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EDUCATION FOR A FREE NATION
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November 16, 2005

Controversy over 2005 Mental Health Screening/Early Learning Legislation
EdWatch Responds to Star Tribune/ Sen. Hottinger
Proponents of early childhood programs distorted the data from this subjective readiness assessment to create a false sense of crisis by saying that 50% of children are not ready for kindergarten.  And, even if the data were objective, there are no early childhood programs in Minnesota or nationally that have shown long term benefit even for poor, at-risk children, much less for middle class children. According to experts, too early an exposure to formal schooling can actually harm their development.
-- Karen R. Effrem, MD, EdWatch Board of Directors
This statement, taken from Dr. Effrem's response to the Star Tribune and to Senator Hottinger's whining about the wisdom of the legislature in rejecting early childhood mental health screening and the kindergarten readiness assessment [see below], has been confirmed yet again.  Researchers from the Universities of California Berkley and Stanford have just released a study showing that  "attendance in preschool centers, even for short periods of time each week, hinders the rate at which young children develop social skills and display the motivation to engage classroom tasks, as reported by their kindergarten teachers...Our findings are consistent with the negative effect of non-parental care on the single dimension of social development first detected by the NICHD research team."
 
This effect was found across the socioeconomic spectrum and was worst for children from higher income families. Here is more solid evidence that expanding preschool programs is not the panacea for social and emotional development that proponents state it is. The epidemic of preschool expulsions and psychotropic drug use in toddlers is not due to a lack of preschool, as nanny state backers suggest, but, rather, by the uncritical push for universal preschool, among other prominent factors. "'So, the report's a bit sobering for governors and mayors - including those in California, Florida, Georgia, New York, North Carolina and Oklahoma - who are getting behind universal preschool,' comments the study's Co-Author and UC Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller."
 
We hope that Governor Pawlenty and his National Governor's Association colleagues pushing expansion of federal control of education from "P-16," as well as Congress considering Head Start and state legislatures, are sobered by this. We commend Governor Pawlenty and the Minnesota Legislature for not expanding preschool programs any more than they did. This provides them impetus to reconsider the whole bad idea of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation.

Sen. Hottinger: Star Tribune letter to the editor, 10/23/05

To your editorial about school readiness and early childhood education and what the Legislature failed to do in 2005 [see Star Tribune editorial printed below], I would add:

The school readiness survey and socio-emotional health screenings would have received additional funding -- both were included in the Senate's Omnibus Early Childhood Finance bill that passed last May with bipartisan support. Likewise, DFLers and some Republicans in the House support these efforts. As chair of the Senate's Early Childhood Budget Division, I wholeheartedly agree that cutting programs that provide us with such valuable information moves us away from the goal of ensuring all children are fully prepared to begin kindergarten. No child should start behind.

The Senate is not holding these initiatives back -- it's the extreme conservative elements of the Republican House and the governor.

SEN. JOHN HOTTINGER, DFL-ST. PETER, MINN.

Response from EdWatch:
 
To the Editor,
 
The Legislature was very wise to reject early childhood mental health screening as recommended by the New Freedom Commission (NFC) as well as to not fund the kindergarten readiness survey. 
 
To call either one 'standardized' is laughable. Both assessments are composed of questions that are value laden, subjective, suggestive, and so broad as to be almost meaningless.
 
Proponents of early childhood programs distorted the data from this subjective readiness assessment to create a false sense of crisis by saying that 50% of children are not ready for kindergarten.  And, even if the data were objective, there are no early childhood programs in Minnesota or nationally that have shown long term benefit even for poor, at-risk children much less middle class children, when too early an exposure to formal schooling, according to experts, can actually harm their development.
 
Early childhood mental health screening has similar problems.  The screening instruments are not scientifically well validated, creating both false positives and false negatives, and have not themselves been proven safe. The diagnostic criteria upon which they are based have been called 'subjective' and 'value judgments that vary across cultures' by the experts that wrote them.  Even if the screening and criteria were reliable, the vast majority of interventions rely on medications constantly proven to be ineffective and dangerous.
 
SAMSHA, the federal mental health agency, is backing off of its support of the NFC's recommendations to widely mentally screen and medicate children because of justifiable criticism from professionals, parents, and grassroots groups, both liberal and conservative.  The Legislatureís rejection of mental health screening in Minnesota helped cause that retrenchment and shows visionary leadership.    
 
Karen R. Effrem, MD
EdWatch Board of Directors


Star Tribune editorial: 'State should study school readiness'
    October 19, 2005

Surveys of kindergartners in the last three years have been a canary-in-the-coal-mine indicator for Minnesota's future -- and a sputtering canary at that. That's why it's a shame the survey isn't being conducted this year. It wasn't funded by the 2005 Legislature.
The surveys found that fewer than half of the kids tested were fully ready for the math and language lessons that kindergarten offers them. About 12 percent were badly lagging in preliminary learning in those crucial areas; the remainder were judged "in process." 

In today's education-driven economy, those are disturbing findings. They spurred interest in the quality and availability of early childhood education in Minnesota, rallying business people, educators and policymakers to common cause for little kids -- until the plug got pulled.
It's not that the state Education Department did not want the survey continued. In fact, said state early childhood/school readiness specialist Barbara O'Sullivan, the department wanted it enlarged. Surveys in 2002, 2003 and 2004 sampled 5 percent of kindergartners; the department wants a 10 percent sample, combined with parent interviews. That would carry about a $500,000 pricetag, she said.

If that sounds steep to legislators, they should think again about the information's value. The survey's findings were more than attention-getters. Knowing which children are coming to school poorly prepared, and in what ways they are lagging, is essential to helping them catch up.
Gleaning that knowledge does not make Minnesota a "nanny state," as some conservatives claim. It puts helpful information in the hands of those already entrusted with the nurture of young lives.

The Legislature continued to support voluntary developmental assessment of younger children by school districts, and allowed those assessments to be made as early as age 3. That's a positive step.

But the Legislature said no to appeals by mental health professionals to include a standardized social and emotional development assessment in those screenings. That decision, too, needs rethinking. A child's social and emotional growth is an important component of school preparedness. Refusing to assess it makes the screening incomplete, and deprives parents of an early alert that might forestall real trouble for a schoolchild later.

There is nothing constitutionally, developmentally or morally magic about age 5 when it comes to education. In fact, research suggests that the most important learning in a child's life happens before age 5. If this state is serious about educating every student to his or her full potential, then, at a minimum, the state should monitor the learning little kids do. [Emphasis added.]

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