In My Opinion
A child’s best teacher: A parent
The smiles and excited looks on the faces of kids in the stores with their parents in recent weeks reminds me of the excitement of going back to school.
This time of year is becoming its own holiday season as families pick out new school clothes and load up on pens, pencils and graphing calculators. The anticipation of the crisp fall air, new teachers and the excitement of discovery is an annual tradition we all once felt and now pass on to our children. I just wish there was a spot on the sales racks for some parent vouchers, guarantees to ensure children and young people they can count on a foundation of support at home.
Research shows that if we don’t make some time – including at our dinner tables – helping children with their homework, students of this nation will continue to lag behind other countries.
This school year, as a 2016 law passed by our enlightened legislators takes effect, Michigan third-graders will be expected to read up to grade level by the end of the school year or will face repeating third grade next year. Despite the amount of money invested across the state, Michigan schools have shown the largest decline in third-grade reading levels among 11 other states in the past three years.
According to Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group, Michigan remains at the bottom of the group, behind Delaware, Vermont, Connecticut, Idaho and West Virginia. The report confirms that nearly 56 percent of Michigan third-graders did not pass the reading test on the state’s assessment in 2017. A Brookings Institute analysis also found that our state’s students made the least improvement on last year’s national assessment. The problem, of course, compounds. Michigan is one of only five states that has declined in actual performance in fourth-grade reading since 2003.
The state’s decline has come at the same time that we invested nearly $80 million over a three-year period for additional instructional time and literacy coaches. And now, as the state’s new third-grade reading law goes into effect, third-graders who can’t pass this year’s state assessment will be held back. I’m not a believer in social promotion, but I can’t imagine the lasting indignity in a third-grader’s life by being forced to join last year’s second graders for the remainder of his or her school years. This could hardly be conducive to learning.
“Michigan’s young students are just as bright and talented as other students around the country,” Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, said. “The question is not whether we should be investing in improving third-grade reading for Michigan children. The question is: How does Michigan become more effective at improving teaching and learning, as leading education states have done?”
I think that initiative begins at home. No matter how hard our schools work by setting standards and preaching the importance learning plays in a student’s success, the role that parents and guardians play in their child’s education is fundamental to seeing positive results. Children take their cues from parents. Parents need to be role models by remaining calm, supportive and reassuring for their children and giving them the confidence they need to excel. That foundation of support can begin with something as simple as setting some basic rules on study time, playtime and bedtime.
Students also are exposed to all kinds of technology that has taken over their lives and consumes much of the free time they have for other activities. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents place a reasonable limit on the entertainment media and electronic devices their kids use. The study suggests that elementary school children who watch TV or use a computer more than two hours per day are more likely to have emotional, social and attention problems.
The AAP suggests families adopt some simple household guidelines, such as: not using digital devices during meals, no screen time near or at bedtime, no electronics during family time, and careful monitoring of all devices during study time. In addition, it’s asking parents to consider an occasional digital detox night for the entire family by creating a ‘screen-free night’ at least once a week.
It’s good policy for the entire family’s physical and emotional health to unplug and enjoy each other rather than become addicted to electronic devices. The warnings from experts also apply to parents: More than two hours of TV per day can increase an adult’s risk of weight gain, diabetes and heart disease, all factors that increase the likelihood of serious health issues caused by a sedentary lifestyle, loss of sleep and generally bad eating habits when engrossed in screen time.
Despite all of the research, most families still find that reducing the grip that technology has over their lives is nearly impossible to achieve. Some schools are acknowledging this destructive obsession. In two nearby districts, cellphone use will be banned during the school day this academic year. Cutting technology at home and hitting the books will do more for a child’s ability to learn than any state mandates will.
Kids aren’t reading up to third-grade standards because they’re not reading. Reading messages on a cellphone or on social media is not increasing reading comprehension or critical thinking skills. Reading skills come from reading books, with information or a story that tests the reader’s ability to follow the story line. Teaching young children to read increases their language skills, builds their ability to listen, reduces stress, improves memory, increases their conversational skills, and – maybe most importantly – encourages empathy and compassion for others.
“We need to engage the parents, too, to get them more involved in their child’s learning,” said Martin Ackley, spokesman for the state education department. “The need to get all children reading at grade level by third grade is urgent, and Michigan schools are in the early stages of using the state funds to develop reading intervention programs.”
The research confirms that Michigan students are not only behind, they are far from catching up to their peers nationwide. But no matter how much money the state throws at the problem, getting support from parents is a must. Parents and guardians must accept their role if we expect to move the needle because legislators have proven all but inept in their grandstanding play to make this state an educational leader.
Remember, this is the group that gave us the 2006 law requiring public schools to wait until after Labor Day to begin classes so as to benefit Michigan’s tourism industry during the last three-day weekend of the summer season. Now, as they see reading skills and comprehensive testing scores plummeting, legislators have rescinded that law, and most schools have either already started or will be in session next week.
So does it look like our magnanimous political leaders are solving our educational problems?
For years, legislators have underfunded education, regularly robbing from the state’s Strategic Fund earmarked for education to meet their revenue problems. This year, legislators are discussing the possibility of paying for a budget gap to fix the roads by borrowing against the school employee pension funds.
And they still haven’t approved a state budget allowing local districts – whose new fiscal years began July 1 – to begin the new school year with any certainty on state funding. For the past eight years, Lansing approved a budget well in advance of its Oct. 1 deadline to assist school districts with their financial planning.
As our students head back to school, it’s imperative that families recognize they may not be able to grapple with these larger challenges, but they have a vital tool to use in helping achieve success for their children: Time – and how that time is being used.
The challenges our kids face in today’s fast-paced marketplace will require they have a strong educational foundation if they expect to compete for the jobs of the future.
All of us also must understand the seriousness of the problem and be looking for solutions because one thing is certain: As a community, we all need to focus on getting our students ready to learn or we’ll all pay the price at the end of the day.
Fred Jacobs, CEO,
J-Ad Graphics Inc.