Turning to families to improve children’s future

What would you think about the idea that for the next five years, most discussion of public policy “should be aimed predominantly at non-governmental issues?”

That’s how an old friend of mine from Grand Rapids began our conversation the other day, and he’s one of the most capable people I know. He is a staunch but thoughtful conservative who is proposing a fascinating agenda for public discourse that goes way beyond the standard (and largely boring) liberal-conservative bickering.

What he wants is for us to open our minds to considering imaginative and creative ideas that are largely lacking in what pass for policy discussions these days.

The way he sees it, our half-century-long public policy focus on government activities has largely exhausted its usefulness. As he put it, “there can be no coherent conversation about government policy without ideologically-based conflict involving real or false anger on both sides.”

Hard to dispute that. Whatever your ideology, he argues that government activity of any kind is largely a blunt instrument, incapable of flexibility, nuance and due regard for the differing needs of individuals. Instead, he thinks a more productive topic for discussion is the culture, talent and skills of Michigan’s people.

Which does, in short order, get to two big things: Schools and family. When it comes to schools, far too much of the debate has been among contentious adults over how schools should be governed, as in charter versus conventional public schools.

There’s been far too little focus on how to help all children attending all schools become internationally competitive. But as Doug Ross, president of American Promise Schools, former U. S. assistant secretary of labor and one of Michigan’s most knowledgeable education experts, argues in the Jan. 11 Detroit Free Press, “Simply offering classes with trained teachers and encouraging students to do well fails to engage the majority of lower-income kids (and a fair number of more affluent kids).”

Ross, like just about every other educator, points to the family as the fundamentally important partner with schools in achieving good educational outcomes. When a student’s family chooses not to be involved or is so pulverized by poverty or abuse of one kind or another that it cannot be involved in their child’s learning, the burden put on teachers and the schools often simply cannot be overcome -- no matter how those schools are organized, managed and run.

That’s why Michigan’s sharply increased support for pre-kindergarten programs for four-year-olds (Great Start Readiness Program) is so important. Compelling research has shown that poor and vulnerable children who go through the GSRP pre-kindergarten program are 25 percent more likely to graduate from high school than those who don’t.

And there’s plenty of evidence that learning during a child’s development begins right with the day she or he is born. And so there has been much discussion about what should be done for very young babies to increase their chances of successful learning.

Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based non-profit research outfit, in collaboration with the Citizens’ Research Council, has been looking at nationwide evidence to see what works best, especially for poor, vulnerable, often single-parent families. So far, it appears that the best route to success is home visiting programs in which responsible, experienced and trained adults regularly visit families to help parents learn the kinds of parenting skills that result in successful brain development.

Such programs are expensive. They require the kind of nuanced, flexible approaches that are family-centered rather than bureaucracy-driven. And they risk backlash from people who argue “outsiders” have no place intruding into homes.

But for families that have the instincts to get involved in their children’s education, they seem to offer the best route to success, precisely because they focus on finding ways for families to become more effective in giving their children a good start to a successful life.

This gets back to the final important point my friend made as we finished our conversation. “Strong and thriving families are fundamentally important to our entire society. “Sadly, this topic has been largely ignored these days.”

He is right -- and it certainly shouldn’t be. What happens to families is just too important to be left to clashing political ideologies.

