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Posted on Sat, Mar 2, 2013 : 1:45 p.m.

Schools need support system to close achievement gap

By Letters to the Editor

The exchange between Tim Bartik and Michael Van Beek from Feb. 24 about school spending and the achievement gap raises some important issues (e.g., universal preschool, smaller K-3 classes, and teacher quality) but overlooks a fundamental point: Schools alone cannot close this gap. The gap is widening, in large part because of rising economic inequality.

Moreover, the association between academic achievement and family income has grown stronger in recent years. We need policies and programs to support children and families as well as schools in order to narrow the achievement gap.


Michael Van Beek

Courtesy of the Mackinac Center

Careful research shows that high-quality preschool for all low-income 3- and 4-year-olds would both raise achievement for these children and improve their life outcomes. And the benefits to society at large would dwarf those accruing to the students themselves. Good preschool probably also improves health outcomes and contributes to better parenting later on. And we are not talking here about Head Start, as Van Beek argues. These are outcomes of high-quality preschool programs run by highly skilled teachers. These programs are not inexpensive, but society’s return on investment is enormous.

But beyond school-based initiatives, we must address income inequality directly through programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and a realistic minimum wage. Michigan’s substantial cut to the EITC is as harmful to school outcomes as recent state cuts in school aid.

Spending on effective school programs can narrow the achievement gap, but more than school spending is required. We need to invest directly in children and families by shoring up our social safety net and making sure that children of working families do not grow up poor.

Mike Addonizio

Ann Arbor



Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 12:24 a.m.

The Public should not have more money taken from it to close the Achievement Gap. We have already spent a huge amount of taxpayer money on this problem and little has resulted. Students do not get a good education when they and their parents are not interested in education and do not work hard.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 5:01 a.m.

Some things that our system needs to change... Smaller class sizes - I once heard that the goal should be 22 per class - I see a lot of classes topping 30 these days including the ones I subbed in for a long term assignment years ago. The more students, the more issues the teacher has to contend to every class period. MEAP and similar testing - Even in high school, I wondered why we are being tested for stuff we learned in 8th grade a month and half into my freshman year. Then, you see teachers spending time reviewing things instead of starting new material so that the school gets a good rating that year. How is that not a disservice to the students? Can't we test in June instead of taking precious time during the school year? And, better yet, why can't teachers see the test that they are supposedly supposed to teach to? I say, tell them what their students need to know and allow them to match their curriculum to the what the state decides it will test the kids on. Most of all, it takes accountibility on the parts of the schools (including the teachers), the students (how about consequences and remediation), and the parents. And, it wouldn't hurt if the state would step up and help the schools instead of taking money away from them or trying to take them over and run them like a business only thinking about bottom lines instead of education of the masses.

Hot Sam

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 5:42 p.m.

The gap will diminish when kids who don't learn what they should in the first grade, quit being sent to the second...


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 4:46 a.m.

That's just a tip of the iceberg, but I agree. What the schools need is not to get blasted by naysayers and people who think they know what they're talking about although they never worked a day in the public school system. What the schools need is to not get blasted financially by allowing certain districts to receive $14K per student while others have to operate on $2K per student with a higher popluation of students within the district. What the schools need is not more teacher accountibility (there's a lot already), but more student accountibility (consequences for not doing a satisfactory job such as being held back or not graduating on time) with measures to correct them, and for parental accountibility. What people tend to forget is that it is the school's job to educate, the child's job to learn, and the parents' job to oversee their child(-ren)'s education and work with both the school and the child(-ren) to get the job done. If it means sending the kid(s) to a different school (or alternative school), to move these kids forward with an education, then so be it.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 4 p.m.

"Careful research shows that high-quality preschool for all low-income 3- and 4-year-olds would both raise achievement for these children and improve their life outcomes…." This claim is just one more absurdity spewed from agents of an out of control government in love with it's ever growing power over the daily lives of Americans. The data exists for any who don't need to game it – educational success is NOT determined by Head Start or any other government program. To the horror of the power hungry socialist democrats, it rests almost solely with the family, an organization that they have been working to shatter since the 60's (free women from the shackles of motherhood!) but unable to comprehend the damage they've caused....let alone accept responsibly for it and apologize. I sympathize with schools forced by the corrupt to deal with education leveraged as a political toy with the variables defined by leftist ideologues spewing there lies. The corrupt don't want to talk about the devastation they've caused with decades of social engineering – they frame the issue as racial equality, as though "hidden racists" control our educational system. Test scores among the African Americans will not substantially improve until the responsibly for such improvements is placed squarely where it belongs – with parents.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 3:40 p.m.

