A roundup of recent Michigan newspaper editorials

Lansing State Journal. Oct. 28.

Make quality focus of school ratings

Two well-worn bits of advice seem appropriate regarding the next bit of angst over improving and monitoring Michigan’s K-12 public schools.

They are: “The devil is in the details” and “Be careful what you wish for”.

Lawmakers announced late last week that the color-coded accountability system put in place just months ago is already subject to plans for an overhaul. House Education Committee Chairwoman Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R-Alto, plans legislation to switch the new system to letter grades instead of colors.

Let’s start with the matter of details. One problem with the color coding was that it wasn’t easily understood. Green was supposed to denote top schools and red those with the most difficulties. In the middle was “yellow” which stood for caution. Fewer than 3 percent of the state’s 3,397 school buildings earned a green ranking. And about half of those earned the ranking not because of top test scores or academic performance but because they were new schools open only one year and they met administrative requirements such as testing 95 percent of their students or filing an annual report. That leads to second problem with the color-coded system: The quality standards should truly reflect a measure of quality. Filing annual reports and testing a high percentage of students don’t indicate anything about the quality of classroom instruction or the results that instruction delivers.

And that leads to being careful about those wishes. Posthumus Lyons wants to switch to a letter grade system of A through F to rank school buildings. Equating such “grades” with typical report card marks, such a system ought to be easy for parents to understand.

Yet even this change can be perilous. If schools can earn an “A” grade for fulfilling administrative requirements alone, letter grades will be just as flawed as the color scheme. And there always is reason to fear the blowback that occurs every time reformers broach changes to K-12 accountability systems. Officials at Education Trust-Midwest, an education policy and research group based in Royal Oak, caution about the temptation to ease up use of “D” and “F” grades to avoid angering communities whose schools are so marked.

The truth is a lot of Michigan schools don’t educate students as well as parents and community leaders might like to think they do. The best recipe for success is to focus on quality. That can’t be done without honestly acknowledging where high quality is absent, whether it’s noted in color schemes or letter grades.

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The Mining Journal (Marquette). Oct. 29.

Home visit program seems like wise use of federal funds

An announcement this week that the state of Michigan is in line to receive an infusion of money aimed at, among other things, reducing infant mortality, seems like a wise use of federal dollars.

According to The Associated Press, Michigan will receive $14.4 million from the Department of Health and Human Services Michigan Department of Community Health’s Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. Those funds funds follow a more modest $32 million federal stipend for the same program last year.

“This expansion grant is Michigan’s opportunity to further support prevention-focused home visiting in a number of at-risk Michigan communities,” James K. Haveman, MDCH director, said in a written statement included in AP’s coverage of the announcement. “Expanding Michigan’s home visiting efforts is one of the key strategies identified in the effort to reduce our infant mortality rates.”

As AP reported, the Home Visiting Program is designed to promote maternal, infant and early childhood health, development, and safety, school readiness and strong parent-child relationships. Home visiting matches trained professionals with families to provide support and information during pregnancy and throughout a child’s early years, according to the state agency. Quality home visiting has been shown to lead to fewer children in social welfare programs, juvenile corrections, or mental health systems, as well as a reduction in infant mortality. Home visiting helps parents learn why maternal health before, during and after pregnancy is important, and can help parents learn how to care for an infant and build strong, healthy relationships with their children

Over the years, The Mining Journal has been very circumspect when considering government initiatives that look more like make work programs for bureaucrats than the wise use of tax monies. That said, this looks to us like a program that will actually accomplish some good at a reasonable expenditure of public funds.

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Battle Creek Enquirer. Oct. 26.

Closing the diversity gap in public schools

No school factor — not budget, not class size, not curriculum — is more important to a child’s experience in the classroom than the teacher, but that’s not how we treat teachers in the United States, and it shows.

About 40 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years of starting their careers — 46 percent according to a 2003 study by University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll — more than any other profession.

The reason? Generally, it’s the working conditions, compounded by the fact that the job — arguably the most important job for ensuring the well-being of our children and the long-term health of our democracy — barely pays the bills.

It’s perhaps the ultimate manifestation of decades of public policy-making that is hostile to public education, and to some degree it hurts all of us. But like all bad public policy, it hurts some more than others.

In today’s report, “Color blind in the classroom,” reporter Justin Hinkley offers a prime example.

“Across the area, across the state and across the country, teaching staffs do not reflect the growing diversity of public school classrooms. While 20 percent of area students are of color, just 3 percent of local teachers are. Male teachers of color are especially lacking, with women teachers outnumbering men three-to-one.”

