Opinion

Students left behind: the unfinished business of 2022

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In its 2022 report to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Michigan Parents’ Council said public education should address students’ diverse learning needs, including learning gaps and unfinished learning.

This makes perfect sense to me. 

At Lansing Community College, I taught first-year composition, a college course required for the bachelor’s degree. Reputedly, our course rivaled in rigor what the university offered. Yet, because we were the community college, our students’ level of preparation was spotty.

Some students had a loose grasp of basic skills that should have been learned in elementary school, reviewed through middle school and practiced in high school. Punctuation, for instance. Commas, in particular. Every semester for 18 years, I had to teach commas, amid much bitching and moaning. From me.

Of the four priorities the Michigan Parents’ Council reached through a consensus of conversations held in all 83 Michigan counties, three are for support of students and teachers, and one is for education. 

The Council’s educational priority aims at the disruption and interruption to learning caused by the COVID pandemic. Got to be. All students did not experience the pandemic and the emergency switch to distance learning the same.

In fact, details in the report go on to say, “Concerns about unfinished learning were reported more frequently in urban and rural districts.” It also said that “student need access to before- and after-school programs, tutoring and extracurricular activities.”

Which is to say, the concerns about unfinished learning were reported less frequently by suburban districts. This is because parents of the professional class and socioeconomic status, who live primarily in the suburbs, could complete their children’s learning. So, they have other concerns, like mental health because of the Oxford High School shooting.

The learning gap resulting from the pandemic must be attended to. I said that in June 2020, when the 2019-2020 school year was mercifully over. The following fall was a wonderful time for a do-over; to shore up learning and bring all students to a true grade. To recalibrate. 

Yet, fall semester started on time and online and students got through it as best they could. The result? A deepening educational inequality. The news this year is an increase in third graders held back because their reading is not up to grade level. In 2020, today’s third graders were first graders. 

However, parents are saying, “Don’t let our children go one more step forward in this quicksand. Please finish what was started in the 2019-2020 school year. Avoid turning a national crisis into students’ personal failure. Avoid learning gaps from becoming another symptom of long COVID.”

The refusal to correct the situation early created a dry socket. 

“Dry socket” is a dental term describing a complication of tooth extraction. I found out I had one when my sister Paula said to me that there was something wrong in my mouth.  It was bad breath caused by infection. The hole in my gum had healed wrong. It healed over the hole, as opposed to healing from the bottom up, allowing bacteria to grow. 

And now we have an infection brewing in education, where instead of schooling children from the bottom up, we have become satisfied with quality schooling for those at the top. 

And we have educators in the poor districts becoming accustomed to being less than. Getting less than.  

The television sitcom “Abbott Elementary” expressed it perfectly. A fresh new teacher at Abbott Elementary can see everything her students need to learn and is campaigning for it. But a veteran teacher tires of hearing about that and says, “We’re not getting anything.” Why? Because it is a poor public school. 

Part of the governor’s purpose in creating the Michigan Parents’ Council was to get Michigan on the road to world-class education. Like it used to be. When Michigan was rich. And educated the Baby Boomers. Hell, my English professors at Wayne State University came from Ivy League universities. Now, Michigan can’t attract enough teachers in K-12 grades.

Michigan is flush with money. Pump it into public education. Do what the Council said to do: continue learning that was discontinued. Who does just moving on serve? Not students. Or the state.

People worry that holding back a student from their friends will lower self-esteem. Perhaps temporarily. But the Michigan Parents’ Council provided for that as well in bullet priority #1: 

• Support students’ growing mental health needs. 

It is never bad to stop and learn. Students should understand the reasoning for stopping to learn. Uncomfortable, yes. But not cruel or unusual. 

The fatal error is not learning to read or having your college professor pissed ‘cause she doesn’t know if you are writing “Let’s eat, Grandma” or “Let’s eat grandma.”

In that missing comma is a world of difference. Especially for grandma. 

Maybe the Council’s priorities are what the governor felt all along. But because she suffered enormous push-back from parents who saw school as a babysitter and those who thought her leadership so wrong they needed to plot to kidnap and possibly kill her, she needed to be patient and strategize getting back in office, then get support for her position. And now she has. 

Whitmer should sign the check for the Council’s bridging-the-learning-gap recommendation now. 

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