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School-readiness report: Poverty biggest hurdle for Minnesota’s vulnerable children

CORBIS/Walter Bibikow
Early Head Start and Head Start are serving more children than ever before but cannot keep up with the growth of eligible children in poverty.

A new statewide report on school readiness shows many of Minnesota’s youngest citizens face hurdles that affect their learning in kindergarten and beyond.

At the root of the problem is poverty, says Richard Chase, key author of the first School Readiness Report, which was prepared by Wilder Research for the Minnesota Office of Early Learning.

Not only do one in five of the states’ 420,000 infants, toddlers and preschoolers live in poverty, but of that group about 30 percent are children of color whose poverty rate is a steep 61 percent, Chase says.    

Yet the data shows not enough of those youngsters are getting the help they need to succeed.  

“We are failing many of our kids, especially in communities of color. It’s sort of an indictment of how much we do not invest in all communities. Why is there no urgency in supporting the children who are most vulnerable?” Chase said in an interview.

The report, intended to set up guidelines to help monitor the state’s progress toward the goal of having every child ready for kindergarten by the year 2020, reflects disparities in education, health and social well-being for these children.

That “place[s] their own and our state’s future prosperity at risk,’’ wrote Chase, the senior research manager at Wilder, in a blog.

“Early childhood policies and practices are too metro-centric, too white-centric and too focused on education and literacy as opposed to the whole child,’’ Chase told me, speaking from almost two decades experience collecting, studying and measuring data concerning the healthy development of young children.

Early childhood, he said is the time to prevent achievement and opportunity gaps for children and to ensure children are brought up in safe, secure environments rich in language and learning to ensure healthy brain development and to help them attain their full potential. Otherwise, disadvantage leads to more disadvantage, he said.

For the report, researchers developed “indicators” of kindergarten-readiness that range from mothers’ mental health and access to prenatal care to a child’s access to preschool education and high-quality childcare. They then gathered U.S. Census and state data to draw a full picture of how Minnesota’s youngest citizens are doing.

The report is not surprising in its conclusions, Chase said, but it is a comprehensive look at Minnesota children under age 6 and shows the need to “change the mindset from closing the achievement gap to promoting opportunity as early as possible.”  

In fact, the report was news to some last week. Two early childhood education experts I talked with had not seen it. One, after being emailed the report for comment, said the findings are not new.  

“The information is consistent with the 2012 and 2013 reports produced by the Minneapolis Foundation, entitled “One Minneapolis,’’ Jeffrey Hassan, co-author of “Best in Class; How We Closed the 5 Gaps of Academic Achievement,’’ responded by email.

According to a 2010 report, only 60 percent of all Minnesota’s kindergartners “demonstrate readiness for school” with children from lower-income families, Latino children and American Indian children having the lowest rates of kindergarten-readiness.

Further, only one-third of 3-year-olds receive the health and developmental screenings that could head off future problems.

Chase points to other highlights.

  • In 2011 data, access to adequate or better prenatal care, which can affect a child’s healthy birth and development, is 12 to 37 percentage points lower for mothers of color than for white mothers.     

  • Mothers of color report higher rates of depression, which affects their children as well. “A mother’s mental health can impact her baby’s brain development and the healthy attachment between parent and child which can affect the child’s physical and mental health and ability to learn,’’ Chase wrote. Overall, about 12 percent of babies have mothers with a history of depression, he said, compared to 2010 data that shows 18 percent of African-American and 28 percent of American Indian mothers reporting depression.

  • “Early Head Start and Head Start are serving more children than ever before but cannot keep up with the growth of eligible children in poverty.” In 2013, those preschool educational programs had only enough slots to enroll about 19 percent of low-wealth children under 6, he said.

  • “Children of color have higher rates of out-of-home placement.” In 2011 about 3,000 children under age 6 were living in “out-of-home placement or foster care with large disparities for American Indian and black children,” Chase wrote, often because of “reported abuse and neglect.”

“It’s time to stop documenting these things and actually take steps to prevent these disparities. They’re not inevitable, they’re preventable,” Chase said, pointing to the positive efforts of the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis, St. Paul Promise Neighborhood and smaller, early childhood initiatives around the state.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 12/09/2013 - 12:19 pm.

    Plenty of money for arts but not enough for hungry babies, kids

    I think too many of our legislators and our governor have lousy values. They manage to fund the arts but not take care of our babies, toddlers and children. These politicians have the wrong values.

  2. Submitted by julie moore on 12/09/2013 - 12:20 pm.

    How do we do it?

    What do we need to do to get them ready? Get high school students to do some free child care to expose them to eduated students? Ask those high school students to spend the time reading and drawing with them? It seems that there are some free resources out there (reading times, library programs, etc) but the parents either can’t, don’t know how, or don’t want to take the young children to the programs that could all help ready them. There is plenty of info on why this is happening, but not enough in how to fix it.

    • Submitted by Pat Thompson on 12/09/2013 - 03:25 pm.

      It’s poverty

      The answer is it’s poverty itself, and the stress and scarcity-response it causes. Read (or just google to get the gist of) the book Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.

      Anything done at the school, or even the preschool, level will only be bandaids on the real problem.

