Telling the sometimes controversial truth: Not all early childhood programs created equal

Though it’s not always popular to say, all of Minnesota’s (or any other state’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 U.S. 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 www.thinksmall.org. 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’ Web page: www.cehd.umn.edu/icd/faculty/reynolds.html.

Recently 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/everyday 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 Minnesota 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. So, for example, state funds help support K-12 public schools serving all kinds of students.

But 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 (Editor’s note: Nathan is formerly a public school teacher, directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College. Reactions welcome, jnathan@macalester.edu.)


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