Pre-K education key to eliminating achievement gap

A growing number of scientific findings on early brain development and the ability of children to learn more earlier is leading educational and business leaders to push for more state funding to educate 3-and 4-year-old children, particularly from communities with concentrations of poor families. 

Experts say that at the age of 5 a child’s brain is 90 percent developed, enabling them to learn numerical concepts, good behavior and how to get along with other children.

Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius are urging legislators to approve more dollars for pre-kindergarten scholarships and for all-day-every-day kindergarten.

Last month, this newspaper’s editorial board, in keeping with its year-long educational agenda, endorsed full funding for all-day-every-day kindergarten for all students in Minnesota.

We also favor the need for more pre-K funding, because half of Minnesota’s children are not prepared for kindergarten, according to the department of education.

Dayton wants the Minnesota Legislature to fund $44 million to allocate 10,000 pre-K student scholarships intended for children from families in poverty. These scholarships would be run through the popular Parent Aware program in which parents rate the providers of pre-K programs. Parents would select from a list of providers rated four and above.

We are concerned, however, that scholarships in the governor’s bill are intended mainly for children living in communities where there are concentrations of poverty, possibly excluding poor students living in middle-income communities across the state. We urge the Office of Early Learning at the Minnesota Department of Education to distribute the scholarships equitably across the state.

Economists Arthur Rolnick and Rob Grunewald have drawn national attention, particularly from the business community, with their claim that for every dollar invested in early-childhood education for low-income children in high-quality early education programs, there is a return on the investment of $16.

Some critics question spending state dollars on programs studies say don’t work.

They also claim that students who do not have early childhood education usually catch up with those that do by third grade.

A highly interesting study by James Heckman, Nobel economist, found that children from higher-income families who were observed and tested from ages 3 to 18 scored much higher than families than students in lower-income families.

What’s stunning is that children from families living in concentrated poverty areas that miss the pre-K education step never catch up with children from higher income families who have pre-K.

As reported in the New York Times, Heckman and others confirm that investment in early education of disadvantaged children pays extremely high returns down the road.

Education Commisioner Cassellius says there is plenty of research to support investment in young learners as a critical way to close the achievement gap and improve student outcomes. She points to a study in North Carolina where low income students who attended pre-school had higher math and reading scores in third grade than their peers.

A study in Michigan traced two groups of low-income students, those who attended pre-school and those who didn’t. The study found that at age 40, those who attended pre-school had higher levels of education, earned more money, were more likely to own a home and were less likely to be incarcerated.

Minnesota already has a pre-K program that’s offered through 300 public school districts and is funded by local and state funds.  Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) works with parents and their children from birth to kindergarten. It is based on the belief that the family provides the child’s first and most significant learning.

This emphasis on pre-K education is in line with what is happening nationally. President Obama proposes to expand early childhood education to provide high quality pre-K for 4-year-olds from families whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of the poverty line.

Through a Race-to-the-Top federal grant of $10.7 million, more pre-K scholarships for poor children in Minnesota are being awarded from 2012 to 2015. As part of the grant, a special committee designates the families who should receive the scholarships.

We believe spending money at the state level for 10,000 pre-K scholarships targeting children living in poverty areas is a necessary investment in view of the fact that today half of Minnesota’s children are not ready for kindergarten.

We urge people who agree with this view to let their legislators know that funding for pre-K education is a necessary first step to narrowing the achievement gap between the have and have-not students.

This editorial is a product of the ECM Editorial Board. The Forest Lake Times is part of ECM Publishers Inc.