Empty windows of opportunity?

October 26, 2015

John T. Bruer, Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow, Economic StudiesCenter on Children and Families, recently wrote about the seductive appeal of brain science in assuring optimal brain development and life-long wellbeing. He noted that “The advocacy literature tends to tell only half of the story about the effects of experience on synapse formation. The full story raises doubts as to how much specific guidance neuroscience can provide policy makers about what should go into those windows of opportunity.”

We often hear that brain science has established the importance of early windows of opportunity during brain development that can be exploited to assure optimal, life-long development. Although neuroscience has established the existence of a few such windows, it is largely silent about what we should put in them. The relevant brain research does not provide much specific guidance to policy makers and educators.

Policymakers should be aware that (i) brain science might tell us that windows of opportunity exist, but it cannot now tell us what to put in them and (ii) windows of opportunity are at best only half of the developmental story.

The neuroscience is summarized in the figure below. Between birth and adolescence, depending on the brain area, the number of synapses grow in excess of adult levels, then are eliminated, until synaptic densities settle at mature levels. Critical or sensitive periods tend to occur during these periods of synaptic excess. These are the windows of opportunity nature provides.


Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 5.07.23 PM


Some presentations of the science (e.g., The National Research Council–Institute of Medicine’s From Neurons to Neighborhoods) provide a highly qualified discussion: the human data are limited; most data derives from studying animal sensory systems; the finding may not be generalizable to all brain development; sensitive periods are largely unexplored in humans.

These presentations also address the phenomenon of life-long, experience-dependent synaptic change (shown at the top of the figure) that allows us to learn throughout life. The policy literature tends to drop the qualifications and to ignore the implications of life-long neural change.

In contrast, scholarly treatments caution that we are largely ignorant of which specific experiences–and when–matter during development, and that we should not focus on sensitive periods at the expense of life-long learning. Thus, policymakers should be aware that (i) brain science might tell us that windows of opportunity exist, but it cannot now tell us what to put in them and (ii) windows of opportunity are at best only half of the developmental story.

To see the full paper, Windows of opportunity: Their seductive appeal, visit the Brookings website here.

Early STEM – Fuel for Learning

October 6, 2015

José, a preschooler in Mrs. Hardy’s classroom, had never talked in class. He was a dual language learner (DLL), and it was already December. His teacher was participating in our SciMath-DLL professional development project where she had been learning about how to incorporate moScreen Shot 2015-10-06 at 9.41.23 AMre science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) into her classroom and how to engage DLLs in these activities. One day, she set out ramps and cars and let the kids play with them. Then she asked the children if they knew how they might make the cars go down the ramps more quickly? “Blocks!” said José, as he ran to the block center to get blocks to prop up his ramp. His classmate, Molly, looked shocked and said, ‘He talked!” This child’s teacher was amazed at how rich (although relatively simple) STEM materials provided the fodder needed to encourage José to express himself out loud.

Children are natural scientists and are curious about their world. Even infants have an innate sense of quantity that is the foundation for more complex mathematics, such as counting and geometry (e.g., Hespos et al., 2012). Young children–including my 19-month-old–love to throw or drop objects down the stairs to observe what will happen . . . over and over again. Although not fully verbalized, they are conducting trials to test out a hypothesis about gravity and the physics of movement based on prior experience!

SciMath-DLL is a professional development model that aims to embrace these natural predispositions, to help teachers find the STEM in what children are already doing, and to design their own intentional learning experiences for their children. SciMath-DLL seeks to improve the quality of early STEM teaching and learning for all children, including DLLs. This is important. Recent research that has found that how children do in math and science by the end of preschool predicts how well they will do in these subjects later–even into adolescence (Duncan et al., 2007; Watts et al., 2014; Grissmer et al, 2010)! And early math skills predict later reading skills too–even better than early reading skills predict later reading. Unfortunately, many children and especially children who live in low-resource communities or who are DLLs, start preschool behind their peers in key domains and stay behind without intervention (Barnett, 2008; Denton & West, 2002).Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 9.41.50 AM