Lets see, the only statistics that they can find are for an extremely expensive ~4.5 years of preschooling in order to show a difference being made by preschooling??? Seems preschooling is not working much, if any, if that they have to stretch that far to see any benefit. I suspect parenting makes ten times the difference or more. But it is OK. Money is unlimited as long as it is being paid for by others.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 2:35 p.m.

Bravo, Mike.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 1:19 p.m.

In my opinion, it goes much further than economic concerns. It lies with having parents who spend quality time with the children, encourage them to learn and be respectful. You do not have to be rich to do that.

J. A. Pieper

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 2:11 p.m.

Thank you for sharing these important thoughts!


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 12:56 p.m.

If the parents are not engaged in the raising and education of their children no program will be successful no matter how much money is spent.

J. A. Pieper

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 6:18 p.m.

DonBee, As a military brat, I know that if my father's direct boss spoke to him about our achievement in school (and behavior), us kids were dead in the water. So, although it might have come from a direct contact with the ranking officer, the parent(s) were then responsible.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 2:27 p.m.

Barzoom - I would suggest you check out how the US Military runs their schools and the results. I think you will find that your statements fall apart when you look at that model and its results. But then that is the Military and they follow very different rules on education and expectations for children in their care.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 12:13 p.m.

As others are noting, part of the problem is a "parental gap" and part is a socioeconomic gap. But, the terminology of "achievement gap" is really the problem. There will always be an achievement gap; it's called life. Not everybody wins and not everybody is the best. We don't want to "close the gap" by having everyone regress towards the mean. What we really need is to make sure there is a level of proficiency that everyone achieves, setting a floor for expectations. If everyone is meeting those expectactions then great and any "gaps" are irrelevant. The promise of this country is equal opportunity and we need to make sure that is provided but we will never be able to guarantee equal outcome no matter how much money we spend on the "problem".


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 2:36 a.m.

You conclude that because there is a correlation between achievement and economics that there is a cause and effect between them. You need a Logic 101 course. If that cause and effect were true then the children of the Depression would not have achieved as they did, which was superior than today. What you are proposing has been tried over and over and has never worked. Just made things worse.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 1:51 a.m.

And I quote: "We need to invest directly in children and families by shoring up our social safety net and making sure that children of working families do not grow up poor." Mike - Since you are so passionate about this, I propose that YOU write the first check! The rest of us will follow! lol

J. A. Pieper

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 1:08 a.m.

While I am on a roll, I will share what my son told me when AAPS started NAAPID Day years ago. I wanted to go visit his school and sit in on a couple of classes. Of course it wasn't a thrilling idea for him, so he wrote me a letter about what an involved parent I already was, and that coming to school once during the year just wasn't the kind of involvement that should be encouraged. What my son told me was that I was involved because - every night I supported homework and talked about what was going on; I checked with both of my kids each day after school to see if we needed something from the library, or something for a project; I kept them to a regular schedule for sleep times, made sure their needs were met; I went to open house evenings, and attended every conference; I had open communication with teachers; I helped edit/review assignments; made sure they got to school on time; supported their involvement in after school activities. His list woke me up, and made me realize that he already appreciated my involvement in his education/learning. I did not attend NAAPID activities for him, accepting what he shared. I raised my boys as a single parent, and they are African American. Schools alone, and expensive programs that are suggested, are not the answer to the gap problem, it is as simple as having parents who are involved!


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 12:08 a.m.

So you think black parents are worse than white parents?


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 5:29 p.m.



Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 1:35 a.m.

As a teacher, and someone who parents my kids the same way you do, you are spot on. As a teacher, we can only do so much. Unfortunately, AAPS looks at teachers who don't get kids to grade level as failing, even if the child grew from September to June. It is too bad more don't think, or won't say, the same thing you have shared in your past two post.

J. A. Pieper

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 12:52 a.m.

