Column: A child’s background impacts learning

Karen Holcomb-Merrill

As we work to improve education in Michigan, we must look beyond school issues such as funding levels, standardized testing and teacher quality to the impact of factors outside the classroom. Academic success is largely a function of the physical and social environments in which students live and the personal histories they carry through the school doors. It’s the cumulative result of their experiences, beginning in the womb. If we want to give our kids the best odds of reaching their full educational potential, we must support their families and ensure that their basic needs are met beginning long before they start school and continuing through graduation.

Kids in struggling families lack access to many resources and supports that position their more financially-secure peers to do well in school. Furthermore, because public policy has created wealth disparities along racial and ethnic lines, the stressors of poverty disproportionately affect African-American and Latino children, further sabotaging their prospects in school and later in life. In fact, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2017 Race for Results report finds that Michigan is the worst state in the nation for African-American kids along multiple indicators of child well-being.

Children whose mothers lack access to adequate pre- and postnatal healthcare face higher risks of low birthweight, intellectual disabilities and infant mortality. Children’s future academic success is further influenced by their parents’ access to safe, high-quality child care. Michigan’s income eligibility requirement for child care assistance is among the lowest in the nation, making it difficult for parents in low-wage jobs to place their kids in the child care settings that will best prepare them for school. Lack of reliable and affordable child care can also make it difficult for parents to work and rise out of poverty.

The scarcity of quality, affordable housing in communities across the state means that many children experience homelessness, frequent moves, and exposure to unsafe temperatures, asthma triggers and environmental toxins like lead. All of this has a negative impact on children’s health, school attendance and academic achievement.

For the more than 338,000 Michigan kids living with food insecurity, hunger affects brain development and leads to other health issues that produce a domino effect of negative outcomes, including cognitive and behavioral problems, absenteeism and trouble concentrating. The ultimate results are lower grades and a higher dropout rate.

We must create the conditions that nurture academic success through community and neighborhood investments in safe, healthy homes, access to healthy food and reliable transportation. Recognizing the intergenerational effects of poverty, we can improve outcomes for kids by improving opportunities for their parents through education and job training, family-supporting wages, earned paid leave time, quality child care, and preservation of the federal and state Earned Income Tax Credit. We also must adequately fund our public schools, targeting resources in high-need areas and continuing to prioritize tools like the At-Risk program to support students facing external obstacles to success.

While school-centered changes are important, they will always fall short if we fail to also address the broader family, community and economic factors that prime our children for academic success. Effective education reform starts outside schools in policy and budget decisions related to early childhood, healthcare, transportation, employment and housing. Partnerships between schools and state agencies, such as the Pathways to Potential program that places Department of Health and Human Services caseworkers in schools, are critical to supporting the whole family to promote student achievement. Any successful strategy to improve outcomes must include a deliberate effort to undo the racial and economic inequities, both intentional and inadvertent, created by past policy decisions and a conscious effort to avoid injustice going forward. This holistic approach is the best way to position all Michigan children for a bright future, regardless of race, zip code or family income.

Karen Holcomb-Merrill is vice president of the Michigan League for Public Policy.