By Nancy L. Erickson
You hear it often: Too many Michigan schools fail to educate their students. Yet the accusation is made primarily against districts where many students live in poverty.
Truth is, most of these schools — and the children who attend them — are set up for failure. Many efforts to improve schools are akin to tinkering with a car battery when the vehicle needs a new engine.
Fact #1: Hundreds of thousands of children across the state are living in poverty. They are far behind their peers in learning before they even start school.
Solution: Quality Pre-School and Kindergarten for all children who live in poverty are essential. Reductions in taxpayer spending on grade retention, special education and prisons would follow. These facts have been known for decades.
What You Get Instead: Our state is expanding access to preschool for 4 year-olds. But there is no plan to require Pre-K education for all children. Michigan law doesn’t even require children to attend school until age 6. Many children never attend Kindergarten. But $2 billion a year is spent on prisons in Michigan, a larger portion of our general fund than any other state.
Fact #2: Children reading below grade level in 3rd grade rarely catch up. Most are locked into limited opportunities for the rest of their lives.
Solution: After students learn how to read, raising their ability is not as difficult as often assumed. Hundreds of studies prove the most powerful method is providing children with large quantities of popular books to read at home, in school — and all summer long.
Such free-choice reading also improves their vocabulary, spelling and writing. These facts have been known for decades. The most cost-effective and equitable way to provide this: Ensure highly qualified school librarians and well-stocked libraries in each of our schools.
What You Get Instead: The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that Michigan is one of only six states in which our 4th graders experienced a loss in reading scores between 2003 and 2013.
In recent years, the ratio of school libraries to our students sank to ranking 3rd from the bottom nationally. Some states require libraries to be staffed by highly qualified school librarians. Michigan does not. Prisoners in Michigan
have more access to libraries than hundreds of thousands of children.
Our State Superintendent of Schools announced public libraries as a solution. But lack of transportation and time to visit are daunting problems for many struggling families. Even if public libraries exist in lower income or rural areas, staff and building size are limited. So are hours of operation.
Fact #3: Summer learning loss accumulates over the years for most children in low-income families. This is especially damaging for reading and math. By the start of middle school, such students usually read two years below grade level. Many are on the fast-track to dropping out.
Solution: Provide specially designed, summer-long learning programs for struggling students. School libraries must be open all summer as well. Also essential are activities proven to help “rewire” students’ brains.
Neuroscientists are clear that chronic stress accompanying poverty impairs students’ ability to learn. Such summer programs will do more to reduce the achievement gap than year-round schooling for all children. These facts have been known for decades.
What You Get Instead: We’re informed bad teachers are the main cause of low test scores. But studies prove most students learn at about the same rate during the school year. Truth is, most children living in poverty start behind their peers and fall further each summer.
Equity for All Children: What’s essential are a majority of elected officials with the will to ensure children living in poverty receive the basics of an effective education.
It’s described in the three points above — and backed by decades of research. Until then, more spending on studies, expensive testing of students — and increasingly stringent and expensive teacher evaluations based on test scores is a waste of taxpayer money.
It is also unspeakably cruel to children who struggle under the grinding hardships of poverty.
So when will elected officials implement the above reforms? When we insist they must — and when we refuse to accept “no” for an answer.
Action Strategy: Contact your State Representative, Senator, the elected Michigan Board of Education and other state officials. Contact information can be found at www.michigan.gov. Once this article is available online, you can forward it to your state officials as well as others.
(Nancy L. Erickson is a Hamtramck Public Schools educator.)