Put politics aside, and invest in the tools that help children learn

I’m coming to a conclusion as I age: Mathematics, political behavior and plain common sense all demonstrate that extremes generally don’t accurately reflect long-term reality.

When you apply this notion to politics, it suggests that neither hard-right Tea Partiers nor flaming left liberals are likely to dominate our political system – or provide sensible answers. It’s the generally centrist “sanity caucus” that most times winds up calling the shots.

Nationally, we are apt to see people and candidates divide along these lines during next year’s presidential campaign. One example: As a rough generalization, right-wingers think people who fall behind in things like academic performance or income should be trying harder and doing better, and deserve punishment for not doing so. Those on the left generally think people on the bottom can’t be helped except by redistributing resources to them.

But centrists reason that the best way to help people and society as a whole is by investing in human capital ‒ things like access to early childhood and university education ‒ which increase individual opportunity for all.

Essentially, it comes down to the old proverb about how best to help a starving man at the river bank: You can tell him to stop complaining, give him a fish ‒ or give him a fishing rod and teach him how to use it. Put that way, the answer becomes pretty clear.

Here’s how this divide works when it comes to one public policy debate in Michigan today. Education experts have found that adequate reading progress by third grade is a very accurate predictor of a student’s future success – or lack of it.

When conservatives in the legislature see third graders failing to read at grade level, their preferred solution is often to hold them back an extra year. When liberal lawmakers see reading failures, they talk about relieving poverty and increasing spending on schools.

But legislators actually serious about doing something to actually improve this key benchmark propose finding ways now to allocate extra resources to help kids who are struggling.

I saw again how true this is last week, when I attended a meeting in Washington, D.C. put on by the Alliance for Early Success, a nonprofit that advocates “to improve state policies for children, starting at birth and continuing through age eight.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that the Alliance is a third-party investor supporting the Center for Michigan’s work on pre-kindergarten education programs.

I have to say I felt a little like a Midwestern hayseed, sitting at a big table in Washington’s Hay-Adams Hotel surrounded by big-time national experts like Kathleen Sebelius, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Ralph Smith, senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and, on the phone, Frank Luntz, who works mainly for Republicans and is one of the nation’s most influential pollsters and phrase-makers.

But I am happy to report that what emerged over an intense afternoon wasn’t just abstract research findings or elaborate child development theory, but the plain fact that Michigan is now recognized as a national leader in early education for poor and vulnerable four year-olds. Over the past two years, our Great Start Readiness Program has received more increased public support than comparable programs in any other state.

That’s a remarkable milestone, a compliment to the far-sightedness of our political system in this respect, a shared vision that recognizes that the best way to achieve equal opportunity and a thriving and healthy economy is to invest resources in human capital, increased productivity and individual achievement.

But there’s much more to be done. There’s compelling evidence that investing in infants all the way through age eight brings disproportionately high returns. The Alliance for Early Success is struggling toward finding the most successful national policy for investment in infants and young children, something they hope to arrive at by using the states as experimental laboratories.

Using Frank Luntz’s language, such a policy needs to be “efficient, effective and accountable.” It needs to recognize that families as a whole – parents, grandparents and children – must be in control because they are the essential touchstones for the work to be done. The greatest risk to such a policy is to have it become entangled in partisan disputes, whether in state legislatures or the U.S. Congress. It must avoid the besetting bureaucratic sin of splitting the world into individual silos of programs and money, each infested by people competing for influence and control.

What everyone needs to remember is that the ultimate objective is to achieve equal opportunity for every child to grow, thrive and prosper to the best of their abilities and efforts. And to recognize that this is the logical, practical and responsible way to achieve healthy families, healthy communities and a healthy country.

By the afternoon’s end, most people in the room agreed such a program will require developing a series of aspirational partnerships, facilitated by but not controlled by government.

These partnerships should be based on common sense understandings of how children develop and how investments in the very young are bound to yield the greatest return.

You might say it all comes back to the starving man on the river bank. Don’t deny him a fishing rod. Don’t just give him a fish. But provide him with tools and lessons in casting a fly.

Like what you’re reading in Bridge? Please consider a donation to support our work!