Some readers may ask themselves, “So what? What do ethnicity and gender have to do with the quality of classroom instruction?” If the only factors to consider were academic credentials or instructional competency, the answer may be little to nothing, but classrooms and schools aren’t laboratories, they are human communities that must manage and overcome human frailties in a complex and often emotional setting in which kids are not always at their best.

In a multicultural classroom, diversity matters. A lot.

Teachers of color serve as role models for students, giving them a clear and concrete sense of what diversity in education — and in our society — looks like. A recent review of empirical studies also shows that students of color do better on a variety of academic outcomes if they’re taught by teachers of color.

The relationship is far deeper, however, than one of skin complexion. It’s about cultural competency and the ability for students and teachers to identify with one another.

In a study last year, Howard University’s Ivory A. Toldson and Mercedes Ebanks reviewed the response patterns of nearly 9,000 students who completed the National Crime Victimization Survey: School Crime Supplement of 2009.

“We found that black students were less likely to perceive empathy and respect from their teachers and more likely to view the school as a punitive learning environment than white students,” Toldson wrote in an essay for theroot.com.

Toldson went on to write that many teachers may be operating under an implicit association bias, whereby on a subconscious level, they may view black children as security risks.

That may be difficult for many educators, who enter their profession for noble reasons, to accept, but the fact of the matter is that these perceptions exist, and those perceptions help to explain the stubborn achievement gaps between white students and students of color.

Recruiting diversity is part of the answer, but we suggest that it’s not the biggest part. New research from the University of Pennsylvania and UC Santa Cruz suggests that teachers of color, who are leaving the profession even faster than their white counterparts, want more influence over school direction and more autonomy in the classroom to teach what works.

In other words, they’re frustrated by the “teach to the test” mentality that is steadily destroying our nation’s public school system.

We’ve often written how high stakes tests are killing our schools, and the achievement and diversity gaps are among many indications of exactly how. As we said, bad public policy hurts all of us, but it always hurts some more than others.

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The Detroit News. Oct. 29.

Local cities could reap riches from drilling

Rochester has lost out for now on an opportunity that could enrich both residents and its government coffers, allowing a misinformation campaign to scare off two Traverse City-based engineering companies that wanted to lease mineral rights on public land. Community members opposed the lease, which could have led to drilling for oil and gas. Had the drilling been successful, nearby residents would have shared in royalties that could have also been used to improve services and/or lower tax rates.

The inaccurate information about fracking and horizontal drilling surprised officials from the Jordan Development Company and its partner, West Bay Exploration. It demonstrates that while facts about the drilling methods are readily available, sometimes rumors and misconceptions can overshadow scientific data.

The leases were overwhelmingly opposed by residents even though fracking, the more controversial of the two drilling processes, was specifically omitted from the negotiations.

Because of the geology of the area under city property, Jordan Vice President Ben Brower says only horizontal drilling is needed to free any oil and natural gas deposits. That’s less intensive than fracking, which is the next phase of drilling and involves inserting a 4½ to 5 inch steel casing into the ground and then pushing a solution of water, sand and hydrochloric acid through the rocks to obtain the minerals.

Some of the misinformation used to turn back the proposal included arguments that the drilling would affect water supplies and taint the aesthetics on the surface. Brower noted that water aquifers are usually 100 to 200 feet below the ground, while mineral drilling goes down a mile or more. He also says any drilling will not touch the landscaping on the surface of the property beyond the small well head.

Even if fracking was on the table — and it wasn’t — the process, under proper regulations, is safe. Michigan has a clean, 50-year track record of fracking that has been confirmed in a new University of Michigan study.

Michigan’s precious natural resources should be protected and so precautions ought to be taken when any kind of mineral drilling is conducted. Plenty of safeguards are in place.

Because of its lake geography and history with the mining industry, Michigan already has one of the most stringent regulations in the country. The state requires all chemicals be reported and that fracking discharge be stored in enclosed containers.

New Department of Environmental Quality regulations passed this month should make fracking even safer. Key elements of the requirements strengthen disclosure of chemicals used in the process and heighten protection against damage to waterways and nearby wells.

Brower says his firm is not counting Rochester completely out and that in the future it will give the city another chance to benefit from mineral leasing.

“We’re not ready to start drilling in Rochester,” he says. “So, we’d rather educate the public, take some time and come back and get a yes vote (from the City Council).”

In the meantime, the leasing of private and public land in other communities continues, including in Rochester Hills, Rochester’s next door neighbor.

With most communities in Michigan under economic distress, they should not turn their backs on a potentially lucrative revenue source based on scare tactics and misinformation.

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