Doing what makes sense for early childhood programs

Joe Nathan
Education Columnist

Though it’s not always popular to say, all of Minnesota’s early childhood programs are not equally effective. Telling that controversial truth, and helping guide families to the most effective programs, recently helped Minnesota win $45 million from the US Department of Education.

Finally, we’re saying what makes sense: early childhood programs, like any other education program, vary. For years, some advocates asserted that “every dollar spent on early childhood produces a $12- $16 return.”

It’s more accurate to say, as the excellent “Think Small” organization’s website explains, that “Every $1 of investment in helping kids from low income backgrounds access high quality early education yields about $16 in benefits to society.”

But many families, not just low income, want access to high quality early childhood programs, including all day kindergarten. How should we proceed?

We need to adopt the same “truth telling” when it comes to setting the state’s early childhood priorities. Minnesota was one of nine states that won $45 million in “Race to the Top” funds in part because we are not just creating more programs.  We’re also providing research-based information via “Parent Aware” about which programs are most effective.

Free rankings of many early childhood programs are available at The new federal grant will help expand the number of Minnesota’s programs that are rated, and encourage more to become highly rated.

For more than 20 years, Professor Arthur Reynolds at the University of Minnesota has studied early child programs. Reynolds works neither for school districts (that offer kindergarten programs and sometimes early childhood programs) nor for agencies that offer early childhood programs. He and co-worker (and wife) Professor Judy Temple work for us – the public. Their research has been nationally recognized for its careful nature, lack of bias, and well-supported conclusions.  Here’s a link to Reynolds webpage:

I asked Reynolds for his priorities in funding early childhood programs.  He recommended that:

“… Public funding for preschool to third grade programs should be a high priority and should take precedence over full-day/every day kindergarten. High quality and accessible preschool/prekindergarten and full-day kindergarten, however, are critical elements of the pk-3 continuity system. The system should be worked on together and in concert. Any weak link in the system during these ages will hinder children’s school progress. The current gap in pre-k access in MN compared to other states in the Midwest is worrisome as is that for full-day K.”

Funding early childhood programs presents a great case of the tension that legislators and other policymakers encounter constantly. Families of middle and upper income naturally want some of their taxes to help support programs that their children can attend.

Many legislators, and many middle/upper income families recognize that we all gain when youngsters from low-income families get extra help. That’s why Head Start was created. However, all Head Start programs are not equally effective.

Our priorities ought to be providing some funds for programs benefitting all youngsters, increasing opportunities for families that need extra help, helping replicate the most effective programs, and assisting all families in making informed decisions among programs.

Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher, directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College. Reactions welcome, [email protected]

  • Debi

    We totally agree with the premise of providing information about which early childhood programs are effective. However, knowing that each young child has different needs, strengths, and abilities, parents need to be equipped for assessing a program that is best for their child. Prof. Reynolds priorities for funding programs that benefit all youngsters follows our goal of helping adults prepare children for kindergarten and life. Regardless of the structured program, parents need to assist in guiding a child through their educational years. By encouraging young families to spend 20 minutes a day in active and fun developmental learning activities with an easy format to follow can reap benefits for all children. Our new website with 24/7 access, simple 1 minute instructional videos or pictures, covers the social/emotional; language; math/science; motor; and thinking skills to begin kindergarten on grade-level. As you stated Prof. Reynolds works for the public – we gathered our information so ALL adults can play a role in educating a young child regardless of their own education, income, or home environment; or whether a child is in Head Start, day care, or a highly ranked early childhood program. Not all parents are effective teachers of necessary skills often because they aren’t aware of what to teach – not that they don’t want their child to succeed.