We are a nonprofit Michigan news site focused on issues that impact all citizens. In an era of click bait and biased news, we focus on taking the time to learn both sides of a story before we post it. Bridge stories are always free, but our work costs money. If our journalism helps you understand and love Michigan more, please consider supporting our work. It takes just a moment to donate here.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Hiram Fitzgerld
Tue, 03/10/2015 - 10:32am
Right on about focusing on the birth to 8 population, but I suggest that from what we now know about the prenatal environment and the developing fetus, we rightly could adjust the "educational" focus on conception to age 8. Neurobiological organization begins at conception as do epigenetic processes--those things that affect the developing fetus (and eventually the birth to 8 year old) because of the environmental impacts on biological process. So, research is amazing clear with respect to the critical relationships between environment and biology with respect to development. In practical terms, parenting matters, high quality child care by para-parents matters, high quality foster care matters because the brain (mind) organizes neural networks and hormonal regulatory (stress and toxic stress systems) in relation to the quality of the child's experience. If we want a home-grown work force to sustain Michigan's businesses and industries of the future, we better continue to assure that we invest in that work force at least from birth to 8. And, if we want to reduce our prison populations, we better invest in 1) boys from birth to 8, and 2) enhancing men to father them to actually get investing in parenting.
Bob Balwinski
Tue, 03/10/2015 - 11:04am
In 1991, I became a Mathematics Instructional Specialist in an urban district after spending 23 years as a secondary Mathematics Teacher. My first school visit was to a K-5 elementary building. Our boss wanted all of us to be familiar with K-12 and not just our comfort zone, mine being HS. Unaware that this elementary school started at a later time than the HS I left, I arrived early and was told to wait in the teacher lounge. A couple of Kindergarten teachers came in conversing. This school had won some grant money and one of these teachers was proposing how to spend it. I wanted to butt in and suggest Mathematics materials but just listened. The second teacher relayed an incident where one of her students just arrived.....this being early October......and when asked his name, the reply was Booboo. The teacher explained that this was a nickname and asked for the child's given name. She reported that the child shrugged his shoulders and said, "Everyone just calls me Booboo." You may have guessed by now but these teachers in this urban setting wanted to spend the school's newly awarded grant money on parent education programs. They recognized that the first 5 years of this student's life were not spent in a public school and wanted to do something to improve the academic maturation of students prior to becoming students. I soon learned over the next 7 years just how bad it was for those teachers dealing with students in early elementary who came from homes where nothing educational occurred. Early intervention has to mean pre-school and earlier, in my view.
Jan of MI
Tue, 03/10/2015 - 3:49pm
Bob your observation is so characteristic of what I hear from my friends in Detroit. They have children arrive at school for the first day of Kindergarten (and other grades) not even registered for school. They have no knowledge of how to contact their parent/s/family. Many families do not have the skills or knowledge to navigate the educational system and are surprised to learn that there was a registration process. I agree that one of the best ways to spend $$ on helping families from early on in a child's life so that the child comes to school better prepared.
Wed, 03/11/2015 - 12:51am
It is disappointing that Mr. Power is so in awe of Washington DC, for if he paused for a moment he would see that those he is so enamored with are from the Midwest, they were ‘hayseeds’ just as Mr. Power feels. If truth be known they had the knowledge he respects before going to Washington. If Mr. Power could only open his mind and look about, he would see there is as much knowledge and skills to solve Michigan’s problems here in Michigan as anywhere else. If he would only ask the questions and listen, he would find smart people from all over the state that can create solutions to today’s problems and prevent many of tomorrows. Bridge could open a conversation by asking questions of the readers and there would be more innovative solutions then we could get out of Washington in a year of Tuesdays. We may not have the credentials that Mr. Power seems to need, but we have the ideas. Rather than turn to the ‘think tanks’ of DC why not turn to the ‘think tank’ of Michiganders who deal with these problems every day? Why not create the ‘Bridge Community Think Tank’?
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 03/11/2015 - 5:48pm
Don't tell a child what to learn, when to learn and how to learn. Let the child show you the how, what, when and become a coach, guide and mentor for their personal learning journey. Allow the child to be responsible for their own learning. Stop looking for "accountability" since all that term really means is moving all the authority to the top and all the responsibility to the bottom. Never works in any type of organization. Never will work. Adults think in terms of fast, cheap and good and often forget the good or think of it last. Good should lead the other two. And before anyone jumps on the bandwagon that the children are not capable of self direction, it is the responsibility of the adults inthe room to recognize a child's interests, cognitive strengths and weaknesses and tailor the desired knowledge acquisition to that child's stengths and interests. With adult help the child's weaknesses will be carried along as learning progresses.
Wed, 03/11/2015 - 9:48pm
