Ericca_Maas_Bio_PhotoBy: Ericca Maas, Executive Director of Parent Aware for School Readiness

When it comes to early learning, I’ve never met an early educator who didn’t want the best for the kids they serve. They have the will, but they don’t always know the way. Naturally, even highly skilled and experienced early educators simply can’t find time to continually track the latest child development research, so they don’t know precisely which best practices to use, and how best to use them. That’s why Minnesota needs to invest in making the Parent Aware Ratings as strong as possible.

Parent Aware is Minnesota’s early learning quality rating and improvement system. It measures all types of early care and education programs – those based in centers, homes, churches, non-profits and schools – along the same yard stick allowing them to showcase their quality and helping them improve by supporting their adoption of kindergarten readiness best practices.

Nearly half of Minnesota children are currently arriving to kindergarten unprepared, and too many of those children never catch up. So, a decade ago Minnesota began building a Parent Aware system that, among other things, provides coaching and grants to help early educators and the programs they work in adopt research-based kindergarten-readiness best practices.

Parent Aware is making very encouraging progress. Currently over 2,500 early care and education programs have volunteered to participate, adopting best practices and earning a Parent Aware Rating. Parent Aware-rated programs can be found in every corner of our state.

Parent Aware programs are also racially, ethnically and culturally diverse. In fact, home-based family child care providers identifying as being a race other than white are more likely to participate in Parent Aware than their counterparts who identify as white. The same goes for family child care providers able to speak a language other than English. This is critically important. Minnesota’s early education system needs to offer an increasingly diverse population of children options that reflect and honor their family preferences, language, and culture.

Parent Aware-rated programs are making a difference in children’s lives, setting them on a path to success in school and life.   A rigorous evaluation recently found that children in Parent Aware-rated programs are making significant gains in kindergarten-readiness measures, such as early math skills, vocabulary, phonics, persistence and executive function. Low-income children are making even more significant gains than their higher income counterparts, which is especially great news for those working to narrow Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap.

When it comes to quality improvement, Minnesota has come a long way, but we have much more work to do. We need to help those 2,500 Parent Aware-rated programs continue to improve over time, and we need to help many more programs enter Parent Aware so they can also adopt best practices.

In recent years, the Minnesota Legislature has wisely made a large investment in Early Learning Scholarships. These scholarships help low-income children access quality Parent Aware-rated programs, which they could not otherwise afford. At the same time, Minnesota’s Child Care Assistance program (CCAP) has also started to provide bonus payments to programs with high Parent Aware Ratings. Between scholarships and CCAP bonuses, Minnesota is investing tens of millions of dollars into Parent Aware programs each year.

That’s a very good thing, but we can’t just throw money at the problem. To ensure our children get the most out of those large taxpayer investments, we need to invest a relatively small amount, $15 million per year, in Parent Aware. After all, economists tell us that taxpayers only get strong 16-to-1 returns on their early education investments when the funding goes to help low-income children access high quality programs that prepare those kids for kindergarten. Economists do not make those claims about low quality programs. In fact, some research suggests that putting children in low quality care can actually set them back.

Parent Aware is currently in urgent need, because the temporary federal funding that got Parent Aware off-the-ground soon will be ending. If Parent Aware is to remain strong, the state needs to step up.

To help rated providers continue to improve and to add 2,500 new rated programs, we need to invest $15 million per year. What will that investment get us? It will give providers a clear step-by-step plan for adopting best practices. It will ensure we have a sufficient number of well-trained coaches working with programs every step of their quality improvement journey. It will also help programs access quality improvement materials, such as evidence-based early education curriculum.

Most importantly, that level of investment in Parent Aware will bring best practices to an additional 36,000 Minnesota children, year after year. That will add to the 83,000 Minnesota kids who already are benefiting every year from Parent Aware-facilitated best practices. Over the years, the investment in Parent Aware will help hundreds of thousands of Minnesota children benefit from best practices.

A relatively small investment in Parent Aware will maximize the impact on taxpayers’ much larger investments in scholarships and CCAP. And it will ultimately lead to many more Minnesota children being exposed to kindergarten-readiness best practices. If Minnesota is truly serious about narrowing its tragic achievement gaps, our top priority should be fully funding Parent Aware.

Ericca Maas is the Executive Director of Parent Aware for School Readiness, a nonprofit focused on helping more children get prepared for kindergarten. PASR does not implement Parent Aware.