The challenge is that many early childhood educators do not have the confidence or background knowledge to teach STEM effectively (Greenfield et al., 2009) or to work with DLLs (Freedson, 2010). Many educators did not participate in many–or any–STEM courses in their pre-service preparation programs (Zaslow et al., 2010). Our model aims to address this issue by using key STEM concepts as focal points at in-service interactive workshops, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), and individual Reflective Coaching Cycles (RCCs). We weave throughout all components our approach to teaching STEM to young children. For example, we encourage educators to look for the STEM in every day activities (e.g., figuring out how many orange slices are needed at snack time so every child gets one), to thoughtfully expand the language strategies they use with children (e.g., “Emmanuel said he thinks the metal ball will sink in water. Emmanuel, why do you think that?”), to incorporate literature into STEM activities (fiction and nonfiction), and to “think outside the kit” when gathering materials to explore (e.g., using found or recycled materials to explore sorting).

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 9.41.30 AMOne teacher who was working with us–Ms. Anabela–who had done a length measurement lesson with her kids using worksheets and different types of units, reflected on her lesson: “My first lesson was a complete disaster because I had too much going on . . . After we talked about it, and I was like duh. The objective was there; the idea was there; the whole mapping it out, though, was not.” Ms. Anabela, in a later class, asked her kids how they might measure themselves using blocks on the rug. The teacher’s and children’s ideas of what measurement could look like expanded. The students were so excited to find out who was taller, that they asked Ms. Anabela and then the assistant teacher to be measured as well. The kids found additional ways to do measurement around the classroom to solve real problems (e.g., keeping track of the height of the water in the water table).

Just as José and Ms. Anabela found concepts that fueled their interests and promoted learning across STEM and language, we hope that other children and teachers will find the joy in STEM that encourages and motivates them to push their own learning and teaching boundaries. SciMath-DLL works with teachers to reflect on their practice, build their STEM knowledge base, and enrich their teaching using an innovative approach to professional development. We view our model as collaborative, with all of us bringing our own expertise to the table in a common goal to improve STEM learning for all young children.

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 9.41.41 AMTo learn more about SciMath-DLL, please visit scimathdll.com, or email us! Dr. Alissa Lange, Principal Investigator (alange@nieer.org) Hebbah El-Moslimany, Project Coordinator (he-lmoslimany@nieer.org).

Work presented here is made possible by grants from the National Science Foundation (DRL-1019576 & DRL-1417040). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

–Alissa A. Lange, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER


Lessons learned from Vanderbilt’s study of Tennessee Pre-K

October 2, 2015

Newly released findings from Vanderbilt’s rigorous study of Tennessee’s state-funded pre-K program are a needed tonic for overly optimistic views. No study stands alone, but in the context of the larger literature the Tennessee study is a clear warning against complacency, wishful thinking, and easy promises. Much hard work is required if high quality preschool programs are to be the norm rather than the exception, and substantive long-term gains will not be produced if programs are not overwhelmingly good to excellent. However, the Vanderbilt study also leaves researchers with a number of puzzles and a similar warning that researchers must not become complacent and have some hard work ahead.

Let’s review the study’s findings regarding child outcomes. Moderate advantages in literacy and math achievement were found for the pre-K group at the end of the pre-K year and on teacher ratings of behavior at the beginning of kindergarten. However, by the end of kindergarten these were no longer evident and on one measure the no-pre-K group had already surpassed those who had attended pre-K. The pre-K children were less likely to have been retained in kindergarten (4% v. 6%) but were much more likely to receive special education services in kindergarten than the no-pre-K group (12% v. 6%). The pre-K group’s advantage in grade repetition did not continue, but it did continue to have a higher rate of special education services (14% v. 9%) in first grade.

By the end of second grade, the no-pre-K group was significantly ahead of the pre-K group in literacy and math achievement. The most recent report shows essentially the same results, though fewer are statistically significant. Teacher ratings of behavior essentially show no differences between groups in grades 2 and 3. Oddly, special education is not even mentioned in the third grade report. This is puzzling since prior reports emphasized that it would be important to determine whether the higher rate of special education services for the pre-K group persisted. It is also odd that no results are reported for grade retention.

