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Minnesota’s achievement gaps start as opportunity gaps

We need to increase access to early learning and care opportunities for children long before kindergarten.

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.

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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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