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Minnesota’s achievement gaps start as opportunity gaps

CC/Flickr/Mike Liu

Minnesota recently received frustrating news. Our persistent, large achievement gaps between white students and students of color have not decreased. They have stayed the same, and have remained the same for far too long.

Barbara Yates

Staying the same means we continue to see a nearly 30 point difference between the number of white students and students of color who score proficient in math and reading. 

This is heartbreaking.

In a statement about the updated test results, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius emphasized the immense impact of outside factors on a child’s performance in school, particularly highlighting the importance of quality child care.

I agree with Commissioner Cassellius. While a K-12 education plays a crucial role in a child’s life, the importance of their first five years cannot be ignored. High-quality child-care programs play a vital role in a child’s life and are an essential component to battling our achievement gaps.

Our achievement gaps start as opportunity gaps, where children do not have access to the opportunities they need to flourish and reach their full potential. This opportunity gap for children age birth to 5 creates our achievement gaps. A child’s foundation is often set before they start kindergarten at age 4 or 5. This is more than learning colors, numbers and letters, although those are all important. It’s about learning problem solving, self-restraint, respect, and cultural identity. Recent research shows that achievement gaps are visible among children as young as 18 months old, according to the Stanford Report.

A quality child-care program can help change those odds for children from low-income families. Minnesota has a statewide quality rating system for child-care programs called Parent Aware. Parent Aware allows us to rate the quality of all programs on the same criteria and along the same scale, including Head Start, center-based care, in-home child care and public programs.

And it’s working. A recent, third-party evaluation of Parent Aware found that children in public and private Parent Aware-rated programs based in centers, homes and schools are making significant gains on language and literacy skills, early math skills, persistence, social skills, and mental organization or “executive function.” But that’s not all. Children from low-income families are making gains similar to the sample as a whole and actually making even stronger gains than higher-income children in executive function and language skills.

But, we know that children from low-income families are less likely to access quality child care, which can improve their kindergarten readiness levels and future academic success. We also know, very sadly, that 60 percent of children from low-income families are children of color, according to the Wilder Foundation.

We need to increase access to early learning and care opportunities for children long before kindergarten. Minnesota has a few funding streams that aim to address this issue. Early Learning Scholarships are a great example. Children awarded an Early Learning Scholarship are able to attend a quality early learning program of their parents’ choice year round. But, thus far, less than 15 percent of children eligible for Early Learning Scholarships receive one. We are leaving thousands without access to programs we know can help children succeed in life.

By ensuring that quality child care plays a critical role in the state’s efforts to address the achievement gap, we are building upon the strengths of Minnesota’s child-care programs, including the fact that child care serves children starting at birth and supports families with full-day, full-year options.

Finally, we know that one of the assets of quality child care in closing the achievement gap is the cultural and linguistic diversity of its providers. The majority of the programs in Minneapolis and St. Paul in Parent Aware feature child-care providers of color. Of the programs in Parent Aware, 63 percent of St. Paul providers are people of color. In Minneapolis, it’s 81 percent. This is enormously important for children and families, and it is an enormous strength of our child-care field.

If we change nothing, nothing will change. Next year, I hope we won’t look at each other once again with wide eyes at the newest MCA test score results, wondering why Minnesota’s achievement gaps remain stagnant. Let’s not let that happen. Let’s do what we know works for children living in poverty and take a giant bite out of our immoral achievement gap before we leave even more children behind.

Barbara Yates is the President and CEO of Think Small, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing quality care and education for children in their crucial early years.


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/23/2016 - 09:18 am.

    Bang for the buck

    I absolutely agree. A high school teacher for 30 years in another state that has similar issues with achievement, it was only too obvious in my classes which kids had actually had access to early childhood learning and social opportunities, whether formal or not. At my school, in strictest terms, it had more to do with socioeconomic class than with race, but the correlation between the two is so well documented over the previous generation and more that citing specifics would take pages. Children of color are disproportionately represented among those in the lower socioeconomic quartiles, and among children who do not have access to those kinds of opportunities.

    Minnesotans thinking about the state’s future, particularly in economic and societal equity terms, and especially Minnesotans who like to call themselves “conservative,” should recognize how penny-wise and pound-foolish it is to fail to fund early childhood education programs and services for ALL children. Without such programs, rhetoric about “equal opportunity” is a cruel, and sometimes sadistic, joke. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps – when you may not have boots to begin with – is the sort of miracle that those who like to call themselves “conservative” love to cite as an example, and indeed, they’re inspiring stories, but expecting a similar miracle from every child born into bottom-rung circumstances is neither realistic nor morally justifiable. It’s also a recipe for the state to fall behind the rest of the nation in those metrics that count, including the economic ones.

    • Submitted by Joe Musich on 08/23/2016 - 08:31 pm.

      There you go again …

      “…….penny wise and pound foolish….. “! I love it. Income redistribution only works when it is applied. Until then stories under rocks on manuscripts left by elves will continue to be used to explain the achievement gap and all the other gaps our nation is known for. While at the same time American Exceptionalism explains our mythical wonder. When will we take off the ground glass lens and look at the starkness of our denial ?

  2. Submitted by Peggy Reinhardt on 08/23/2016 - 10:34 am.

    Are parents aware?

    It’s great that Parent Aware rates child care programs, but that doesn’t address the need for what happens at home. Having a newborn can be stressful as well as joyful and some new parents don’t have the wherewithal to recognize and adjust to this new role. Especially low-income moms.

    I’ve ridden the 21 bus on Lake street for a number of years. On too many occasions, I’ve watched as different women get on the bus with their baby, set them in a seat or carrier, and then proceed to ignore the child’s noises and never look up from their cell phone. I often wonder if these mothers are afraid to talk with their babies – isn’t that how infants begin to learn their first words? And if the child doesn’t get any attention, what emotion is shut down? Is it for me, an older white woman, to mention to these moms that they should talk to their baby?

    So when I see the phrase “Parent Aware,” I wonder how aware new moms are of the importance of talking to their babies. Language and learning begins way before childcare. Perhaps some low-income parents are too stressed by poverty to recognize that they have an added role as teacher.

  3. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/26/2016 - 02:11 am.


    This is an excellent analysis of the issues involved in the achievement gap.

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