      Jobs with living wages. Mental health support. Prenatal care. It’s not a single magic bullet. And it’s definitely not more standardized tests.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/09/2013 - 12:47 pm.

    teacher’s unions!

    Somehow, I missed where terrible teachers and unions cause kids to not get early medical care and head start. Wait…you mean it’s not there? Could it be that, when you look at the facts, it really is a lack of resources that’s disadvantaging the poor, and not how new hotshot grads wanting to pad their resumes, as opposed to well trained teachers, are going to somehow reverse the disadvantages? This doesn’t surprise me.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/09/2013 - 03:29 pm.

    Just a reminder

    Thanks, Rachel.

    Even in the Dark Ages, when I first started teaching, it was widely understood that the primary factor affecting educational achievement was the socioeconomic position of the child’s family. That doesn’t seem to have changed dramatically in the decades since. Oddly enough, most commentators on the failures of public education who call themselves “conservative” don’t seem much interested in this…

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/09/2013 - 06:32 pm.

    Of Course This is the Case!

    This result is not surprising to anyone who pays any attention to how “the other half lives” especially since The Wilder Foundation seeks to lift up and underline, as objectively as possible, the plight of those less fortunate than most of the rest of us,…

    whereas MOST of the rest of the proposals for educational “reforms” which will somehow magically overcome the challenges faced by disadvantaged youngsters,…

    are produced by foundations and “Think Tanks” being sponsored by those who are seeking to bust teacher’s unions (simply because they have the audacity to BE unions), massively reduce the cost of our already-underfunded public education systems, pad their own pockets selling states and school systems their latest standardized tests, high tech educational equipment and/or create a privatized, for profit school system by which they can profit massively after they have dismantled the public schools.

    Of course we may all wish for universal excellence among the staff of our public schools, but the good old normal curve tells us an important truth: that for every wonderfully excellent teacher or principal, there will be another teacher or principal who is barely adequate to the task,…

    with the vast majority of staff falling somewhere between those two extremes.

    This is human nature and is also the case in every work place, in every family, and among the parents in every neighborhood. To expect universal excellence, especially considering the complexity of the task of teaching and managing school staffs, and pay that does not come close to matching what equally skilled and talented people can attain in private industry, is every bit as realistic as expecting that every child will have excellent support for their education at home or expecting that every student will walk in the door motivated to be a high achiever each and every day.

    Teachers, students and administrators always have and always will have their flaws (as will people in every other field of endeavor).

    To expect perfection in anything human is complete folly. Anyone who claims to be able to offer it to you is trying to sell you something as overpriced and useless as the snake oil peddled by traveling hucksters in earlier days.

  6. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 12/09/2013 - 09:30 pm.

    The powers that be don’t want to end poverty

    Look at the hundreds of millions being spent by the most powerful people in our culture to make sure that poverty is not part of the conversation. Our whole education agenda, dictated by the Walton’s/Gates/Koch’s and executed by educelebririties is predicated on the idea that if you even bring up poverty as an issue you are an excuse making racist. I am honestly even surprised that Minnpost would publish something that says poverty might be part of the he problem.

    The Number one education reform the Walton’s and their ilk could provide would be to pay our kids parents a living wage. They could do it tomorrow, but it is cheaper to purchase local school boards and superintdents than to actually pay their workers. And they get the bonus of pretending to be education supporters and paragons of equality.

    I have a hard time seeing our way out of poverty when there is a such a powerful force so heavily invested in telling us not t consider it.

  7. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 12/10/2013 - 08:39 pm.

    A lot of these kids are hungry too

    And let’s not forget that a lot of youngsters in Minnesota suffer from hunger and malnutrition. I used to live in a poorer neighborhood and the little kids were always looking for food. This is one reason I cannot overlook the callousness involved in funding arts while claiming we cannot afford to address hunger and malnutrition.

  8. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 12/11/2013 - 08:59 pm.

    Arts? What about the Vikings..

    Our priorities are very skewed, but don’t blame “the arts.” At least they aren’t owned by billionaires who are out to increase their already enormous profits by reaching into the taxpayer’s purse. Theaters, museums, music performers, etc. are largely nonprofit institutions who exist for the benefit of the community (yes, they do add real value) . And philanthropists play a big part in supplementing any financial role of the state. We can support the arts AND feed our hungry citizens.

  9. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 12/16/2013 - 08:50 pm.

    Lots of urgency that Wilder missed

    Actually, there is a lot of urgency on this – some of us have been promoting high quality early childhood education for low income kids for decades (even before Art Rolnick, then of the fed discovered the issue with assistance from McKnight Foundation). See, for example, the National Governors Association 1985 (that’s right, 1985) report, Time for Results. See efforts by “Think Small” – a coalition of groups in the Twin Cities.

    Let’s recognize that the DFL controlled legislation decided to allocate DOUBLE the funds for all day kg – for even the most affluent kids in this state – as they allocated for scholarships for low income families to use for early childhood programs. All day kg is ok but Think Small shared research showing that early childhood programs are a far higher priority.

    Several legislators tried to tie more $ to early childhood programs to funding for the Viking stadium but that was rejected. People who want to work on this should contact “Think Small”

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