I have to agree with GORC. No one wants to acknowledge the "gorilla in the room" which is parental involvement, period. Head Start is successful while it is happening, and can help the children remain somewhat at grade level until about third grade. I am tired of the blame being placed on teachers, and yet not one article on this topic ever mentions the fact that maybe, just maybe, the jump start of Head Start happens because of the teachers, then falls off because the parents leave everything to the schools. The children can get an excellent experience through the Head Start teachers, but then the parents put their children in Kindergarten, and it is like free babysitting for them, nothing else happens at home related to learning. Their kids go to school every day, but then there is no support or involvement once they return home from school. The children have parents who are too busy, work too many hours, you name it, there is no one reading to them, no one helping with homework, very little conversation about what their experiences at school were like that day. We can't blame single parent families, as there are single parents who have successful children! The issue is totally related to what is done with the children at home. Money won't fix this issue, neither will increased professional development for teachers. Smaller class size is not going to help what does not happen at home. Distributing the gap children throughout a district tends to just "hide" the gap numbers in larger populations of successful students, so that one school does not look like a poor achieving school. A good analogy is the old proverb, "Give me a fish, I eat for a day. Teach me to fish... " We give the fish of having the preschool experience, but society never works on teaching every family what it means to be involved.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 4:53 p.m.

J. A. Pieper - Did you notice that deleted my comment. For those of you that misses it, it asked the writer of this opinion piece not to ignore the "1000 pound gorilla in the room". Which is the lack of parenting skills. Nothing more, nothing less...the editors must have interpreted this as derogatory to others. When I say parenting skills, I am including parents of ANY background. My original comment should be reinstated.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 1:10 p.m.

Any teacher with an English as a Second Language pupil will also opine as to the parental engagement challenge. Imagine trying to connect/engage a parent who doesn't speak english. Imagine needing an interpreter at a parent-teacher conference. Imagine have to translate every note, or written message home. Imagine the parental involvement in the homework support when English isn't even spoken, or written in the home. I am personally aware of classrooms with as many as 10 ESL pupils. . .


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 12:15 a.m.

The author has been careful to qualify his statements, and readers should be aware of exactly what's being said, as well as what these studies on preschool were. The studies being referenced were the Abecedarian and Perry projects, conducted in 1972 and 1962 (respectively). As opposed to the pre-school program in Georgia, which expends $4,298 per child, these two projects expended between $16,000 and $41,000 (in current dollars) per child. The schooling provided in these projects exceeded quality levels in some of the best public institutions, which we know is a rare trait indeed. Children received highly personalized instruction, which persisted into the home. Progress was closely monitored and individual instruction was customized based on day-to-day results. These were no ordinary "studies." Furthermore, the instruction in the Abecedarian project began at an average age of 4.4 months of age, and continued for 5 years - far longer than any contemporary pre-K program. The control group was provided with nutritional supplements, social services, and health care to ensure that these factors did not affect the outcomes of the experiment (something that will no doubt be needed if this program were instituted in the modern day). We should certainly ask the community whether or not they are willing to begin expending $16,000-$41,000 per child per year, for five years - and that's even assuming we can find high-quality teachers that will be out of the reach of the work rules-uber-alles NEA (count me as a skeptic). In a society of limited resources and unlimited needs, we should be allocating scarce public funds to their best uses. $80,000 to $205,000 per child seems like an awfully large sum of money. Make no mistake, however: "Study after study" shows that highly intensive, high-cost education administered by highly-skilled educators can enhance outcomes in pre-K children.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 4:47 a.m.

The T-LC program did not need those large sums of money per child and was highly successful!

Macabre Sunset

Sat, Mar 2, 2013 : 9:08 p.m.

The "gap" is increasing because you can't just throw a lot of money at a problem and expect it to disappear. If you tell a student there's a gap, he or she will reasonably conclude that there's no point in working hard in school. If you tell parents there's a gap, parents won't emphasize school. I know it's hard, but the best thing a school system can do is simply ensure that all students have an equal opportunity, understanding that opportunity does not necessarily mean achievement. We've tried it the other way for decades now, and, really, the targeted minorities are being hurt far more than they're being helped. Ann Arbor being a shining example.

Basic Bob

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 3:31 a.m.

This is also true of some members of the majority culture and some children of affluent families. Some will not succeed in the educational system. Some will not finish college no matter how hard we try to make it true. This is not anyone's fault. Give them a chance to earn an honest day's pay at a job that suits their abilities and interests. Manufacturing and service jobs are good for that. Someone, somewhere decided that it was a horrible way to live. But it beats the pants off depending on the government for basic necessities.


Sat, Mar 2, 2013 : 8:46 p.m.