If we are to really understand the Tennessee results, we need to know more than simply what the outcomes were. We need information on the quality of the pre-K program, subsequent educational experiences, and the study itself. It has been widely noted that Tennessee’s program met 9 of 10 benchmarks for quality standards in our annual State of Preschool report, but this should not be taken as evidence that Tennessee had a high quality program. Anyone who has read the State of Preschool knows better. It (p.10) specifies that the benchmarks “are not, in themselves, guarantees of quality. Arguably some of them are quite low (e.g., hours of professional development), even though many states do not meet them. Moreover, they are primarily indicators of the resources available to programs, not whether these resources are used well. In addition to high standards, effective pre-K programs require adequate funding and the continuous improvement of strong practices.

The State of Preschool reported that Tennessee’s state funding was nearly $2300 per child short of the per child amount needed to implement the benchmarks. More importantly, the Vanderbilt researchers found that only 15% of the classrooms rated good or better on the ECERS-R. They also found that only 9% of time was spent in small groups; the vast majority was spent in transitions, meals, and whole group. This contrasts sharply with the high quality and focus on intentional teaching in small groups and one-on-one for programs found to have long-term gains (Camilli et al and Barnett 2011). The Tennessee program was evaluated just after a major expansion, and it is possible that quality was lowered as a result.

Less seems to be known about subsequent educational experiences. Tennessee is among the lowest ranking states for K-12 expenditures (cite Quality Counts), which is suggestive but far from definitive regarding experiences in K-3. We can speculate that kindergarten and first grade catch up those who don’t go to pre-K, perhaps at the expense of those who did, and to fail to build on early advantages. However, these are hypotheses that need rigorous investigation. Vanderbilt did find that the pre-K group was more likely to receive special education. Perhaps this lowered expectations for achievement and the level of the instruction for enough of the pre-K group to tilt results in favor of the no-pre-K group. Such an iatrogenic effect of pre-K would be unprecedented, but it is not impossible. There are, however, other potential explanations.

Much has been made of this study being a randomized trial, but that point is not as important as might be thought. One reason is that across the whole literature, randomized trials do not yield findings that are particularly different from strong quasi-experimental studies. The Head Start National Impact Study and rigorous evaluations of Head Start nationally using ECLS-K yield nearly identical estimates of impacts in the first years of school. Another reason is that the new Vanderbilt study has more in common with rigorous quasi-experimental studies than “gold standard” randomized trials. Two waves were randomly assigned. In the first wave, just 46% of families assigned to pre-K and 32% assigned to the control group agreed to be in the study. In the second wave, the researchers were able to increase these figures to 74% and 68%, respectively. These low rates of participation that differ between pre-K and no-pre-K groups raise the same selection bias threat faced by quasi-experimental studies. And, uncorrected selection bias is the simplest explanation for both the higher special education rate for the pre-K group and the very small later achievement advantage of the no-pre-K group. I don’t think the bias could be nearly strong enough to have overturned large persistent gains for the pre-K group.

Even a “perfect” randomized trial has weaknesses. Compensatory rivalry has long been recognized as a threat to the validity of randomized trials. In Tennessee one group got pre-K; the other sought it but was refused. It appears that some went away angry. Families who agreed to stay in the study could have worked very hard to help their children catch up and eventually surpass their peers who had the advantage of pre-K. Alternatively, families who received the advantage of pre-K could have relaxed their efforts to support their children’s learning. Similar behavior has been suggested by other studies, including a preschool randomized trial I conducted years ago for children with language delays. Such behaviors also could occur even without a randomized trial, but it seems less likely.

Randomized trials of individual children also create artificial situations for subsequent schooling. If only some eligible children receive the program, do kindergarten teachers spend more time to help those who did not attend catch and “neglect” those who had preschool? Would kindergarten teachers change their practices to build on pre-K if the vast majority of their children had attended pre-K and not just some; perhaps they would only change with support and professional development?

