Seventeen Years of Expert Testimony

Decision-makers gathered last week, representing the Governor’s Office, a bi-partisan group of 17 members of the Michigan Legislature, the State Board of Education, the Departments of Community Health and Human Services, philanthropy, municipalities, law enforcement, education associations, after-school, school health, researchers, and other youth advocates to listen to some Michigan experts.  Young people from a dozen communities around the state came to the Capitol to share their challenges, successes and recommendations for improving program and policy.   Programs that serve some of the most challenged young people in the state braved the snow and cold weather to bring these articulate young people before our listeners.

One young man brought out his specific concerns about the family he was planning to have – concerns that he would be successful enough to support them and that the education and other systems would be able to serve them better than they had served him.  He is a young adult now, part of an amazing program that gets young people back on track to a high school credential and onto a post-secondary path.  Reflecting that he had been out of school for several years, realizing that his future was compromised, there was a program that re-engaged him.  Instead of a path of unemployment and potentially criminal justice, he is now on a path to personal success and building success for the next generation.

This same experience was repeated over and over – young people who had been failed by and often pushed out of those systems that are charged with moving them toward adult success, often with personal consequences that were difficult for our listeners to hear.  Also repeated was the experience of these young people, who our public and private sector dollars had failed, finding a path to success.  These programs blend together different funding sources and share a commitment to providing many paths to success and many chances for moving down those paths.  What they also share is a space to make up for the failures of other systems.

As we move into the next budget year in Michigan, and try to keep up with federal budget decision-making, the testimony of the sixteen young people can provide some guidance:

  1. 2nd and 3rd chance programs for successful movement toward high school completion/post-secondary paths are not consistently available across this state, nor are they consistently accessible for all young people who need them.  As Michigan’s Children says all the time, resources need to be devoted to alternative, adult and community education to provide these chances to everyone.  This requires innovative strategies to utilize resources from a variety of sectors.  We can learn much from current programs who successfully serve our most challenged young people, families and communities.
  2. While we are making strides in how we serve the young people under our guardianship – those who the state removed from their challenged families and often their communities as well because of abuse, neglect and delinquency – we are still not successful enough.  These kids deserved better from us, and their stories continue to shock and dismay us.  This also requires multiple sectors working together to make sure that under our care, they are better able to rebuild what has been lost and move successfully toward supporting themselves and their own families now and in the future.
  3. Both of those intervention strategies scream for more investment in the prevention of poor outcomes in the first place.  This includes focusing resources on fragile families early on, and taking steps early and often to ensure young people can make it through high school successfully the first time.

If we take nothing from KidSpeak, we must take that we must do better.  I heard a great quote yesterday that fits perfectly here.  “Better is possible.  It doesn’t take genius.  It takes diligence.  It takes moral clarity.  It takes ingenuity.  And above all, it takes a willingness to try.”  Atul Gawande

We look forward to working with our experts, our listeners and others in the new year to invest in strategies that can change the trajectory of more young people, their families and their communities in 2014 and beyond.

– Michele Corey

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Prosperity in Michigan: What Do We Need for the Climb?

Kurt Metzger is perhaps the most experienced demographer in Michigan.  He is currently the director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit, an initiative of the Michigan Nonprofit Association.  I mention him because he published an article recently in Bridge Magazine, Michigan still has a long climb back to prosperity, that illustrates in data what we all know to be true:  Michigan has been through a tough decade or so economically, and while some folks are starting to do better, the bulk of Michigander’s have not yet started that climb.  Michigan is a starkly different state than we were a dozen years ago, and nowhere is this more evident than in the disinvestment of state resources in programs supporting the most challenged children, youth and families over that same period.

In addition, economists at the UofM and elsewhere are predicting above average job growth over the next two years AND increasing money in the state coffers as a result.

So, if we are indeed beginning the slow trek back to economic prosperity, let’s be deliberate about assessing how the trek is going so far, and what we need to do as a state in this next budget year to aid us on the climb.  What do we know:

  1. We’ve lost ground.  Kurt points out, is that Michigan ranked 37th in per capita income in 2012, and was one of only three states who lost ground in that indicator from 2000 – 2012.
  2. Economic downturns are tougher on folks with less education.  Kurt also points out that Michigan has traditionally made a poor showing in that area as well – ranking 31st on the share of young adults (ages 25-34) with at least a bachelor’s degree.  In addition, according to the U.S. Census, we remain right around the national average in the share of young adults in that same age range without a high school diploma – around 10%.
  3. A well educated citizenry is the path toward economic success.  Yes, this point is well researched by many and embraced widely.
  4. The educational success of parents is a strong predictor of the educational success of their children.  If nothing else, parents who have had less educational success themselves, are on less stable economic ground and often have a more difficult time interfacing with systems serving themselves and their children, including the schools and other providers of services that could assist.
  5. Unacceptably high shares of new moms do not have adequate education levels themselves.  You may recall from the release of the Right Start in Michigan last spring that fully 4 in 10 moms of Michigan newborns in 2011 had no college education, and more than a third of those didn’t even have a high school credential.

With these facts in mind, what do Legislators need to do include in their budget priorities as we move into 2014 in order for Michigan to have what we need as a state for our climb toward economic prosperity?

  1. Get kids through to high school graduation the first time.  Michigan’s Children blogs consistently about what the research says are investments needed to be able to do this better, including investments in challenged families well before children enter kindergarten, solid connections between home and school throughout the child’s educational career, consistent opportunities for extended learning programs to assist in skill development and engagement, and 2nd and 3rd (4th and 5th…) chances to reach that high school diploma, just to name a few.
  2. Provide opportunities for adults to reconnect to GED and post-secondary paths throughout their lives.  Target these opportunities for young mothers and fathers.