Chuck, I am not sure how you have used accountability. My experience has been as a tool for verifying effectiveness of programs/protocols/procedures. It is not about individuals, it may be about their preparedness for their role and responsibilities. Accountablitlity is about identifying the desired impact/results, developing metrics to assess whether the program is having the expected impact. Without program accountability how do you know if the program is working as expect, how do you know what needs to be modified to improve effectiveness, how do you verify changes are working. If the appropriate place for action is the individual then that would be included in the program accountability to ensure that the individual remains the key and that as designed they retain the authority to take that action. As you suggest programs can migrate, accountability is a tool to identify and prevent such migration. In experience people think of fast and cheap. Experienced people start with effectiveness. They use accountability to verify effectiveness and conformance. I do agree that we have a system centric rather then a child centric approach to education. What we need to is to start with understanding the issues the student has to address before we move to trying to force them to fit an efficiency drive delivery system.
Chuck Fellows
Mon, 03/16/2015 - 11:15am
As used in education accountability is a tool to punish, not measure effectiveness. Often when accountability is imposed from above it pressures indivdulas and organizations to conform to external metrics divorced from the actual process. These types of accountability measures lead to dysfunctional activities that actually work to diminish performance. For example the Jack Welch/Jacque Nasser making supervisors accountable for firing 10% of staff each year. They also lead to a binary worldview and a specification/target approach to performance measurement - the standardized testing approach used in education which totally ignores process context.
Mon, 03/16/2015 - 3:17pm
Chuck, You are right, tools can be abused. I agree with your examples of how accountablity has been abuse. However, just because they have been misused by people it doesn't mean they should be rejected as viable tools. The starting point is deciding on what is to be achieved. Is the purpose of the K-12 system student learning or is it material delievery? Is it the preperation of the sutdents for post K-12, finctioning in society, or it is the efficeint spending of other people's money? Once the purpose is decided then they decision of who the audience/users of the accountablity/verification process is. Is it the students, the parents, the community (whose money it is), the teachers, the adminsitrators, those in Lansing, the politicians, the post K-12 schools, etc.? When those choices have been made then the protocol would be developed, including how the finding are communicated. What are your answers to the purose and audience questons? There are many other benefits to accountability; it establishes what are expected practices, expected results, it provides a means for identifying success, it identifies opportunites for change, it communicates the expectations and findings, etc.
William C. Plumpe
Fri, 03/13/2015 - 7:07am
Your comments about centrist politics remind me of a favorite quote from Charles Krauthammer noted journalist. Mr. Krauthammer noted that "Gerald Ford is always President". What this means is that regardless of what side of the political spectrum a President enters the office on the pressures of the Presidency will always move the President towards the middle. For me this is particularly telling because of a bit of personal history. I graduated from University of Michigan in June 1974 and President Gerald Ford was the commencement speaker. True to my nature I put aside pomp and circumstance and was already working a human services job at a counseling center a few blocks from Hill Auditorium where the President spoke. The office was in the upper story of a building just down the street from President Ford's old frat house which I believe is still there. To this day that experience has especially endeared me to President Ford and encouraged me to speak my mind but to always try to find the middle ground while still holding onto my principles. And like President Ford to act rather than talk. Actions always speak louder than words. It is difficult but I think bipartisanship can be done. And if you really want to get anything of substance done in government that has real positive and lasting effect I think you must be middle of the road and as bipartisan and cooperative as possible while still holding fast to your principles. Getting things done doesn't necessarily mean giving up your principles but I do think it means not always getting exactly what you want and truly being willing to compromise. That is what is lacking in Washington and it seems until recently in Michigan. Everybody wants to make sure their constituents know where they stand. That is all well and good but I think it's much more important to get stuff done than make a statement.
Fri, 03/13/2015 - 9:38am
As a Great Start Readiness teacher, I applaud Michigan for putting money into working with young children. However the systematic dismantling of the Detroit Public Schools is nothing short of diabolical. Education is not a business and businessmen do not understand the mechanics ; only the profit potential. This is shameful. Policymakers must understand the big picture. Teachers must demand a voice and be heard. Pray for our schools.
Jack Minore
Sat, 03/14/2015 - 11:25pm
One additional thought: there are multiple studies that show that students involved with music do better in math and that students involved in the arts, generally, are more likely to succeed in school and to graduate. The school cuts have forced the elimination of many art and music opportunities. And in my experience, great pre-school programs are of great importance -- but they are often available without cost ONLY in the more wealthy school districts - just further tipping the scale against the poor.
John Q. Public
Mon, 03/16/2015 - 11:56pm
An interesting headline, given that the differences of opinion on exactly what those tools are, are driven by politics. Oh--and money.