Helping vulnerable children early is key to closing achievement gaps

Matt Gillard is president and CEO of Michigan’s Children, an independent voice working to reform public policy and improve the odds of all children from cradle to career. Matt Gillard is president and CEO of Michigan’s Children, an independent voice working to reform public policy and improve the odds of all children from cradle to career.

No longer a top tier state for education, Michigan today has larger gaps in student outcomes among its diverse populations than many other states, jettisoning our state to 37th in the nation according to the National Kids Count project. These learning gaps start early and persist and grow throughout educational careers without appropriate intervention and support, threatening our state’s future and the futures of thousands of our children.

New State Superintendent of Schools Brian Whiston has begun his tenure focused on asking groups (many with competing interests) to talk with the State Board of Education about fixing that, and restoring Michigan to a top 10 state in education within 10 years.

At Michigan’s Children, we believe the answers lie in shrinking these achievement gaps and reducing student disparities through known evidence and practices that work best for children, youth and families, and their schools and communities. Positive change can happen even as state decision makers face unique pressures to fund costly road fixes while determining investments in the most struggling schools and districts.

We shared our recommendations that support students within and beyond the classroom to assist with their eventual success in a presentation to state Superintendent Brian Whiston this week, outlining a strategy that includes several specific areas for attention.

Start early. Education is a lifelong process beginning at birth with differences among children becoming evident as early as 9 months. By 6th grade, children from low-income families have 6,000 fewer hours of learning than their peers due to fewer opportunities for early, consistent and expanded learning. The education system must continue to focus early to head off future problems by increasing parent coaching and supports through voluntary home visiting options, building state investment and maximizing federal investment in Early On, and continuing to improve our child care subsidy system.

Because children succeed when their parents do well, the education system must support parents' role in children's learning. The evidence on this is clear, particularly for early literacy skills and retention in the early grades. Today, four out of 10 Michigan schoolchildren aren’t reading proficiently by third grade, and the rates are much higher for children of color. The education system must expand support to help parents reach their educational and career goals through investments in Adult Education, workforce supports and family literacy options, and promote effective two-generation programming where families can learn together.

Trauma from family stress, mental and behavioral health issues, violence and loss, abuse or other social or emotional issues can undermine a child’s ability to learn and grow academically. Yet, we don’t fully recognize its impact on learning gaps and educational achievement in our policy and practice. The education system must implement good practices in schools and provide educators with the necessary tools to deal with symptoms of student and family trauma. Improving connections with community partners who can help is vital.

When schools are able to unite families with other community resources, there are more chances to find and address the causes of school absence, behavioral issues and academic problems whether they are caused by health issues, unstable housing, bullying or disengagement by parents or students. There is ample evidence that after-school and summer learning programs help to integrate community services for students and families, and support their academic progress by getting students motivated and engaged with their learning, helping them get caught up when they get behind and keeping them on a successful trajectory.

Finally, there is no one-size-fits-all for student success. Because children are inherently different and come with an array of challenges, young people need multiple pathways to success beyond the traditional, arbitrary four years of high school. Therefore, we must invest in second-, third- and fourth-chance programs for high school completion. In addition, we must prevent unnecessary expulsions that leave too many students adrift from college and career by promoting school attendance and adjusting school discipline policies.

It is clear that the superintendent and school board are uniquely positioned to provide needed leadership for this difficult work by taking into account the expertise of many sectors of work, including family and community resources. To do so recognizes a universal truth: A child’s ability to succeed in school and life relies on multiple factors, most that aren’t exclusive to what happens inside the classroom, but extend far beyond that learning environment. Improving the state’s ability to build success in more students is possible and essential, and will require a commitment from many partners. We encourage our educational leadership to join Michigan’s Children and many others to put all of our children and families at the forefront of what it takes to make Michigan education great again.

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Hiram Fitzgerald
Tue, 09/08/2015 - 9:46am
WELL said Matt! The vast literature spanning neurobiological, behavioral, social, and health disciplines is remarkably consistent across their diverse domains, with its evidence that what happens during the prenatal to age 5 developmental period is crucial for setting the stage for continued success. Parents and supplemental care settings are crucial for providing the guidance and support to not only assure optimal development, but to enhances each child's opportunity to shape her or his pathway through the rest of childhood. It is not a sure fire bet, however, to equal attention must be given to the transition to elementary and the transition through middle school age periods to given emerging adults (sometimes called teenagers) the skills necessary to be positive contributing citizens in a democratic society. Hi Fitzgerald
Bob Balwinski
Tue, 09/08/2015 - 11:34am
"There is no one-size-fits-all for student success." I guess this must be why we have changed from the industrial model of education where we group kids by age and operate 9 months per year with the extra caveat in Michigan that public schools can't start before labor day. On "parents".......if you make a baby, you are a "progenitor", one who passes on genes. If there is evidence of nurturing and caring, "progenitors" can be called "parents." In the absence of this nurturing and caring, what is it we do specifically for these children BEFORE they even show up at our school doorsteps? Crack babies, after they went through painful withdrawal symptoms at the beginning of their very lives, were then turned back over to their crack-addicted "mothers(?)." What's the plan for this?
Tue, 09/08/2015 - 1:16pm
Matt glad to hear you speak out on this matter. For so many by the time they hit the high school our chances dwindle for helping them become successful. Tighten up a few of the many safety nets out there and try to hold the parents more responsible. The home is not always the best place to return kids to. R.L.
Janet Cybulski
Tue, 09/08/2015 - 2:19pm
Please discuss how early beginning times for high school interferes with learning. Teens getting out of school at 12;30 p.m. as in Flint or just and hour laster in many districts are tempted to get a job that requires them to work into night hours, leaving no time for studying and/or homework. It is also accepted by educational and scientific experts that teens need more sleep for optimum learning.
Cheryl Matas
Tue, 09/08/2015 - 8:41pm
we can't really discuss achievement gaps without addressing poverty. Whether not a child is successful depends a lot of the socio-economic status of the parents. This was recently borne out in a chart correlating poverty levels with SAT scores. Poverty is a driving force in education.
Wed, 09/09/2015 - 12:00pm
Leaving our gifted and talented kids behind while we search for ways to make post docs out of crack babies is going to keep Michigan at the bottom of the list. Gifted and talented kids are found in all socio-economic classes and in all segments of the human Race. We must as a state and nation invest in their futures with hopes that they can lead us and the world to a more peaceful and compassionate place to live. "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 09/13/2015 - 11:37am
Good article if a bit too general. These achievement gaps have always existed in low income, segregated districts. Interesting to see suggestion for funding Adult Education. John Engler gutted Adult Ed and it has never recovered. But for the most bang for our buck, spend less time testing and more time building up libraries and encouraging kids to read.
Henry Bareiss
Mon, 09/14/2015 - 1:45pm
What Gillard said is valid. We should not wait for 3rd grade to intervene in deficient reading skills. Years ago I taught at a Ferndale school They had a "Remarkable Readers" program. It was set up and supervised by the district reading specialist. Volunteers were trained to tutor using a clear program. The children enjoyed it, they often ran to their session. Parents were taught how to support their children in the program. Materials were fairly cheap. Success rate was high. The children entered the program at the end of kindergarten. The district didn't wait for 3rd grade. It was cheap because the grunt work was done by volunteers.