Clearly, the Vanderbilt study has given the early childhood field much to think about. I am reminded of Don Campbell’s admonition not to evaluate a program until it is proud. However, programs may also be in the habit of becoming proud a bit too easily. We have a great deal of hard work in front of us to produce more programs that might be expected to produce long-term results and are therefore worth evaluating. Researchers also would do well to design studies that would illuminate the features of subsequent education that best build upon gains from preschool.

What we should not do is despair of progress. The media tend to focus on just the latest study, especially if it seems to give bad news. They present a distorted view of the world. Early childhood has a large evidence base that is on balance more positive than negative. There is a consensus that programs can be effective and that high quality is a key to success. Research does help us move forward. Head Start responded to the National Impact study with reforms that produced major improvements. Some states and cities have developed even stronger programs. Tennessee can learn much from those that could turn its program around. If it integrates change with evaluation in a continuous improvement system, Tennessee’s program could in turn become a model for others over the next 5 to 10 years.

–Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

Part II: Functions and Capacities of P-3 Governance

September 23, 2015

(Part II of II. For Part I click here.)

Governance change has been a catalyst for broader system development in the states that have chosen to focus on this subsystem (Dichter, 2015; Gomez, 2014), though much more empirical work needs to occur in order to understand how governance affects state system development and, subsequently, services to children and families. More than a simple reorganization of the deck chairs within state government, revamped approaches to P-3 governance have led to states experiencing different outcomes for P-3 system development. Indeed, in her study of governance and RTTT-ELC States, Dichter notes that state leaders who have invested in integrated approaches to P-3 governance believe that it “improves services for children through greater focus, consistency, and inclusion of all developmental domains” (2015, p.2). Leveraging the three types of approaches discussed in the first part of this series, I provide examples of the ways in which consolidated and regionalized approaches to governance have influenced P-3 system development in some states.

14476018886_082318a3f5_oConsolidated approaches to governance create conditions that render a high degree of consistency in implementing programs and services. This is, in part, because policymaking for P-3 is centralized (Gomez, 2014). For instance, PA’s OCDEL, in carrying out its function as a standard-setter for the state, has created sets of standards for children, standards for ECE programs, and standards for teacher qualifications. Using these standards as a baseline for programs, OCDEL has now begun to collect data on each of these three groups (children, programs, and teachers) via its statewide data collection system, PELICAN. The state uses the data collected to hold programs accountable and to divert funding where it is needed (e.g., additional investment in workforce supports to help teachers meet the minimum qualifications). Additional benefits: a centralized locus of authority can be seen with regard to the state-funded preschool programs in MD and PA. In PA, many policy decisions about pre-K are centralized. There is, for example, a 180-day minimum for service provision within the PA Pre-K Counts programs, to align those programs with academic year requirements. Furthermore, PA Pre-K Counts programs are required to adhere to many of the same quality standards set forth for programs participating in other OCDEL programs, like maintaining a STAR 3 or 4 status within the QRIS and adhering to the PA Early Learning Standards. In MD, we see signs of the same centralization with regard to policies governing pre-K programs (Barnett, Carolan, Squires, Clarke Brown, & Horowitz, 2015).

A study (Gomez, Kagan, & Khanna, 2012) of regional approaches to governance in NC, AZ, and IA, revealed that there is a little distance between the governance apparatus and those it purports to serve. This low level of distance or, “proximity,” was important because it enabled the governance functions to be carried out with a great deal of responsiveness and efficiency. Rather than having to navigate a large bureaucratic structure, or determine how to carry out functions for an entire state, the regional approach enables the councils/boards/partnerships to execute governance functions with a great deal of flexibility, responsiveness, and efficiency. Moreover, the regional approach empowers local control and decision-making in terms of fiscal and programmatic management, while freeing up the state-level entities to work on things that do not require a great deal of “proximity,” like monitoring or evaluative activities. Looking specifically at state-funded pre-K, we can see that policy decisions are more decentralized. For example, in Arizona, scholarship decisions for the publicly funded pre-K program are made at the regional council level (Barnett, et al., 2015).

