Minnesota is one of a handful of states often recognized as a leader in public education, and for good reason. Minnesota students score well above average in reading and math on national and international tests. They are also more likely to graduate high school than students in most other states. The North Star State has also been at the forefront of education reform, including passing the nation’s first charter school law. Unfortunately, Minnesota’s pursuit of educational excellence hasn’t solved core problems of  educational inequity. The state continues to have significant and stubborn achievement gaps between children from middle- and low-income families, between white students and their black and Hispanic peers, as well as for English language learners.

In a report released today by New America’s Early Education Initiative, Building Strong Readers in Minnesota: PreK-3rd Grade Policies That Support Children’s Literacy DevelopmentLaura Bornfreund and I examine state policies and local initiatives in Minnesota that aim to improve literacy outcomes for all students by shaping their learning trajectories from a young age. Intentional alignment of education systems from pre-K and into the early grades of elementary school, what we refer to as a ‘PreK–3rd grade’ framework, can help narrow opportunity and achievement gaps. In this report, we explore how Minnesota’s early learning policies are helping or hindering the ability of school districts, schools, and teachers to ensure that all children are on track to read on grade level by the end of third grade.

Experiences during the first eight years of children’s lives lay the foundation of cognitive, social, and emotional skills which they need to succeed in school and in life. Children who don’t acquire these skills in the early years are at risk for a host of negative outcomes; third grade reading proficiency is a particularly strong predictor of whether a student will graduate from high school on time.

In particular, we analyze Minnesota’s:

  • unique approach to pre-K;
  • Quality Rating and Improvement System (Parent Aware);
  • transition from half-day to full-day kindergarten;
  • administrator and educator preparation and development;
  • efforts to align early learning providers and elementary schools;
  • alignment between pre-K and kindergarten with later grades; and
  • supports for dual language learners.

When it comes to early education, Minnesota has initiated some promising policies, but also faces a variety of ongoing challenges. For example, unlike the majority of other states with publicly funded pre-K programs, Minnesota has opted to offer pre-K in three distinct ways. First, the state supplements federal Head Start dollars, enabling more Minnesota children from low-income families to participate in Head Start. Second, the state has a small School Readiness Program that helps public schools offer pre-K. The third (and largest) investment in pre-K is the Early Learning Scholarship program, which provides vouchers to parents to use at center-, home-, or school-based pre-K programs that have been rated for quality by Parent Aware.

Minnesota’s early education system made national headlines this year when Democratic Governor Dayton tried (and failed) to create a truly universal public pre-k program in the state. The state legislature, with the backing of numerous state advocacy groups, decided to instead increase funding for the three existing programs, with the majority of the money directed to the scholarship program. Even with this sizeable funding increase, thousands of Minnesota youngsters remain without access to a public pre-K program. And while the scholarships provide flexibility and choice for families they have not fully covered the cost of pre-K, especially high-quality pre-K.

In our paper, we offer five overall recommendations to help strengthen the state’s PreK–3rd grade efforts to build strong readers:

  1. Rethink both pre-K funding and quality.
    • Remodel the Early Learning Scholarships to reach more children and better meet the needs of at-risk families.
    • Provide the supports and funding necessary to encourage elementary schools to offer pre-K programs.
  2. Minimize the overlap in grades between educator licenses and communicate the value of the early childhood education license to principals and prospective teachers.
  3. Strengthen elementary school principals’ early education training requirements.
  4. Require consistent assessments or allow districts to choose from a short list of approved assessments for students in kindergarten through second grade.
  5. Expand the use of strong assessments and data systems that span the PreK–3rd grade continuum to improve teachers’ and school leaders’ practice.

The Minnesota Department of Education is thinking strategically about PreK–3rd alignment and has made substantial progress in this area in the past few years. However, Minnesota prides itself on being a local control state: true to form, state policymakers have embraced the role of nudging localities towards PreK–3rd work as opposed to implementing policies that mandate a PreK–3rd mindset. Consequently, the approach has mostly taken hold when strong district or school leaders have recognized the benefits of early grade alignment and embraced it themselves, which more and more communities are beginning to do. Philanthropic organizations such as the McKnight Foundation have also been instrumental in spurring PreK-3rd efforts at both the state and local level.

The full report is available here.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Abbie Lieberman

Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst on the Early & Elementary Education Policy team at New America, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade.