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Michigan's education failures spell future disaster

Aug 31, 2017

We got the latest results from our statewide education tests earlier this week, and here are the highlights — without the jargon. Johnny mostly can’t read as well as he should, and neither can Susie, although she’s doing a little better. Both are doing a little better in math than last year, but not nearly as well as they should.

For black and Hispanic kids, scores are far worse. Brian Whiston, the state superintendent of schools, did his best to put a good face on this, saying, “We keep moving forward on our goal to be a top 10 education state in 10 years, and know that the early work we are putting into motion will pay positive dividends in the very near future.”

I assume he meant the Great Start Readiness Program, the state-funded preschool for four-year-olds deemed to be at risk. Research shows conclusively that this is working, and that the earlier we start to reach and stimulate young minds, the better off they are.

Actually, those who really understand education think we would be better off extending this program to all kids, and starting it before age four. This, some not very wise people say, would cost a lot of money. Actually, in the long run, it would save billions.

The cost to society of thousands of essentially illiterate and unskilled adults will be far more than hiring phalanxes of teachers, even if we paid them what they are worth.

But there’s another dimension to this. I spend a lot of time defending government, which is indeed essential to civilization. But when it comes to education, the heavy lifting has to be done by parents and caregivers. Most of all, they have to spend time with children, stimulate their minds, read to them, and encourage them to read.

Read books, that is, not just glowing screens. Books. Books and magazines and everything and anything. What bothers me most about the M-STEP scores released this week was that most grades saw a decline in reading proficiency, especially among third, fourth, and seventh graders. Fifth graders showed a tiny improvement, but even there, only about half our kids’ reading skills are where they should be.

This is a recipe for future disaster. I once presided over a panel on early childhood development and heard horror stories of children who arrived in kindergarten not knowing their last names or their streets or their primary colors. Their brains had essentially not been stimulated, and by then, it was largely too late to fully catch up.

Soon after, I happened to baby-sit for a little girl who was four and a half. I asked her: “What color are these curtains, Nora?” She asked, “Well, what color do you think they are?” That was tricky, I thought. “Purple,” I said. Nora looked disgusted. “They’re mauve,” she said, adding, “Now can you tell me what the difference is between a Quarter Horse and a Morgan horse?”

Well, let’s say I wasn’t exactly proficient on the horse portion of the test. Nora was. But she had parents who read to her from the time she was born. Michigan needs kids who can read more than we need anything else.

Whatever our education policy is, it has to be based on that.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.