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Our View: Investing in preschool narrows achievement gap

Hardly anyone disputes that poor kids often are so far behind academically when they enter kindergarten that they rarely catch up.

Impoverished children score lower on standardized tests. They graduate from high school and attend college at significantly lower rates than children from higher-income families. The pathology of poverty means poor children often can't escape the circumstances that ensnare their parents, continuing the cycle for another generation.

Economists and educators agree that achievement and opportunity are intricately intertwined. Children from upper- and middle-class families board an elevator when they enter kindergarten, while children from low-income families begin walking up a stairwell, sometimes with broken steps and no hand rails.

Closing these disparities has been one of the priorities of the Rochester School District. In 2007, the school district unveiled its Five Year Plan, a controversial strategy for narrowing the gap. Yet in 2013, the most recent round of Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment results showed the achievement gap stubbornly remains in place.

A new study by a University of Minnesota professor has provided intriguing data on combating the achievement gap. Aaron Sojourner and his co-author, Greg Duncan, of the University of California-Irvine, reviewed statistics from the federal Infant Health and Development Program. Because it enrolled children throughout the country regardless of family income, the researchers could look across broad demographic groups.

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Published in the Journal of Human Resources, Sojourner's study concluded that providing full-time, high-quality preschool to impoverished children younger than 3 eliminates the achievement gap.

"By age 3, kids from low-income families were doing as well as those from high-income families," said Sojourner, who teaches at the U's Carlson School of Management. "So you close the gap by age 3."

Another finding from the study, which was just as significant, is that the impact of early intervention was less likely to fade as the children aged. That counters the argument by critics who say early childhood programs might prompt initial improvement with impoverished children but that cognitive gains disappear without continued intervention after preschool. That leaves skeptics to conclude that early child education programs, while well-meaning, aren't cost effective.

However, Sojourner's study found that the cognitive gains remain significant, even if there are some fading benefits. By age 5, the achievement gap was 72 percent closed. By age 8, the gap was 60 percent.

"Whatever happens during those first three years has an outsized impact," Sojourner said. "So if you want to raise adult productivity, spend your next dollar there, in these early years."

The release of Sojourner's study came a week after Rep. Ryan Winkler, a DFLer from Golden Valley, announced legislation to increase the amount of available scholarship money for early childhood education from $20 million to $150 million a year by 2017. Right now, the fund covers 4,000 scholarships a year, or about 9 percent of eligible children in Minnesota. Winkler's bill, if passed, would cover about 75 percent of those children.

The state Department of Education says every year about half of Minnesota's entering kindergarteners aren't ready for school. Without early childhood intervention, many poor kids will fall further behind, eventually costing the state a $860 million a year in preventable special-education social-welfare, health-care and criminal-justice expenditures.

So the blunt choice is do we invest our tax dollars in preschools or prisons?

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The way we see it, Minnesota can deal with the achievement gap much more cheaply at the front end. Otherwise we can wait for troubled young people to go through the much more expensive social service and criminal justice systems at the back end.

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