You may have heard that Gov. Rick Snyder sent a special message on education reform to the Legislature late last month. Well, I have actually read it — something that took me a while. This is far from a twitter message; it is several thousand words.
Yet it is well worth the read. The governor’s plan is very good — and powerfully makes the case for wholesale reform of our education system. It shows why the status quo simply cannot be left as it is.
Want a sample? No fewer than 238 Michigan high schools produce no – as in “zero” – students who graduate ready for college in all subjects. Meanwhile, only 65 percent of children who began kindergarten this year showed up ready to learn the curriculum.
The governor knows this is unacceptable, and offers all sorts of suggestions. Some are relatively uncontroversial, like trying to find a way to eliminate the duplication caused by 84 separate programs dealing with early childhood education in Michigan.
Others have drawn heated responses, such as urging merit pay for good teachers. Yet the bottom line is: So far, so good. The governor is giving a lift to the long-time movement for educational reform. Much of that discussion has revolved around encouraging and/or beating up on schools and teachers. The implication is that good teaching is the only thing that matters.
But it isn’t. Just reforming schools won’t fix everything. Good teachers may well improve the odds of a child learning, but great teaching alone isn’t going to overcome deficits in parenting at home, cultural expectations in neighborhoods and communities and profound changes taking place in the entire society.
Those are things we are going to have to face regardless of who holds power in Lansing. I called Dr. Joan Firestone, the woman who first introduced me to the scientific evidence for early childhood programs some 20 years ago.
She works for Oakland County schools and is among the most respected national experts in how children learn. Firestone is, in fact, Oakland’s director of early childhood education. Her bottom line: “Fixing schools and helping kids learn is a lot harder than we all thought.” She has found evidence that how parents run the family makes an enormous difference in how their kids do in school.
But she replied, “We don’t have a lot of strong, consistent evidence that we can actually change the ways parents interact with their own kids at home that affect the ways they learn in school.”
What she does have is “good evidence that what parents do matters enormously: Reading and talking to your child from the moment she is born, for example. But if these things go against individual family traditions or the broader culture within the community, it’s very, very tough to change behavior within a family.”
Talk to parents with kids in public school, and quite quickly you hear anecdotes about parents who don’t attend Parent-Teacher/PTO meetings or won’t engage with teachers about their kids’ progress. The problem seems to be worse in heavily minority areas. Entertainers like Bill Cosby have spoken out about the effects of neighborhood black culture on academic achievement, for example.
But while they’ve received much publicity, that’s translated into few lasting results. Firestone, who is white, says the issue isn’t really a matter of race. It’s culture, whether within a given family or a wider ethnic group. She tells of a relative whose 3-year-old sat at a party, while her own child bounced around, talking and interacting with the adults. “My relative is of the ‘children should be seen, not heard’ school of parenting, while I think it’s better for a child to engage. That’s a matter of culture, not science,” she notes.
And our wider culture is changing, often in ways that shut off early and consistent mental engagement between parents and infants. Kids who used to talk with adults are now texting or tweeting. Some shopping carts at Wal-Mart have little videos attached. And, of course, some new cars have drop-down video screens so families can remain separate even during long trips.
Now, none of this is to argue that efforts to improve schools and teaching are pointless. Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, points out that good schools and excellent teaching have enormous impact on kids, regardless of their home environment or neighborhood culture.
“Discussions of culture or environment shouldn’t be excuses for ignoring how much progress can be made by improving schools,” she said. Ball, a national expert on improving teacher training and preparation, adds “Being punitive about schools and teachers is by no means the same as working to build capacity and excellence.”
As Firestone points out, helping children learn much better is a tough challenge. But it can be done, even in distressed communities such as Detroit. Witness former State Sen. Doug Ross’ success with his University Preparatory Academy. But Ross would be the first to point out that it takes both great teaching and consistent parental involvement to do the job. Beating on teachers or trying to change family culture are both tough. But concentrating on only one is the equivalent of trying to listen to the sound of only one hand clapping.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com