Kids Count 2018: Poverty Affects MI Childhood Literacy

Apr 17, 2018

For more than a decade, proficiency skills among elementary students have been in steep decline, particularly in reading.  The 2018 Michigan Kids Count Data Book, released today by the Michigan League for Public Policy, sheds some light on the factors that influence a child's success in school. 

Michigan Kids Count Project Director Alicia Guevara Warren talks with WKAR Education Reporter Kevin Lavery about the report, beginning with how her team compiles their information. 

Alicia Guevara Warren: We use credible, reliable data from sources like the American Community Survey, the Census Bureau; we do special data requests to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Michigan Department of Education.  So, our job is really trying to pull together what would be complicated data sets and try to put it into a form that’s more useable and readable for our community partners and for our families.

Kevin Lavery: Let’s look at third grade reading proficiency (English Language Arts).  The data we have from the 2017 Kids Count Data Book shows 54% of third graders in Michigan are not proficient in English Language Arts.  This most recent book shows 55.9% were not proficient.  That’s almost two whole percent points.  This is happening despite the fact that our poverty rate – a big indicator of success – is going down.  What’s going on there?

Credit Courtesy / Michigan League For Public Policy

Guevara Warren: I think a couple of different things are happening here.  When we look at third grade reading, we really only have three years’ worth of data.  If we look at 2015 and 2016 child poverty rates, we only see a small decline.  We know that poverty does have a pretty significant impact on a child’s education and their access to the type of schools that have the ability to really provide the things that students need.  About 70 percent of students from low income families are not proficient (in reading) compared to 40 percent of students who are not living in low income families.  So, it’s important to see that there’s a pretty significant disparity, but again when we look at the numbers even as a whole, it’s an issue that all kids in all schools seem to be struggling with.

Lavery: I don’t fault our government and civic leaders for being optimistic in terms of the pitch: 'Come to Michigan, learn the new economy and new IT skills.'  But looking at these numbers, it's hard not to see the disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality.

Guevara Warren: Absolutely.  When we look at these 16 different measures, we try to take a comprehensive look at how our kids are doing across economic security, education, health and safety and family and community. We are seeing some progress; I don’t want to diminish the fact that there’s some progress being made.  I wouldn’t consider it a huge win, but we are seeing fewer kids living in poverty; most counties saw an improvement.  But when we start looking at the ranges of poverty in particular across our counties and our state, we see a low of 6.4% in Livingston County and over 40% in Lake County.  We see some significant racial and ethnic disparity which is also troubling.  About 42% of African-American kids are living in poverty and about 30% of Latinex kids are living in poverty.  So, yes, we’re making some progress but the data is showing us that more than half of these 16 indicators have either stagnated or they’ve worsened over time.  So clearly, there’s still a lot of work to do.

Credit Courtesy / Michigan League For Public Policy

Lavery: Poverty is a huge factor, but not the only one.  There’s home life and there’s classroom life.  To what degree can teachers be reasonably held accountable for this slide?

Guevara Warren: I think that most would agree that they could use extra support.  When we think about classroom sizes, teachers’ ability to access professional development...I think teachers would say yes, please give me some extra support to be able to improve reading scores.

Credit Courtesy / Michigan League For Public Policy

Lavery: Are parents really aware of this information?  How do you market this in a way that means something to people who are most affected?

Guevara Warren: I think from a parent perspective, it’s a tool for beginning conversations and beginning to connect with other people in their own communities who are interested in trying to make things better.

View the report: 2018 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book (pdf)

More about the report at: Michigan League for Public Policy