What is the Right Question to Resolve the Early Learning Debate?
The 2015 legislative early childhood debate focused on increasing access to early education, pitting those who favor universal school-based pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds against those who favor targeting scholarships to low-income families for use in any early learning setting rated as providing quality practices that will likely lead to school readiness.
What is the right question to help resolve the debate about universal preschool? Several have been suggested, including these from a recent article by Star Tribune editorial writer Lori Sturdevant: How best can Minnesota close the achievement gap? What are we going to do with the 4-year-olds? How can Minnesota best educate children who are at greatest risk of school failure?
The answer, as articulated in my research-based policy brief, Championing Early Childhood Policies that Prevent Social, Economic, and Educational Inequities, is none of the above. Why? Because they take the gaps as inevitable, not preventable, and conflate early development and early education.
Social, economic and educational inequities and their associated lifelong adverse consequences are preventable. To that end, early education is necessary but insufficient.
Based on research, population and economic trends, and stakeholder input, our early childhood policy priorities should focus on optimal healthy development for all children by starting as early as prenatally with comprehensive efforts that build upon the assets and capacities of all families and communities. We must develop interconnected policy efforts across public and private sectors and agencies and in partnership with families.
The achievement gap is really many opportunity gaps or, more pointedly, lack of choices based on income and race. Our public policies are failing to support many of our kids, especially in communities of color. Ultimately, all these gaps are rooted in a leadership gap. That is the gap that can be closed, as a first step, by convening potential policy allies to agree on next steps.
Who will take the lead to prevent the achievement gap? What are we going to do with the babies, starting prenatally? How can Minnesota best ensure the healthy development of all children? Those are better questions to help resolve the preschool debate.
Richard Chase was a consulting scientist at Wilder Research for more than 37 years. His studies covered early childhood policies, services and indicators and the effectiveness of school readiness, prevention and capacity-building programs for children, youth and families.