The new year provides an opportunity to accelerate progress in early education. Minnesota has high aspirations. The World's Best Work Force statute states that by 2020 all children will be ready for school.

Although Gov. Mark Dayton has championed early education with the new voluntary pre-K program for 4-year-olds and other investments, Minnesota remains far short of the 2020 goal and continues to lag other states in access to high quality programs.

As a land-grant institution, the University of Minnesota has a substantial role in improving early childhood education. Given the relatively low standing of Minnesota, the university can be a more effective contributor. To address key challenges, the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the university conducts research on the effectiveness of education programs. We see three major ways the university can help improve access and quality for young learners.

The first is to analyze pressing issues. One is universal vs. targeted approaches to access. The benefits of universal access need more attention. This fact is often ignored. The best available data indicate that only 60 percent of Minnesota children from middle-income families are school-ready compared to 40 percent for low-income children. To meet the universal readiness goal, large increases in proficiency are needed for all children.

For example, if 100 percent of low-income children were school-ready, the level for all children would still only be 70 percent, far below the goal. Many states have universal or near-universal access, including Wisconsin.

The positive effects of universal access are clear. In the first long-term study of universal pre-K in public schools, Tulsa, Okla., graduates at all income levels showed benefits in math achievement and reduced rates of grade retention at age 13. Another study found that readiness levels for low-income 4-year-olds are higher in states with universal access. This system would reduce economic stress for families and further parents' own career goals.

The second role of universities is to help scale proven practices and analyze investments. We have worked with the St. Paul Public Schools to expand the Child-Parent Centers, a renowned program showing large effects in enhancing the continuum of success from school readiness to higher rates of college graduation. The effectiveness elements are 1) small classes and low child-to-staff ratios, 2) intensive focus on a spectrum of readiness skills within a developmental philosophy, 3) strong family-school partnering, and 4) B.A. credentials and/or compensation comparable to K-12.

Is the Parent Aware rating system identifying effective programs? A review of the indicators shows that there are no specific standards for instruction time and intensity, class size, family services and professional learning. Indicators need to align so that programs with the most sustained effects have the highest ratings.

The third role of universities is teacher education and professional training to ensure a high-quality early education workforce. For example, the University of Minnesota Child Development Center is the only center on campus that provides early education and care from infancy through pre-K for students, staff and faculty. Not only does the center meet the above effectiveness elements, but it is a training site for student teachers and a model center for promoting best practices in the state.

The recent decision by the university to close the center after 45 years is detrimental to continued progress in early education and in serving the community. Rather than closing, the center should be expanding to serve more families. With a waiting list of more than 230 children and a level of quality to emulate, the center is an invaluable resource for the university and the state for increasing access to highly effective education.

Although progress has occurred, Minnesota is far short of where it should be on access and quality. Universities have an important role to play, but a "what works" approach is warranted. Are we using the best of our knowledge to design and implement the most effective experiences for all young learners? The evidence says no, and we can do better.

Arthur J. Reynolds and Judy A. Temple are co-directors of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota and professors in the Institute of Child Development and Humphrey School of Public Affairs, respectively.