Will focus on early education help ensure success later in life?
Taya Morgan sometimes wakes at 3:30 a.m. to find her 3-year-old daughter dressed and asking, “Time to go to school?’’ Her 4-year-old son, Jamar, is too shy to show such enthusiasm — but he, too, is flourishing since enrolling at Children’s First preschool in north Minneapolis, with big strides in speaking and writing.
“I don’t think he’d know all his ABCs or be able to verbally count to 20,’’ Morgan said. “I don’t think he’d know all of those things without this preschool.”
Hopeful stories like those of the Morgan children explain why early childhood education has emerged, nationally and in Minnesota, as a prized strategy to close the nation’s achievement gap and prepare a new generation to succeed in school and life.
Gov. Mark Dayton is asking the Legislature for $44 million in the next two years to fund quality preschool for 10,000 needy children, and a coalition of lawmakers and business leaders is seeking $165 million for similar efforts. This month, President Obama is expected to submit a budget that dramatically increases the number of low-income children who can attend Head Start preschools.
Citing research that suggests huge economic returns, lawmakers and advocates have declared that quality preschool is “the most important investment we can make.”
But now that the issue is getting its turn in the spotlight, critics are questioning whether a good preschool alone is enough for a disadvantaged child to succeed long-term.
“Preschool education has become like organic food — a creed in which adherents place faith based on selective consideration of evidence and without weighing costs against benefits,” said Grover Whitehurst, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Brown Center on Education Policy. “The result may be the overselling of generic preschool education as a societal good.”
In this debate, Minnesota has emerged as a national testing ground since 2011, when it received three federal grants totaling $90 million to fund experiments in early education, with results that will be closely watched by federal officials and educators.
Concerns about the value of preschool were heightened by a 2012 study of Head Start, the federally funded program for low-income children, showing that students’ gains “faded out” by the time they reached third grade.
Such research is important, but needs to be placed in context with other large studies showing immense benefits of quality preschool, said Rob Grunewald, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Grunewald and fellow economist Art Rolnick raised the profile of the issue in Minnesota over the past decade with research indicating that quality preschool eventually made disadvantaged children more likely to get high-paying jobs and less likely to wind up on welfare or in jail.
The term “fade-out” is misleading, Grunewald argued, because the children who went through good preschools didn’t lose academic skills; other kids simply caught up over time.
“If we were able to get a larger population of kids prepared for school, there would be less effort placed toward remediation in school,” he said. “That would lift all boats.”
‘He belongs there’
In high-poverty sections of north Minneapolis, only 22 percent of children are considered “ready to learn” by kindergarten. In surrounding suburbs, the rate exceeds 80 percent. That’s one reason Minnesota has one of the largest racial achievement gaps in test scores and graduation rates.
The solution in north Minneapolis is an ambitious project called the Northside Achievement Zone, one of three early education projects in Minnesota launched with the federal grants.
For the Morgans, it was the opportunity for which they had long hoped.
Before she had kids, Morgan was sleeping in her car in Minneapolis, trying to find work and complete the necessary steps to have her husband, Courtney, immigrate from Jamaica. They eventually earned stable jobs here — she works in customer service for CenterPoint Energy and he washes dishes at Ikea — but they still struggle to afford safe housing. Stray bullets have ripped through homes they have rented in the past.
Squeezed for time between work and school, they relied on relatives, part-time child care, and evening work shifts to make sure someone was watching the children. But they realized their patchwork child care was hurting their son. Ever shy, Jamar wasn’t talking much, writing on paper, or reaching other key developmental milestones.
A friend recommended the Northside Achievement Zone, which provided grants for the Morgans to enroll their children at Children’s First.