KIDS COUNT: First eight years

Added November 4th, 2013 by Jane Zehnder-Merrell | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Legislation gaining attention in Lansing would force third-graders behind in reading to redo a grade. A new KIDS COUNT policy report out today offers some better options.

Michigan policymakers are addressing the importance of investing in early childhood by expanding the state-funded preschool program for 4-year-olds, a key recommendation in the report, The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. But the administration and Legislature fall down on another important recommendation: Support for low-income families.

Michigan has restricted access to food assistance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and cash assistance that promote economic stability for families with children. These programs compose a so-called safety net during tough economic times, and this generation is growing up in the toughest economic environment since the Great Depression.

One of every two children in Michigan lives in a low-income family—with income under 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($46,000 for a family of four with two children) –a level still inadequate to meet basic needs in today’s world. This situation should cause concern.

The new report shows that third-graders living in low-income families have worse outcomes across all areas of child well-being—physical, social/emotional, knowledge and skills, as well as engagement in learning—than their higher-income peers.

The Casey report highlights an analysis of a national study of children who started kindergarten in 1998-99. By third grade only 36 percent of all children in the study were on track academically, but outcomes differed dramatically by family income. Children in higher-income families were more than twice as likely to have scores above the national average in math, reading and science as children in low-income families –50 percent vs. 19 percent.

These findings highlight the need to address academic achievement across a broad array of programs, including income supports so parents can provide for their children from the earliest years. Punishing children may cause more harm. A current bill in the House (HB 5111) proposes holding back for at least a year any third-grader who could not demonstrate proficiency in reading.

This approach ignores a large body of evidence about the negative impact of such an approach, which increases the risk of disengagement in school and dropping out of high school. In Michigan roughly one-third of third-graders (35,000) would be affected, and the impact would be at least double or even triple in schools serving large numbers of low-income children. Some of whom struggle to learn in classes with 40 students.

This report should broaden the discussion about what opportunities and supports families need to help their children become successful learners, and eventually earners in an economy that increasingly demands postsecondary training or education.

Our economic future depends on our willingness to address the challenge of today. There are no second chances for childhood.

— Jane Zehnder-Merrell


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