Education programs tout results to House committee

The House Education Finance committee wants hard data – and educators are responding.

In response to the chairman’s call for evidence-based solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing Minnesota schools, a parade of education experts and directors are appearing at committee meetings this month to make the case that their programs work.

Much of this week’s testimony centered on preschool and other programs serving children ages 5 and younger. Early childhood education has attracted the keen interest of some lawmakers intent on narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students, and Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget proposal features new investments in early learning scholarships and all-day kindergarten.

A mountain of reports and data will confront legislators as they make decisions about which programs are most promising.

As one school administrator put it on Thursday, “If you were to ask the question, ‘What works in education?’, the answer is ‘Just about everything.’”

“Just about everything is going to give you some impact on student achievement,” continued Kim Gibbons, president-elect of Minnesota Administrators for Special Education and executive director of the St. Croix River Education District. “But I feel, and we feel, that the best question to ask is not ‘What works?’, but ‘What works best?’”

If you ask Gibbons, one thing that works very well is Response to Intervention, an educational framework that provides systematic help – including early screening and frequent progress checks – to students who have trouble learning. Gibbons pointed to data that she said shows strong, positive results for the approach. In her district, those include improvements in students’ math and reading skills, as well as a drop in the percentage of children who need special education services.

Other advocates spoke in support of community education, school-linked mental health services, subsidized school meals, and programs that deploy AmeriCorps volunteers to help children who struggle with reading and math.

Gayle Kelly, executive director of the Minnesota Head Start Association, outlined the benefits of the early childhood development services that Head Start provides to poor children and their families.

Kelly also responded to questions that some legislators have raised about the effectiveness of Head Start. A federal review of the program showed that, while Head Start children outperformed a control group on a range of emotional, cognitive, and parenting measures, they lost many of their initial advantages by the time they reached third grade.

“It’s a troubling finding, and we really have no evidence of what was happening there,” Kelly said. But aspects of the report were problematic, she said: For example, the study compared Head Start participants not to children who received no services, but to children in a variety of care settings, including some who were also in Head Start programs. She also pointed out that many Head Start children go on to enroll in low-performing elementary schools.

Rep. Pam Myhra (R-Burnsville) said she’s still concerned. “We look at Head Start and the millions of dollars that have been put into it, and yet we have such a horrible achievement gap,” she said, pointing out that the program is specifically aimed at poor children, a demographic group that struggles in school.

Kelly defended the program by pointing out that, in Minnesota, federal and state funding covers enrollment for just 23 percent of the children whose family income qualifies them for Head Start. “We never get to serve the majority of the children who have high-risk needs.”

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Sarah Lemagie's picture
Sarah Lemagie