Thursday, December 16, 2010

How to rebuild the foundation of Minnesota’s education system

Guest blog post by Ready 4 K President Todd Otis for LearnmoreMN.

How do we know if things are getting better or worse in the world of early childhood? Early childhood education is a complex field with many players and components. In order to help the state move in a positive direction, and to gauge the impact of an array of programs and settings that young children find themselves in, it is important to have an agreed upon way of “keeping score.” In this case we need to “keep score” of our youngest children’s school readiness.

Our state conducts an annual “Minnesota School Readiness Study,” an assessment based on the observations of trained kindergarten teachers who know what to look for in terms of the skills and attributes of entering kindergarteners. The study provides a statistically valid sampling of school readiness. The assessment tool used is called the Work Sampling System and it turns out that it is a pretty good predictor of future school achievement, such as third grade reading skills. Ready 4 K’s mission is to “move the needle” of the number who are fully proficient from the current 50% to 100% — a goal the state of Minnesota shares.

A coalition of early childhood organizations* that Ready 4 K has helped to organize, has met regularly since March 2009 to develop a policy game plan for achieving that goal. This unified effort is the first time the early childhood community has come together this way. We have called our plan Minnesota’s Future, because we think that is exactly what is at stake in how well we provide early learning opportunities for our youngest citizens.

We are guided by this vision:

  • Children have access to high quality early childhood experiences  
  • Parents are recognized and supported as their children’s most important teachers
  • Families and other adults in a child’s life are supported in helping children succeed
  • Communities embrace a collective responsibility for children’s success

It all boils down to providing a lot more children with access to quality early learning settings when they are in the care of others, and a lot more widespread parent education and support in raising their children.

The appropriate focus is on children in the lowest income families because the annual state assessment correlates not being ready closely with low income. Moreover, if at-risk children have access to quality programs, that is where the biggest return on investment occurs, according to Dr. Art Rolnick.

Perhaps the most important words in describing any meaningful policy agenda that will actually improve school readiness are “access to quality early learning.” A powerful demonstration of the importance of quality came in a study done by the Minnesota Department of Human Services five years ago, in which children in 22 accredited centers were assessed for their school readiness, using the same Work Sampling tool that the Department of Education uses in its annual assessment. Instead of numbers in the 40s or 50s, the percentages were in the 70s and 80s, for measurements of proficiency in language, literacy, social emotional development and all the other key indicators that go into school readiness. Quality really matters.

*Coalition members: Child Care Works, Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children/Minnesota School Age Alliance, Minnesota Association of Family and Early Education, Minnesota Child Care Association, Minnesota Child Care Resource and Referral Network, Minnesota Coalition of Targeted Home Visiting, Minnesota Community Education Association, Minnesota Head Start Association, Ready 4 K.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Quality early learning pays dividends

Guest blog post by Ready 4 K President Todd Otis for LearnmoreMN.