An important facet of any approach to governance is its capacity to adapt to changes in the P-3 field and to make meaningful adjustments in its governance strategies based on these changes to effectively manage the P-3 system. States with consolidated and regionalized approaches to governance have developed formalized authority structures through which they can explore and exploit (Duit & Galaz, 2008) new and existing resources to improve the functionality of the P-3 system.

Exploration is the capacity of a governance approach to be creative, to innovate, and to experiment. In essence, exploration is the ability to be flexible and to explore a variety of strategies for governing complex systems. Exploitation is the capacity of a governance approach to leverage new and existing resources and integrate them into the system with efficiency (Duit & Galaz, 2008). Governance reform in Maryland, for instance altered the way that the state agency used funding, “applying it more strategically to meet specific agency goals” (Graffwallner, 2015, p. 125). The centerpiece of these “specific agency goals” in Maryland has been improving the infrastructure for, access to, and quality of early learning services – including publicly-funded pre-K. .

This notion of adaptive capacity, along with other contemporary governance issues is explored with greater depth in Early childhood governance: Choices and consequences. In it, we explore the status of governance systems for young children in the U.S., retrospectively and prospectively. This volume presents a series of analyses, discussions, and debates about what governance is, why it is important to the early childhood field, and how we could use governance as a lever to advance P-3 system development–ultimately improving services to young children and their families.

Further reading about governance in practice:

Dichter, H. (2015). “State systems-building through governance.” In H. Dichter and S. Hibbard (Eds.) Rising to the challenge: Building effective state systems for young children and families. (pp. 2-14). Boulder, CO: Build Initiative.

P-3 governance–What is it, and why is it important?

September 16, 2015

No time is more critical than the present to consider governance and how a state’s approach to governance affects the development and implementation of P-3 systems.


Part I: Defining and Describing Governance

Governance, as a term applied to the field of early learning, is somewhat ambiguous. To whom or what are we referring when we say “governance of P-3 systems?” The State Education Agency? Local Education Agencies? Human Service Agencies? State Early Childhood Advisory Councils? Governance is composed of three principal dimensions: form, function, and durability. Form refers to the structure(s) in which governance functions are carried out. Functions include, for example, policymaking, the authorization and allocation of funds and services, and mechanisms for holding programs accountable for how those services are delivered (Kagan & Kauerz, 2008, 2012; Kagan & Gomez, 2015). Durability refers to the degree to which the governance entity can withstand political, economic, and sociocultural changes.

These three dimensions interact to yield a state’s approach to governance and, perhaps unsurprisingly, no state’s approach is the same–in part because each state bears a different set of cultural, political, and economic conditions.

DSC_0906While every state’s dimensions of governance are different, state approaches to governance typically fall into three categories: consolidated, regionalized, and compartmentalized (Gomez, Kagan, & Khanna, 2012). In consolidated approaches, the majority of programs and services are subsumed under the authority of one agency, meaning that there is one office/department that oversees implementation of the subsystems, programs, and services, and ensures they are coordinated. Pennsylvania’s Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL), Maryland’s Division of Early Childhood in the State Department of Education (DCE MSDE), and Massachusetts’ Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) are examples of consolidated approaches to governance. Each entity in these three states has a different form–the Departments of Welfare and Education jointly oversee OCDEL, the DCE MSDE is subsumed under the auspices of the State Department of Education, and the EEC is a stand-alone department under the auspices of the Executive Office of Education. Common to consolidated approaches, however, are the governance functions. Each entity carries out, within its consolidated form, several important functions:

  • Allocation
  • Planning
  • Accountability
  • Collaboration
  • Regulation
  • Outreach and engagement
  • Standard-setting
  • Quality improvement

In MA, MD, and PA, the consolidated approaches to governance were derived from these state’s desire to solve particular policy problems plaguing the P-3 field. Each state’s political and cultural context at the time of consolidation influenced the choice of governance form.