Focusing on how best to sustain thriving and healthy families as they raise their children seems to offer an opening to a new and vitally important part of any education policy discussion.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Marcia Swenson
Tue, 01/13/2015 - 11:23am
As a veteran 37-year teacher of liberal progressive persuasion, I can only say, "AMEN!" to your conservative friend. How many potentially productive kids of great talent did I see lost over the years -- primarily because they had non-supportive families, who themselves had been lost as kids. Our society has evolved a vicious circle for the poor and/or disadvantaged from which they rarely emerge without a hand up. Our schools have been charged with interception. Hobbled from the beginning by receiving most of these children after 5 years of sub-standard intellectual development and exposure to learning, teachers are further hindered by large class sizes, inadequate training for remediation, and limited funds. I do not know a teacher who has not provided -- with their own money -- everything from pencils and crayons to coats and boots to pocket money for children in need. (When I was a junior, I had a teacher who was paying for the voice lessons of a poor but talented classmate!) Many teachers give hours and hours of their off-duty time tutoring and helping, only to watch helplessly as the child matures and slips away to enter the vicious circle -- to produce their own children whom they are ill-prepared to help. How many times was my heart broken at the news of a 16 or 17-year-old student's pregnancy or impending fatherhood? Even years later, when I'm fairly sure that many of those have become grandparents, my heart still hurts. And my society suffers. What must we do to realize your friend's convictions rather than just dreaming and talking?
Jeff Salisbury
Tue, 01/13/2015 - 12:48pm
Kudos to Doug Ross for feeling so passionate about wanting to assist parents who have school-age children while struggling with poverty or under-employment along with the difficult task of parenting and child-rearing. You write that "government activity of any kind is largely a blunt instrument, incapable of flexibility, nuance and due regard for the differing needs of individuals" but then note the effectiveness of a "government activity" like Great Start Readiness" and then theorize that "home visits" by certain agencies could mitigate certain problems families face. Then you offer that the overall goal is to "help all children attending all schools become internationally competitive" --- good grief... what on earth does that even mean? And then there was this: "Ross, like just about every other educator,..." does this somehow imply that Doug Ross is or once was a public school teacher? His bio here - http://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bhlead/umich-bhl-861071?rgn=main;view=text - contains no evidence of him working as or in any way shape or form being "like about every other educator..." Neither being a "guest lecturer" nor owning or managing a charter school operation makes one "like just about every other educator,..." What's most interesting to me is this: Apparently it's taken Ross 14 years since 2000 when he opened and became principal of the University Preparatory Academy (ostensibly to provide better education for urban youth by incorporating "small classes and a customized education") to finally discover that what families really most need is to have "responsible, experienced and trained adults regularly visit families to help parents learn the kinds of parenting skills that result in successful brain development..." I eagerly await his and your continuing thoughts on this subject specifically just how to convince the Michigan Legislature to adequately fund and assist public schools (and/or local agencies) in offering such valuable family and child services.
Tue, 01/13/2015 - 1:32pm
We already have a nation of unemployed and underemployed college graduates and the goal to add more young people from low-income and minority families to those growing numbers is laudable. According to Dr. Levitt at the University of Chicago in his best-selling book "Freakonomics", children's success is predicated on their parents' socioeconomic success. The key is dealing with poverty rather than the cheaper band-aid approach that American conservatives are fond of promoting which is evaluating teachers, a standardized curriculum and a no-tolerance discipline policy. Providing living wage jobs along with a good education for parents of poor children will solve the performance problem and save on "band-aids" but big solutions are left to the 500 billion dollar military budget which is the nation's largest education and employment program but doesn't produce the long-term GDP numbers relative to the investment.www.freakonomics.com/2011/08/17/new-freakonomics-radio-podcast-the-econo...http://blog.cogbooks.com/2013/09/09/freakonomics-by-steven-levitt/
Tue, 01/13/2015 - 5:18pm
Joe, You seem to feel we have a caste system here and what parents are is who we will be. There are too many exceptions that discredit that view. There are children from the 'wealthy' that fail and ones from the 'poor' that succeed and those from in between that fail and that succeed. You seem to ignore that we are built on individualism and choices. I would encourage you to read David and Goliath by Malcom Gladwell. It talks about the children who succeeded overcoming great barriers because of themselves and inspite of others.
Tue, 01/13/2015 - 2:44pm
As encouraged and impressed with Mr. Power opening up to the possibility that government isn’t necessarily the solution and the source innovation and flexibility, I am concern that he still sees external actions and money as the path to student success. Mr. Power seems to have a core belief that it is the methods and not learning that is the path to success, that it is others and not the student that determines successes. Mr. Power excludes the student, he fails to mention anything about the student’s role and responsibilities in their learning, in their success. I would offer that until the focus is on understanding of the student and how they control how and what they learn we will continue to do as Mr. Power sees it, “programs are expensive,” turning to government and other people’s money for managing student education and our current results. Mr. Power’s issue with the combative nature of the politics of education is valid and will continue as people remain distracted by focusing on ideologies/politics/all the barriers to overcome/the ‘silver bullet’ solution. If Mr. Power wants to change the perennial combativeness of education he and others have to move from their preoccupation with the high level grand national/State solution to a focus on the individual’s solution. If we could focus our energies on understanding how one student is successful in learning then how those factors work