It is clear by 2nd or 3rd grade that some students are behind and will never catch up without additional help. Rather than just promoting them to the next grade, they should be given tutors and/or summer school. I'm not advocating monetary payouts, but an educated society is good for everyone. (My personal preference would be volunteers rather than staff, but that's not always possible).


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 2:39 p.m.

Thanks again, DonBee. Yes, if a disruptive student can be sent to the principal, and the principal can do something that will persuade the kid that behaving well is preferable to whatever that something is, everything works fine--as long as the parents don't then sue the school system and the top-level administrators don't discipline the principal for disciplining the kid, that is. When I was a kid in grade school, we really did fear 'being sent to the principal,' even though no one I knew was ever physically abused. And I don't recall that any of our parents ever threatened action against the principal for putting the fear of God into us (which usually involved making us sit on straight-backed chairs in his office for half an hour or so, under his disapproving gaze, while our friends went out to play at recess). Everyone involved, including us, recognized that kids need to learn how to behave.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 4:44 a.m.

The T-LC program ran a fantastic program using Volunteers...educated, retired teachers, Doctors, Professors, etc. In about 6-8 weeks, you will be able to check out the program at the Bently Historical Library on North Campus. Maybe it is time to reinstitute this result oriented program!!


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 4:35 a.m.

After reading many of the comments in this article, I'm reminded about a 30 year program in the AAPS which was started by an Art teacher in the AAPS. Her program, T-LC, (Teaching-Learning Communities) expanded beyond anyone's imagination...T-LC became an International program, funded by numerous Foundations, Federal Govt. grants, and local school districts. Throughout the 30 years, it was a constant battle with the AAPS Board, as the program was usually the first line item they would try and cut when the budget was challenged. How it worked: Intergenerational programs - Senior Citizens called Grandpersons volunteered to meet once or twice a week in a classroom to work one on one with students who needed extra help. The program expanded in AA to include University of Michigan Business and Law Students who dedicated a year or more to spend one hour a week after school mentoring and or tutoring with selected students. Not only did the student's abilities improve, their behavior also improved. This also enriched the lives of the "Grandpersos".


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 11:54 p.m.

Vivian - We had disruptive students, They typically were taken in hand by the Principal and the office person during math and reading. They pretty quickly figured out that it was no fun to have a 1:1 for instruction with the Principal and they learned to behave. She was very patient with many of them over time. Normally by second grade even the hardest to deal with child had decided that behaving was easier than not. I can still remember her commenting to me one day "Hold that pencil right young man", in a quiet voice filled with steel. I never forgot the startle or the right way to hold the pencil. No one yelled, not one hit, but the message got through to every child, school is where you behave and learn. There were a lot of privileges like getting to leave the classroom early for recess if your work was done - that could be earned - and the children (myself included) knew that. I worked hard for the 10 minutes of extra recess twice a day.

J. A. Pieper

Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 6:30 p.m.

In AAPS it is not politically correct to group students by their ability, and everyone knows that this will never happen. So all students receive the same instruction , although there is Differentiation of Instruction that is given in all subject areas. The thing about this is that the students depend on support and scaffolding to help them work through concepts. Then when they are graded they are supposed to be marked at "Developing" because they are dependent on the extra help. This also shows up when they work through different assessments ( MEAP, NWEA) because the student is not always able to internalize the steps taught in the support/scaffolding. YES, we have to make sure they are not having their feelings (or their parent's feelings) hurt by receiving less than a stellar ranking. Not to mention that the district is pushing teachers to accept just about anything, so that AAPS can look good on paper. BEHAVIOR is huge, if there is a disruptive element going on in the classroom, it causes all students to worry more about their safety in the classroom, and then all students in the classroom have difficulty achieving up to their potential.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 4:08 p.m.

DonBee, of course that idea makes a lot of sense, but here in Ann Arbor, someone might get their "wittle feewings" hurt if they are in the low skill group (despite HAVING low skills) and we can't have that! It's all about self-esteem, not education----you know everyone gets a trophy, etc... If only logic, like what you described, prevailed...if only.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 3:03 p.m.

DonBee, thanks for the description of a good and sensible approach to this problem. One thing you didn't mention was (to use a slightly educationist term--sorry!) class management. For the system to work, classrooms have to be pretty orderly; if they're full of disruptive kids who can't be removed, no one --including the disruptive students--will be able to learn very much. On the basis of what I've observed in recent years, I fear that this may be an almost insurmountable problem in some schools.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 2:22 p.m.