Quality early learning pays dividends

By Todd Otis, December guest blogger
I am going to start with a story about my mother 40 years ago, sitting in a dentist’s chair in New York City, shortly after she had moved there from St. Paul. The dentist was staring into her mouth, muttering small exclamations of approval and finally he blurted out, “Louise, are you from Minnesota?” My mother said that yes indeed she was. The dentist replied, “This is the finest dental work I have ever seen. I figured you were from Minnesota.”
Apparently our dentists were (and probably still are) world class. My dream is that not too long from now people will be able to say that about Minnesota’s system of education. Not that it is just solid, but that it is the best. So Minnesota graduates on the job anywhere in the world would be identifiable by their outstanding skills and personal qualities.
Unfortunately, the Minnesota “feeder system” for higher education is facing major challenges.
The red flags for education in Minnesota include the fact that only one-half of entering kindergartners start school fully prepared for success; annually 100,000 Minnesota students do not graduate from high school on time; and Minnesota has one of the worst achievement gaps between white students and students of color in the entire United States. Minnesota, which had prided itself on major investment in education, has fallen to the middle of the pack among the states.
A startling percentage of the budget in higher education in Minnesota goes toward remediation. I am totally convinced that if all children started school fully prepared, that number would go down dramatically. K-12 will perform markedly better when all the children are “Ready 4 K.”
Minnesota needs to regroup and move again toward educational greatness, and it all begins in the youngest years. The mission of my organization is to move the needle from 50% to 100% of entering kindergartners, ready for kindergarten. It is important, because quality early learning pays dividends, both to the students and to society, for years to come. Let me share a few facts from one of the longitudinal studies, the Abcedarian Project in North Carolina, to show the impact quality early learning can make on higher education.
The Abcedarian Project was a carefully controlled study with 57 infants from low-income families randomly selected to receive high quality early care and education and 54 children from a non-treated group. The treated children received full-time high quality care from infancy through age 5. The Executive Summary of the longitudinal study found that:
  • “Young adults who received early educational intervention had significantly higher mental test score from toddlerhood through age 21.”
  • “Reading achievement score were consistently higher for individuals with early intervention. Treatment effect sizes remained large from primary school through age 21.
  • “Those with treatment were significantly more likely to be in school at age 21 ? 40% of the intervention group compared to 20% of the control group.
  • “A significant difference was also found for the percent of young adults who ever attended a four-year college. About 35% of the young adults in the intervention group had either graduated...or at the time of assessment were attending a four-year college or university. In contrast only about 14% in the control group had done so.”
The bottom line is that quality early learning has benefits that last for life. In terms of private and public benefits, economist Dr. Art Rolnick maintains that investment in quality early learning for at-risk kids provides the highest return on investment of any public investment. Period. His claim has not been rebutted.
Entering kindergartners are the “raw material” our K-12 system must work with. It is unconscionable that Minnesota permits half the children to enter without the skills and attributes they need to succeed educationally. Minnesota only devotes 1% of the state budget to what are arguably the most formative years in any person’s life. While parents are of paramount importance as their children first and most important teachers, Minnesota does an inadequate job of providing economically challenged, working parents access to quality early learning for their children.
In my next blog post I will tell you what Ready 4 K and our allies doing to solve the problem. For now let me leave you with this thought and/or question:
Why can’t Minnesota start to think of our education system as one, coherent whole, with three components that need to coordinate and cooperate better: early childhood; K-12; and post-secondary (public and private)?
Why can’t we identify milestone goals and metrics to chart progress, and then cooperatively go about meeting the goals, measuring our success? Rather than fighting one another for funding at the Capitol, why can’t the three systems work together? For example, Ready 4 K wants 100% children ready for kindergarten and Growth and Justice wants a 50% increase of Minnesota students who successfully complete higher education by 2020. To quote Paul Wellstone: “We all do better when we all do better.”
Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Good News for Early Childhood

While the Minnesota Legislature is in recess and our attention is focused on summer vacations – and the upcoming statewide elections, of course – the U.S. Congress is busy debating the federal budget for the next fiscal year.

Early Childhood Legislation Moving through Congress

A particularly exciting development concerns the Early Learning Challenge Fund (ELCF).  As you may remember, the ELCF was under consideration earlier this year, to be funded from reforms to higher education student loans.  In the end, the ELCF was left out of student loan reform bill, but with continued pressure from advocates and a commitment from the Obama Administration, positive action is being taken. 

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health & Human Services, and Education of the Committee on Appropriations approved a proposal that would provide $300 million for the Early Learning Challenge Fund.  The ELCF would establish a competitive grant process for states to develop comprehensive quality early learning systems for children birth to five, particularly those who are at risk of starting school not fully prepared. Minnesota is well-positioned to apply for this funding, should it pass Congress, given the existing efforts of the Governor's Early Childhood Advisory Council and others.  You can learn more about the ELCF from this Ready 4 K Policy Brief.

The bill approved by the subcommittee also includes a $990.3 million increase for Head Start and a $1 billion increase for child care—exceeding the Obama Administration’s request and fully maintaining increased levels of funding secured with federal stimulus dollars. The bill still has a long way to go before it becomes law (it must be approved by the full Appropriations Committee, passed by the Senate and then approved by the House as well), but this is really good news.  Neither of Minnesota's Senators serve on the Appropriations Committee.  Stay tuned for an action alert when the bill reaches the Senate floor.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Minnesota 2020 Touts Early Care and Education

Ready 4 K has known since our inception that investing in high quality early care and education has tremendous social, economic and educational benefits--indeed, it's our raison d'etre for existing. So it's always welcome news when other organizations, especially ones whose raison d'etre is not early childhood, touts its benefits and encourages policy makers to embrace it.

Recently, Minnesota 2020, a progressive, non-partisan think tank, issued a series of communications on the topic, concluding that:

"The question isn't whether these services are needed. They clearly are. We must ask: Why is Minnesota compromising its future prosperity by refusing to properly invest in early childhood education? If Minnesota children consistently start behind at Kindergarten, it undermines the state's long history of K-16 investment that has propelled us above our prairie competitors. The path to a strong, vibrant, nimble future for Minnesota's economy starts on rubber-tiled floors with miniature plastic chairs and trained educators delivering researched-based lessons that advance cognitive development, not in front of grandma or a neighbor's television."

Read their perspective on how the 2010 Legislative Session fared for early childhood here, a featured story here and their in-depth report here.

They also put together a wonderful video summarizing their findings.

