STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Want to make Michigan a top 10 education state? Here are some suggestions

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

Brian Whiston is the new guy in town at the Michigan Department of Education, and it looks like he's got poverty on the brain. Whiston and the state Board of Ed early this week convened a group of folks from around the state to share their ideas for how to improve academic outcomes for all students, especially those in poverty.

The proposals range from more funding for at-risk schools to offering competitive grant programs so schools can implement interventions that have been proven to increase student achievement to improving high quality early childhood care and universal preschool. You can read the individual presentations here.

Now, before we get too far into the weeds here, a quick reminder about why we're even talking about this. Our education system here in Michigan used to be pretty decent. It's not anymore. All groups of Michigan students – black, white, poor, rich – are losing ground academically compared to their peers in other states:

The Detroit Free Press reports that the board will hear from a new set of presenters at next month's meeting.

Whiston said during the meeting today that he'll also be seeking ideas from staff at the Michigan Department of Education and others in the education community. In addition, another group will make presentations to the board at its Sept. 8 meeting. All of the ideas will be looked at by the board, which will come back with a plan by the end of the year, Whiston said. The idea is to make Michigan a top 10 performing state within the next 10 years. "It's going to take all of us working together to make that happen," Whiston said.

With that in mind, I thought we here at State of Opportunity could offer some advice on how to improve academic achievement based on the last three years of research we've done on issues surrounding education and poverty. I'll group them by theme. Ok, here goes:

High-quality education costs money. But how much?

When it comes to per-pupil funding, there's about a $5,000 spread between the richest and poorest schools in Michigan. So how much should we be spending? I put that questionto Craig Thiel from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. Is there a "magic number" for how much it takes to educate a child in Michigan. Turns out, we don't know. He says other states have come up with a number, but more often than not it's because they were forced to as a result of a court challenge. "The state of Michigan hasn’t been required to do an adequacy study," explains Thiel, "so we don’t know what it costs to deliver a basic public education in Michigan." So it would probably behoove us as a state to figure out that magic number and then adjust it accordingly based on student population. The GOOD NEWS: A study is in the works. According to the Detroit News,the state will pay $500,000 to whichever firm it chooses to conduct the study. Results are expected next March.

And, this probably goes without saying but I'll say it anyway: high-quality education isn't cheap. This post we didat the very start of State of Opportunity shows what goes into a high-quality preschool education. Spoiler alert: good teachers cost money.

If/when the money rolls in, use it wisely.

Lawmakers and education folks would do well to look at a school in the Upper Peninsula that's doing a bang-up job educating its students, the majority of whom are students of color and students who come from economically disadvantaged areas. The school is Brimley Elementary, and its students perform well above the state average on standardized tests. So how do they do it? They use the extra money they get in federal aid (they have a high population of American Indian students that live on the nearby reservation) and put it towards interventions that work: smaller class sizes, routine assessments, more teachers and specialists, and a big emphasis on early intervention. As one teacher told me, the students are "getting a lot more of exactly what they need." And that makes all the difference.

Speaking of assessments, another thing to look at is test scores. And by look at I mean realize that test scores aren't the end all be all of a good school. That was the takeaway from Dustin Dwyer's hour-long documentary, The Big Test, where he spent six weeks at Congress Elementary, a public school in Grand Rapids with below average test scores. He thought he'd find a mess of a school, but he didn't. To quote Dustin, "I expected to hear what was wrong with the school, the kids, the families. Instead, I came out wondering what's wrong with the test." He continues:

"It doesn’t mean every parent should forget about standardized test scores, or that they should assume all low scoring schools are great. What it means, I think, is that we can’t rely on test scores alone to make a judgment about a school, or about its kids. It means we have to look deeper."

Can high expectations for at-risk kids make a big difference? Yes.

My colleague Sarah Alvarez spent a lot of time in the rural village of Stockbridge where the "economy is tough, industry is gone and the school system is one of the few ways kids from the town can get a leg up." She produced a whole series of stories including this one about high expectations and how that can improve outcomes for even for the lowest-performing students. This kind of culture of high expectation requires buy-in from parents, teachers, and lots of positive reinforcement when things go right for students.

Brittany Bartkowiak also did a story about school culture, and she found an approach in Iowa that seems to be paying off big time. It's called "trauma-sensitive strategies," which replaces discipline with support. From Brittany's piece: 

It’s been incredibly successful, which is probably one reason why Kazmierczak was recognized as Iowa's 2015 Middle Level Principal of the Year. In just three years, Wilson has seen a 15% increase in student achievement and a 75% decrease in behavioral problems. Instead of 60 kids a day in the principal’s office, Kazmierczak now only sees about three.

Parents have a role to play, too.

We can't ignore the obvious: kids aren't in school 24 hours a day. They go home. That means teachers can only be responsible for so much, and parents have to step up to do their share, too. This post highlights the four things parents can do to help close the achievement gap between their own kids and students from more affluent families, courtesy of WNYC reporter Robin Schulman. 

"You can’t sprinkle schooling on people and expect everything to get better."

Yes, education is key to getting ahead in this world. But it's likely not the only answer. My colleague Dustin Dwyer talked to two leading economists who say the way to deal with inequality is not just to improve educational opportunities for youth but to increase wages. To quote Dustin, "more education might help individuals get better jobs than if they hadn’t gotten the education. But if the available jobs aren’t paying more, then it’s not having an impact on the inequality problem."

Want to check out more of our education reporting from the last three years? It's easy, just click here.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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