Children will once again be working hard over the next months to ensure that we reinstate funding for extended learning opportunities – once funded at $16 million through the state budget.  Federal investment is not enough; we need to make this equity strategy a priority in our own budget as well, serving to make a dent in the kind of investment necessary to provide opportunities for all who need them.  In addition, any cuts to the Child Care subsidy Program, 40% of which supports elementary school participation in before- and after-school opportunities, should be taken with caution.

Now the Legislature has their chance to build Michigan’s investment in extended learning opportunities.  Join us in making sure that they do just that.

-Michele Corey

State of the Polarized State

Last night, Governor Snyder presented his third State of the State address to a Legislature that is still recovering from a bitterly divisive lame duck session.  The Governor attempted to provide some hope for reconciliation to get things done in a bipartisan fashion in 2013 by saying in his address “I appreciate that  people have different perspectives … I’m going to work hard to find common ground where we can work together and I hope all of you join me in doing the same thing.”  But, the partisan ways of lame duck haunted the State Capitol in last night’s address.  In a time when too many Michigan children and families continue to struggle, the Governor and legislative leadership must take steps to move past the polarization to build effective public policies for a better Michigan future.

So what did we hear in Governor Snyder’s State of the State?  Last week, we laid out what we hoped to hear in his State of the State and were disappointed that none of the items were addressed, nor did the Governor lay out any real details pertaining to the needs of children and families.  One silver lining was his mention to expand funding for Michigan’s Great Start Readiness preschool program to eventually ensure that all children who are eligible for the program can access it.  This program has proven to reduce the school readiness gap that affects too many children entering kindergarten and can help reduce the achievement gap throughout a student’s K-12 experience.  But, Governor Snyder did not discuss how this expansion would be funded nor did he discuss the role that early childhood education beginning at birth can play in reducing the achievement gap as well as other strategies throughout K-12.

The Governor must work with both our Republican and Democratic leaders to identify a feasible way to pay for an expansion of early childhood education programming that doesn’t jeopardize other important funding streams.  Both sides of the aisle must come together to discuss what Michigan needs to address the academic achievement gap in an effective way that better prepares Michigan’s future workforce.  Our legislators must have some honest conversations about how the partisanship of the lame duck session has built significant distrust among the legislature and begin to find ways to rebuild that trust for the betterment of Michiganians.

Policymakers must build on the fact that caring about children is universal.  This means continuing to invest in school readiness programs for young children from birth to age five; expanding support for effective strategies, like increasing access to before- and after-school programming, that move more young people to a high school credential; and continuing to ensure that education reform conversations focus on evidence-based best practices to reduce the achievement gap.

The Governor and legislative leaders must work together in 2013 to ensure that public policy decisions benefit Michigan children and Michigan’s future.

-Mina Hong

Will Your Vote Improve Educational Equity?

Last week, an AnnArbor.com news article highlighted the successes of Ypsilanti Public Schools with using the fifth and sixth years of high school to improve their high school completion rate.  As a Washtenaw County Resident, I was proud to see Ypsilanti Public Schools utilizing a strategy that has shown to reduce high school achievement gaps between white students and students of color – a strategy aligned with Michigan’s Children’s educational equity priorities.  And related to educational achievement outcomes, on November 6th, Ypsilanti and Willow Run residents will see a proposal on their ballot to consolidate the two school districts that, if passed, would lead to a re-envisioning of public education.

What does consolidation have to do with educational equity?  While the ins and outs of the consolidation in terms of financial implication is beyond Michigan’s Children’s purview, the notion of re-envisioning the current education system is one that we can get on board with.  These particular consolidated district plans would incorporate a cradle-to-career approach to education (similar to Michigan’s Children’s cradle-to-career strategy) that would redefine the notion that public education is a K-12 system that falls within the school walls.  The ballot proposal is one way of many that citizens from all over Michigan can get engaged in this re-envisioning conversation.

The Michigan Department of Education is already taking steps to expand beyond the K-12 tradition.  The Office of Great Start was established last year to bridge the gap between early childhood education and K-12 and to align the state’s early learning and development investments to increase school readiness and early literacy.  Research shows that investing in high quality early childhood programs that target young kids most at-risk of being unprepared for kindergarten is critical to reducing the educational achievement gap – a gap that can be traced to children as young as nine months of age.

But, we know that Michigan’s current level of early childhood investment does not reach all of the children who could benefit from high quality early learning programs, so efforts must be made to continue to focus on improving educational outcomes for all kids in K-12.  The State of Michigan’s ESEA Waiver (also known as the No Child Left Behind waiver) focuses on reducing gaps in all schools – between white students and students of color, students from upper-class families and those from low-income families, and even students that are highly proficient versus under-proficient regardless of demographics. In a nutshell, the state’s waiver focuses on reducing equity gaps – a strategy that cannot be done within the traditional K-12 system alone.

This takes me back to the beginning of my blog – a cradle-to-career education strategy much include components that take advantage of equity-promoting strategies like high quality early learning opportunities, access to before- and after-school programs that promote learning beyond the traditional school day, use of the 5th and 6th years of high school like in Ypsilanti Public Schools to increase high school graduation rates, and alternative education programs that may utilize online learning and/or link young people to college prep and workforce development opportunities.  Residents of Ypsilanti and Willow Run have a serious decision to make on November 6th that may lead to some of these strategies.  The rest of us do as well – how are the individuals we are electing into office going to ensure that Michigan is appropriately educating ALL of our children?

-Mina Hong

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