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Don’t let today’s recession-induced ‘readiness gap’ turn into tomorrow’s achievement gap

In 1975, the Vietnam War was ending, “Saturday Night Live” made its debut on NBC, and Bill Gates founded a little known start-up company, Microsoft.

In 1975, the Vietnam War was ending, “Saturday Night Live” made its debut on NBC, and Bill Gates founded a little known start-up company, Microsoft. The world population stood at just over 4 billion people, and about 33 percent of mothers with children under age 2 worked outside the home.

Thirty-five years later, in 2010, the Iraq War is ending, “SNL” is still going strong, and Bill Gates’ company dominates the software market. Our population has risen to almost 7 billion people, and 75 percent of Minnesota mothers with children work outside the home — 40 percent of whom are the primary income earners, according to an analysis by the Center on Women and Public Policy at the Humphrey Institute.

Since 1975 we have seen great advancements for family economic well-being for our children, but according to the Foundation for Child Development’s 2010 national “Child Well-Being Index,” all the gains we have seen since then will be wiped out due to the depth of this recession.

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This erosion will have a long-term impact on young children, their educational achievement, and their chances at stable employment. Ultimately, it will impact Minnesota taxpayers since those children who don’t have the benefit of high-quality early education and child-care opportunities end up relying more on various kinds of government services to meet their needs.

As more families fall into poverty, more children will enter school without the benefit of high-quality early education. In five years, when they enter fourth grade, they’ll likely have lower reading and math skills; in another decade, they’ll be more likely to drop out of high school.

A potential ‘lost generation’
Minnesota faces the real prospect of a “lost generation” if current trends continue. Already we are seeing dangerous trends:  63 percent of Minnesota 4th graders (and 68 percent of all 4th graders nationally) scored below proficient reading levels, according to a report issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation for the year 2009.

Challenging times require innovation and present opportunities. Collectively we need apply the resources already available to ensure that there are early learning opportunities for Minnesota children. We have to do better with what we have, there must be greater accountability, and we must foster effective partnerships focused on the end result: preparing our children for success in life.

“Parent AWARE” is one such public-private effort launched by the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) that provides a rating system of child care providers in a measurable, meaningful way to increase the standard of care for children and provide parents with an important tool as they decide with whom to entrust their children.

Another innovative partnership geared toward birth through college success is the “Promise Neighborhood” effort in St. Paul and the “Northside Achievement Zone” in Minneapolis. Efforts like these seek to close the achievement gap, prepare our children for success, and provide the foundation for long-term economic and personal success for Minnesotans, and for Minnesota.

Big dividends
It has long been proven that investing in children at the earliest ages, coupled with parental involvement and a stable environment, pays huge dividends over the long term. Children fortunate enough to have this experience are more likely to perform better in school, maintain stable employment, and stay out of jails and prisons. Early education is a smart investment.

While all levels of government are under enormous fiscal strain, and while many large foundations have felt a deep impact from the recession, it is important that attempts to cure current financial ills don’t result in Minnesota losing a generation of young people. Early learning through child care, Head Start and other programs should be valued as part of an individual’s overall educational experience. It should be treated that way as well when being considered by policy-makers. Early education contributes to the good of society as a whole, whether one has children or not, much like K-12 education, police and fire services, and a dependable transportation system.

We must work better together. We must focus on better outcomes for children, not the perpetuation of programs. We cannot let the “readiness gap” transform into an achievement gap that leaves a lasting negative legacy for Minnesota’s children. Let’s not lose this generation of children.

Barb Yates is the executive director of Resources for Child Caring, Minnesota’s largest early-education resource, referral and training agency. Resources for Child Caring’s mission is to advance quality care and education of children in their crucial early years. Yates also serves as treasurer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).