The Governor is working on his recommendations for the upcoming budget season right now.  We’ve had a mixed record of investment and disinvestment in programs and initiatives that matter to our state’s success.  Now is the time for us all to get real about what it takes to improve economic prosperity in Michigan and share that knowledge with policymakers.

-Michele Corey

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Those Precious First Days

Two weeks ago, I welcomed my son – Lennon – into this world.  Being my first child, I must admit that I was less anxious about the actual labor and delivery process and much more anxious about those first few days at home with him and figuring out how to keep this little person alive.  While we’re a fortunate family to have both of Lennon’s grandmas living in the same town as us and many supportive friends (including those who are already parents) that we could lean on for support, it still felt a bit daunting to have this little human being completely dependent on us for his survival.

Even with our vast network of support, one of the great things we got to experience on our second day at home with Lennon was a home visit by a registered nurse.  That’s right.  Though our family doesn’t qualify for any specific home visiting service for more challenged families, the University of Michigan hospital where Lennon was born provides a home visit to all families after they go home.  This was such an amazing opportunity to ask the many questions that we were having both about Lennon’s health and well-being as well as my own recovery.  The visit provided an opportunity for us to ask about what’s normal infant behavior, offer guidance on nursing, sleeping, and other developmental questions we had about our three-day old baby, and offered guidance to my partner and me as we navigated this whole new world.

As I mentioned earlier, we have a great network of support but having a trained person come to our home to provide guidance and expertise early in Lennon’s life was extremely helpful.  It made me think about the evidence-based home visiting services that are available in our state that target the most challenged families.  How exciting yet daunting it is to care for a newborn baby.  Yes, the love is overwhelming and I know all mothers are willing to do whatever it takes to do the best by their child.  But to have other stressors in one’s life may make it significantly more challenging to tend to the needs of a newborn while also recovering from one’s own physical experience of delivering a child.  These voluntary home visiting programs have demonstrated improved outcomes for both mom and baby in terms of baby’s health and development and mom’s ability to provide a stable home for baby.  Based on the one home visit that I experienced, I could see how they can be extremely beneficial – to have a trained professional to talk about specific baby challenges and to have a support person to lean on when times are rough.

Here in Michigan, the Governor and the Legislature are gearing up to build the fiscal year 2015 state budget.  Michigan has high quality home visiting programs that already exist around our state.  Unfortunately, these programs are vastly underfunded, only reach a fraction of the families that are eligible for services, and rely far too heavily on federal dollars to support them.  At Michigan’s Children, we hope to see these home visiting programs expanded using sustainable state funding, and have been working with key partners towards this endeavor.  In the meantime, won’t you talk to your legislators about the challenges that new parents face and how home visiting programs can support our state’s most challenged new parents?  Learn more about home visiting programs in Michigan by visiting the Michigan Department of Community Health website.

Image-Mina Hong

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Extending Educational Accountability Beyond the School Doors

We have high expectations of our education system, and rightly so.  Educators have one of the most important jobs with the greatest ability to impact Michigan’s economic recovery.  Do we want and need effective teaching and learning?  Of course.  Do we want and need accountability for educational outcomes?  Of course.  Do we want all schools to be of the highest quality?  Of course.  The need and impact are too great and we certainly don’t have public funds to spare.  The Legislature is currently debating the best way to communicate our schools’ effectiveness, but the question that we should be grappling with is how do we support and evaluate our education system to be best able to promote that effective learning.

Effective learning demands a great deal of things.  I like the ASCD’s Whole Child language, which I’m paraphrasing here.  Michigan children and youth need to:

  1. enter school healthy and learn about healthy practices as they progress;
  2. learn in physical and emotional safety;
  3. be connected to the broader community through their learning;
  4. have access to learning tailored to their challenges and strengths;
  5. have access to caring and competent adults involved in their learning; and
  6. be challenged throughout their educational careers so that they can be prepared for college and career.

Much of this is obvious, and all is well documented in research.  When kids are hungry, when they haven’t slept, when they aren’t feeling safe at home or at school, as just three of many possible examples, their ability to engage with even the highest skilled teaching in the best run school is challenged.

The responsibility that falls on classroom teachers and other school and district staff for effective teaching and learning has been and continues to be discussed, and the best way to measure its effectiveness hotly debated.  What is perhaps less obvious and certainly not discussed enough, is the responsibility that falls on other systems that impact students for the rest of their learning, beginning well before kindergarten and continuing outside of the classroom through their educational careers.

The question has always been, and rightly so, how do we ensure the best use of public dollar for education – how are we using what we know, in this case what we know about effective teaching and learning, to assess the best use of the resources that we spend within the education system, and within other systems that impact learning as well.

Can we assess and support and reward educators, schools and communities in addition to skill in subject area and teaching and learning pedagogy, and also in their prowess in those practices that serve to close achievement gaps?  In the ability to connect early and often with children, youth and their families?  In the ability to consistently engage each student?  In the ability to move students individually on their own trajectory? In the ability to provide 2nd and 3rd chances for the most challenged students to succeed?  Can we assess and support and reward the ability of educators and schools to collaborate together and connect with outside supports – parents and community resources?

Can we not punish educators and schools for structures and impacts beyond their control, BUT not end the conversation there?  Can we expand responsibility for educational success a little to rest with us all, and support that responsibility accordingly?  At this point, the Michigan Legislature is discussing yet another school accountability system.  We urge them to expand this conversation to evaluate how all of the components of our teaching and learning system are doing and invest support and resources accordingly.

-Michele Corey

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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

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