Welcome, Minnesota 2020, to the growing array of voices advocating for high quality early care and education!

Friday, June 25, 2010

This week's candidate forums

We at Ready 4 K were happy to be part of two Gubernatorial Candidate forums this week. Early childhood education was discussed at both forums and candidates expressed their support for investing in our youngest Minnesotans.

On Tuesday at a forum sponsored by Growth and Justice, Matt Entenza, Tom Horner, Mark Dayton and Rob Hahn gathered at Open Book in Minneapolis to discuss issues related to education. You can catch the audio of the forum here or watch the video thanks to The Uptake.

Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, Minnesota Rural Education Association, Parents United for Public Schools, and Ready 4 K co-sponsored this event.

A Political Forum Focused on Issues Affecting Women

On Wednesday the YWCA of Minneapolis and Minnesota Women Lawyers hosted a forum at the downtown YWCA building. Mark Dayton, Tom Horner, Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Matt Entenza were present to speak to issues affecting women. Video from this forum is also available on The Uptake.

This event was co-sponsored by Child Care WORKS, Ready 4 K, Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, Minnesota African Women's Association (MAWA), Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers (MABL), Pay Equity Coalition of Minnesota, and Civil Society.

We look forward to a busy summer of meeting and connecting with candidates. As you meet candidates in your area, you can use the Minnesota's Future agenda to guide your discussion on early care and education.

Minnesota's FutureReady 4 K is working with our allies to promote a set of shared policy recommendations for Minnesota's next Governor that will improve children's development and readiness for school and for life. Learn more at

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Poverty now, lasting impact later

A recent article on MinnPost describes the challenges children face during a recession. (Recession taking a toll that may last a lifetime for many children throughout the nation and Minnesota)

Economic recession and the poverty it can cause for children and families can have lasting impact on their lives and on our society as a whole. Children who live in poverty are susceptible to “toxic stress” that impacts the very structure of their brain. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University describes toxic stress as:

... when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.

MinnPost highlights the Children’s Defense Fund Minnesota’s annual Kids Count report (PDF) that shows the percentage of children living in poverty grew by nearly one third between 2000 and 2008. The challenges of living in poverty affect children the most as their developing brains absorb everything going on around them. These affects can significantly hinder a child’s ability to be fully prepared for school when they enter kindergarten.

The key to mitigating toxic stress is to have a strong support system of adults surrounding the child. We can encourage these support systems by advocating for home visiting, parent education and other programs that can ease these stressful situations. You can learn more about toxic stress at Toxic Stress Response: the facts.

Ready 4 K promotes policies that support the ability of parents, providers and community members to positively interact with children to help lay a stable foundation for later school achievement, economic productivity and responsible citizenship. Learn more about our policies at

Monday, May 17, 2010

End of Session @ the Capitol

What a weekend! You've probably read in news reports that the 2010 Legislative Session wrapped up this morning, with a brief special session called in order to complete the work in a timely matter. The good news for early care and education is that there were no permanent cuts made to early childhood programs, most notably to child care assistance. A brief update is below, and we'll send out a more complete summary soon.

Saturday's session of the Legislature began with the good news that the Governor had signed the Early Childhood Policy bill into law, despite some heavy lobbying to veto the bill by key Republican members. For once, common sense and a commitment to continue to build an effective high quality early care and education system prevailed. See our Omnibus Bill Tracker for a complete summary of the new law.

The weekend was marked by fits and starts of floor sessions, conference committees and leadership meetings. Disagreements and clarifying of positions between all bodies over early enrollment of childless adults from General Assistance Medical Care to Medical Assistance, which would qualify for federal matching funds, was at the crux of the debate. As negotiations continued, the House and Senate passed an Omnibus Supplemental Budget bill late Saturday/early Sunday morning, which included a mix of cuts, K-12 payment shifts, medical surcharges and no tax increases. This set in motion a series of offers and counter-offers by the DFL-controlled legislature and the Republican Governor throughout the day on Sunday.

At nearly 11:45pm, legislative leaders and the governor announced a deal requiring a brief special session, which was called at 12:01am on Monday, to pass the contents of the agreed-upon bill.  The bill was approved by both legislative bodies at 10 AM today and is headed for the Governor's signature.  In the end, child care fared pretty well, given the challenges of the budget deficit and the legislative-governor politics.  The legislation will take the Basic Sliding Fee underspending, but that is only a one-time move and no permanent cuts were made to child care. In addition, no reductions were made in other early childhood programs.

A successful albeit messy legislative session. We'll get out a complete legislative wrap up in the coming days!
Look for an end-of-session summary the early part of next week. And thank you for all you’ve done this year. Early care and education certainly wouldn’t faired as it has thus far without your support!