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Research provides good answers to legislators’ early-education questions

During the debate at the Minnesota Legislature about reforming Minnesota’s early-education system, interest groups and legislators have posed a flurry of questions.

Robert Bruininks
Robert Bruininks

During the debate at the Minnesota Legislature about reforming Minnesota’s early-education system, interest groups and legislators have posed a flurry of questions. Fortunately, the best research in the world — much of produced here in Minnesota — provides clear answers to some of their questions.

The Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF), the business community, education reformers and a bipartisan group of legislators are all are pushing for early-education reforms at the Legislature this year. This broad coalition is extremely concerned about kindergarten assessments finding that half of Minnesota children are arriving in kindergarten unprepared.

The first question that legislators pose is whether quality matters — whether we know about particular features of preschool experience that contribute to children’s long-term success, and whether we can ensure that this “quality” is available to children in community preschool and child-care programs. While there is still much work to do, the answer to these related questions is a very strong “yes.”

Scott McConnell
Scott McConnell

Over the last three decades, researchers have demonstrated that early experiences can and do matter for children with special needs and developmental disabilities, as well as children who are “just a little behind” in learning important language, motor and cognitive skills. We also know that this matters “on the ground” — research conducted right here in Minnesota has shown that children who attend high-quality early care and education centers enter kindergarten with better skills and are more prepared to benefit from what schools have to offer.

96% want ‘best available information’
Legislators have also posed questions about whether Minnesota parents care about early education. So researchers asked Minnesotans, and 96 percent said they think “parents should have access to the best available information to help them find the best places for preparing children for Kindergarten,” and 82 percent responded that it is “important for legislators to improve Minnesota children’s Kindergarten readiness, even if additional funding is not available.”  Clearly, Minnesotans care a great deal about this issue.

A couple of interest groups testifying at the Capitol claim that early care and education hurts children. Given that 76 percent of Minnesota households choose to use settings outside the home, this genie has been out of the bottle for some time. For the overwhelming majority of Minnesotans who use child care, the research is comforting: High-quality early care and education can transform and teach children important skills, and does not “cause” behavior problems. Ongoing research will make the programs we offer young children and their families even better … but there are already many great programs available to parents.

Legislators also question whether child-care providers in their districts might be forced to do things they don’t want to do.  First, it’s important to remember that the rating program is voluntary, and indeed about 85 percent of licensed childcare providers in pilot areas are choosing not to get rated. Clearly, providers aren’t being coerced. At the same time, research tells us that 92 percent of child-care providers in pilot communities who have volunteered to be rated found the program to be helpful to them, and more providers are volunteering all the time. Perhaps more important, we know that early-childhood programs can provide what parents want — experiences that help children learn in fun, caring environments — and that parents will seek these better programs for their children.

Quality matters
Finally, some have suggested we should place as many children as possible into child care, regardless of whether it is high-quality care. But research tells us that about three-fourths (73 percent) of Minnesotans believe that “we should only allow tax dollars to be spent on early education providers who have proven they are effective in preparing children for Kindergarten.”  Moreover, we know that quality matters; to invest our scarce and precious public funds, we should ensure that these funds are going to where they will actually make a difference.

This is where researchers, educators, and policy makers must stand together: We have many good and strong answers — information that can assure legislators and voters that investments in high-quality early care and education is a right and prudent thing to do. But we are not done; we need to continue to explore ways to help more children, and to help all children more. We have a good start, and we have a team of concerned professionals and parents ready to continue our pursuit to provide great experiences for all young children.

Clearly, the Legislature has strong research to draw upon as it debates early-education reforms this year. The questions being raised are reasonable, as long as quibbling and disinformation doesn’t prevent Minnesota from acting on one of the most important pieces of legislation of our times.

Scott McConnell is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, Center for Early Education and Development, and one of the evaluators of MELF’s pilot projects. Robert Bruininks is the president of the University of Minnesota, a member of the MELF Board of Directors and has an academic career centered on child and adolescent development and policy research.