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.