Brenda Cassellius: Early childhood education sets kids on path to success

Much has been written about the long-term benefits of high-quality early education and all-day kindergarten, especially for poor children.Research abounds to support investments in young learnersas a critical way to close achievement gaps and improve student outcomes.Gov. Mark Dayton'sbudget contains significant new investments for both early childhood education and all-day every-day kindergarten, and every signindicates that substantial investments for early learning will becomingout of the Legislature as well.

Minnesota is home to some of the most compelling research on the high returnof investment for early learning — up to $16 for every dollarinvested, according to former Federal Reserve Chair Art Rolnick.

And there's more. Child-development researchers at the University of North Carolina recentlypublished a study that found low-income students who attendedpreschoolhad higher math and reading scores in third grade than their low-income peers who did not. City University of New Yorkconducted a studyshowingthat one in sixstudents who can't read at grade level by third grade will not finish high school by age 19 — nearlyfour times the rate oftheir more proficient peers.Astudy begun in 1962 in Michigantracked twogroups of low-income students — those who attended preschool and those who did not — andfound that at age40, participants who attended preschool had attained higher levels of education, earned higher wages, were more likely to own a home and were less likely to have been incarcerated than those who did not attend preschool.

Yet, despitetheevidence, pockets of oppositioncontinueto question the wisdom of early childhood education. To which I say this: If you want a real-life success story that illustrates the potential for high-quality early education to change a life, look at me.

I was a Head Start baby.


I can personally attest to the value of early learning,not only the early benefits to a poor girl growing up in the projects of south Minneapolis, but the long-term effects on my life.

I couldeasily haveended up in a cycle of poverty and dependence, but I didn't. Why?For many reasons, including hard work and a little bit of luck, but also because of theearly opportunities I received and theparentingsupport given to my mother, who had my sister at 16 and me at 20.

Head Startallowed me todevelop schoolreadiness skillsand a love of learningthathave lasted a lifetime.I remember the fun ofoutliningmy4-year-oldbody on a big sheet of paper and labeling my parts. I remember watching a celery stalk turn red in a glass full of tinted water. I remember reading my first book, "Harold and the Purple Crayon," and imagining my own dreams for adventureas I drew them with apurple crayon.

My bestmemory, though, is whenmy teacher would round us up in a circleat the end of the dayto touch the tip of her "magic wand" to the top of our heads, and if we were goodandhad done all of our work, themagic staron the end would light up.

Why do these experiences matternow, nearly four decades later? Because theytaught meperhaps preschool'sbiggest contribution toastudents' future success;the so-called"soft skills," whichhelp children learn how to pay attention andstay on task.My earliest teachers shaped me by instilling not onlya love of learning, but alsothe principles of hard work, goodness and perseverance. Thesequalitiescannotbe measured by a test, but theymatter a great deal in a competitive anddiverse global economy andare necessary for success in life.

I've been lucky. Luckyto be born in the right decade and lucky thatmy mother had access to resources and support. Luckyto have had great teachers who pushed me to be my best. Lucky that wiseMinnesotans who came before merealized that agood education for every childwas the surest way to strengthen our state's competitive edge, leading a generation's War on Poverty and crafting aMinnesota Miraclealong the way.

But should it come down to luck? The governor and I believe not. We believe all children deserve access to the same great start I had. Investing now, this year, in our youngest learners — with more scholarships for high-quality early education programming and increased access to all-day kindergarten — gives us the best chance to fully leverage the potential that lies within every child.

We may never be able tofully measure the profound impact early learning has on life success. Or maybe we can. Maybe we'rejust waiting for afuture education commissioner — a little girl or boy learning and dreaming in a sun-filled classroom today — toshow us just howit's done.


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