ChrisW - When I was in grade school - a long time ago - here in Michigan, there was a program that worked wonders. It was simple in K-6 for reading and math students were tested for and grouped by ability every 6 weeks - testing took about 30 minutes. All of our classrooms had 35+ children in them BTW. K-6 were then grouped by skill level and the groups got larger as the skill levels went up. If you were in the top level group, you went to the gym and worked math puzzles at the lunch tables for math and the library for reading. At the beginning of the year about 10 percent of the school ended up in the gym or the library, by the end of the year it was normally about 25 percent. The lower you were on the skill ladder the fewer students the teacher had. As the year progressed the low skill groups got smaller and smaller so the ratio of teachers to students got better. The average growth in skills was about 1.3 years of skill to 1 year of school time. The district's goal was that no student be in the lowest two groups at the end of the year. It worked, but various outside forces said it was bad for children's self esteem and threatened the school district if they did not stop it. They also forced social promotion. Going back to this old program would probably solve a lot of K-3 problems.

Jay Thomas

Sat, Mar 2, 2013 : 8:24 p.m.

I don't know where to begin this is all so unrealistic. Basically the author is calling for another "war on poverty" when the government doesn't cure anyone of their poverty it simply makes them dependent. The "earned" income tax credit was okay at $500-1000. It provided an incentive to filing a tax return and being "in the system". But now it is just a complete give away with many non income tax paying folks being given $5k/year (and more) directly through the tax code (before it ever reaches the rest of the government to be spent on a program). Calling it "earned" is simply newspeak and typical liberal mumbo jumbo where everything is renamed the opposite of what it actually is. I would like to know how giving away your child to someone else to look after makes you a better parent later on. Fawlty reasoning. Oh, and pre school for 3 year olds? Really?? Why not just have the government take them at birth....


Sun, Mar 24, 2013 : 12:30 a.m.

What is even more unbelievable about the child tax credit is that illegal aliens are fraudulently taking these credits to the tune of several billion dollars per year. The Obama administration has done nothing to stop this nasty form of tax cheating.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 5:25 p.m.

Jay was just referring to those misguided and bumbling individuals living at The Fawlty (Ivory) Towers in Washington, D.C.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 3:12 a.m.

Jay - great post, but rather than "fawlty", I believe you meant "faulty". :) AND yes, I would love it if the government took all children at birth. Keep them in barracks until they are 18, or better yet, keep them in NY in where they supposedly keep multiple warehouses in the garment industry.


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 12:31 a.m.

Jay, how many hours have you spent being the sole adult in charge of multiple children under 5?


Sat, Mar 2, 2013 : 7:55 p.m.

Georgia has spent millions on the universal pre-aschool and doesn't have much to show for it. We've let the "fixes" be designed by accademics while the real solutions are common sense. Broken families are the problem. Our culture says it is OK and the results are everywhere to be seen. Kids having kids, over 70% of black children are born out of wedlock. I guess we'll have to commission a study to see what kind of life outcomes that creates and how it affects their self-esteem and then throw billions of dollars to fix it............


Sun, Mar 3, 2013 : 2:15 p.m.

Jay Thomas - Have you been in a Head Start classroom recently? Have you looked over the requirements to be a Head Start teacher? Have you looked at the lesson plans? 10 years ago, I would have agreed Head Start was not much of a head start, now the program teaches far more than most pre-school programs and draws parents into the mix, something that public schools can't seem to do. Head Start teachers often visit parent's homes and talk to them at home about how to teach and read to children. Bashing Head Start made sense when Head Start was basically free baby sitting. That is no longer true. Make an appointment and visit one of the Detroit Head Start centers if you don't believe me.

Jay Thomas

Sat, Mar 2, 2013 : 8:43 p.m.

That's because they are really just child care programs in disguise. But they couldn't sell the child care idea so they had to make it about education. Headstart originally was little more than teaching the kids how to brush their teeth over and over and over. I'm not making this up... I just wish I was.

Stephen Landes

Sat, Mar 2, 2013 : 8:25 p.m.

The Progressive answer is always "Government"; witness the President's "Julia" campaign last year (the woman who can't do anything without the Government). In the guise of helping people we have helped them right into a culture where two-parent families are optional at best.