for another individual and so on, we could find the elements that each student (independent of family situation) apply for their success. We could build the tools a student can use to learn and succeed rather than delude ourselves that others (adults) can impose success on them. When you reread Mr. Power’s article see if he mentions any actual successes or if he only talks about barriers to success. It’s that habit of focusing on the barriers/the failures that drowns out individual success and developing the means to leverage such success. A glaring example of such success is that of Dr. Ben Carson and his brother for they overcame all of the barriers Mr. Power is concerned with and yet there is no interest in why and how such success happened. Mr. Power is filled with ‘good intentions’ just as his friend, but it is what the student does that determines their learning success. I encourage Mr. Power and The Center for Michigan to use one of the new Community Conversation sessions to delve into student success, how and why it happens, and the development of tools for students to use to build their own success.
Tue, 01/13/2015 - 9:27pm
In the discussion regarding education, I'm reminded that "if we educate the adult in the home, we educate the children." So many recent studies expose the need for literacy and postsecondary education for working age adults…who are the parents and families you are referencing. We cannot wait for the current pre-k through grade 12 students to enter the workforce. We also need to educate their parents. Educating youth is political and sexy; where are the advocates for their parents!
Wed, 01/14/2015 - 9:11am
"So far, it appears that the best route to success is home visiting programs in which responsible, experienced and trained adults regularly visit families to help parents learn the kinds of parenting skills that result in successful brain development. Such programs are expensive. They require the kind of nuanced, flexible approaches that are family-centered rather than bureaucracy-driven. And they risk backlash from people who argue “outsiders” have no place intruding into homes." Are there any school districts or other govt. agencies in Michigan that actually do this?
Wed, 01/14/2015 - 4:33pm
***, Maybe not, but I will offer odds that the overwhelming majority would leap at the opportunity without regard to any protocol requirements if the moneys is to be spent without accountablity based on results. I may sound cynical, but when it comes to spending other people's money I have yet hear from those spending it or those wanting it to spend mention anyhting about program accountablity. And without a systematic accountablity any program even one for education will disappoint even its most partisan supporters.
Sun, 01/18/2015 - 12:17pm
Their are those that will take issue with this thought. Our needs are prenatal to the grave and we can't continually keep trying to play catch up. Give schools the resources they need to help the kids be successful. How many professions require their people to continue to dip into their own pockets to provide what is necessary for those they serve. Money won't solve it all but it just might help a little. Staring teachers at just over 30,000$ a year is not realistic. Almost 40% plus of teachers drop out of the profession in the first five years. WHY?? Just give me a few examples of any profession that takes on average 4 plus years to get into , student teaching for no pay , and an additional 16 credits in the next five years to continue teaching. Oh yes then every 12 or 18 weeks give me another group of 100 to 125 students to start over with. More later. Please respond. I would love to hear your input. R.L.
Sun, 01/18/2015 - 3:13pm
R.L., It seems you have little regard for the how we spend other people's money, "Money won’t solve it all but it just might help a little." 'A little' sounds so much like someone who has given up and only sees one way to address a problem, spend more of other people's money. You have strong allies, Mr. Power takes the same approach in this article. I wonder why people are so enamored with conventional wisdom (spend more on what the educational 'experts' say) when it continues to under deliever. Mr. Power shows no interest in trying different approach to defining the problem and drawing in others that may break away from conventional wisdom. Everyone seems to be disappointed in the results being delivered by conventional wisdom and yet all they want to do is extend the time a child is controled by that thinking and spend more and more money on it. Why do you, why does Mr. Power, why do so many simply want to spend more and moremoney on the same things that are providing such disappointing results? Why are so many so afraid of looking at the issue differently? Why are they so unwilling to describe what the problem is? Why do they avoid describing the results we need? By the way if you only use averages you risk overlooking the successes, and we all might learn a lot from success. My best guess at why so many professions don't emulate the teaching model is because they invest so much more effort in the environment, it can be as simple as the Hawthorne effect.
Sun, 01/18/2015 - 3:20pm
How many parents would welcome their child's teacher into their home? The parents need to want this. I had a father come in after school to learn about the math I was teaching his daughter so he would be able to help her understand each days' lesson. She felt good about Dad being able to help. Formed a better parent child relationship. That's only one student though.
Mon, 01/19/2015 - 1:01am
JS, Why not create sessions for parents in all grades to have the opportunity to develop that same support and relationship? And before you answer, do preclude who or how those sessions would be developed, presented, or who would be making the presentations. Think of only the one question, would such parent session be valuable? To answer that think about the degree of success that student had, think about what the results you would want that to deliver, and about how would you measure the performance of the program.
Mon, 01/19/2015 - 9:24am
Perhaps we need a minimum income. A study of Indian reservations after casinos provided additional income to the families found that the added income had a positive effect on the next generation. The earlier the extra family money came in a child's life the greater the impact. Maybe if families had enough money to live on they would have more time to put into their children's lives instead of having to work multiple jobs just to put food on the table and a roof over their heads
Robert (Bob) Ca...
Tue, 01/20/2015 - 2:05pm
I agree totally with the perspective of Ross described in Paragraph 8. As a teacher of emotionally impaired youth for 30+ years, failure was extremely difficult to avoid when the student came to school from an environment that was essentially consistently destructive.