In regionalized approaches, authority for some programs resides at the state level, while authority for others is devolved to a regional or local entity. Arizona’s First Things First (FTF) and North Carolina’s Partnership for Children’s Smart Start are examples of approaches that are regionalized. In both AZ and NC, the regionalized form dictates that some of the governance functions will occur at the regional level. In these states, state culture and values emphasize local control, and so devolving governance functions to levels of government that are more proximal to the P-3 workforce, and the children and families being served, matches those values. FTF, for example, is organized into 28 regional councils that make funding and programmatic decisions for their catchment area. Smart Start is similarly organized.

Finally, in compartmentalized approaches, authority for P-3 programs and services is decentralized across many state-level agencies, and regional/local entities. This type of approach is by far the most common among U.S. States, and is the de-facto approach to governance of P-3 programs and services. In these cases, states have to work to ensure that there is formal coordination between and among many entities to ensure smooth system development, service delivery, and accountability.

Stated simply, a state’s approach to governance influences how its P-3 system evolves and, in turn, those systems affect services provided to young children and their families. As such, it is critical to understand how P-3 services are governed. In part II of this (brief) series on governance, next week, we will focus on governance functions and capacities of governance entities to affect system development.

Resources for further reading related to governance dimensions:

Kagan & Gomez (2015) Early childhood governance: Choices and consequences. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Regenstein, E. & Lipper, K. (2013). A framework for choosing a state-level early childhood governance system. Boulder, CO: Build Initiative

–Rebecca E. Gomez, Ed.D. is an Assistant Research Professor at NIEER and studies early childhood systems and governance.

Buried treasure: Discovering gold in the NIEER State of Preschool Yearbook

September 9, 2015

Similar to birds migrating north every year, a wealth of information on early education flies annually into the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), as specialists from state education agencies provide data for the Annual State of Preschool Yearbook.

Entering its 13th year, the Yearbook reports valuable information on access to, quality of, and resources for state pre-K programs, allowing administrators and policymakers to keep pace with current developments and trends over time. The Yearbook has served as a useful, perhaps indispensable, resource as state-supported pre-K has expanded over the decade, rightfully cited as the “go to” resource on state policies and practices. Still, a wealth of information within the Yearbook remains untapped.

While the Yearbook may not rival To Kill a Mockingbird for popularity or reading enjoyment, anyone who has taken time to explore the annual report understands the abundance of practical information contained within its pages. From the Executive Summary highlighting major developments and trends, to individual state profiles with rankings, readers soon realize that the Yearbook, now published online, has “everything you wanted to know about pre-K but didn’t know to ask.”

The most informative section of the Yearbook is, perhaps, the most underutilized. Appendix A contains more than 60 pages of topical state information organized for at-a-glance review and comparison, supplemented by 27 pages of detailed state program notes, a veritable goldmine. For example, have you ever wondered:

  • How many English language learners are enrolled in state-funded pre-K? (Only 19 of 53 programs in 40 states and DC are able to provide an accurate count)
  • How many children are served in programs operating under the auspices of public schools versus private organizations?


Enrollment By Auspice (1)

  • Which states require pre-K programs to operate a full school day throughout the school year? (15 states and DC)?
  • What criteria do states use to determine eligibility, other than income?
  • Is a sliding fee scale based on income permitted? (13 states have some provision)
  • Which state programs require lead teachers to have a BA with specialization?


Minimum Lead Teacher Degree Requirement

  • Can faith-based programs receive funding for state pre-K? (17 programs directly, 35 programs indirectly; however, they may stipulate that religious content is not permitted)


Faith-Based Funding Eligibility (1)

  • What instruments do states use to monitor program quality?
  • Which states mandate an evaluation of the pre-K program? (21 of 40 states; some states operating multiple programs do not require evaluations for all programs)

States Requiring Formal Program EvaluationThese are but a few examples of data readily available to those wanting to explore policies and practices related to pre-K. While not every question imaginable can be answered using the Yearbook, it remains the best single compendium resource available with the click of a mouse. All you need to do is dig a little to satisfy your pre-K curiosity and discover gold.

–Jim Squires, NIEER Research Fellow




August 28, 2015

Steven Hicks serves as Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Early Learning at the U.S. Department of Education. Mr. Hicks first began in the Department as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, having taught preschool through third grade in Los Angeles, California. He has helped shape the Department’s birth to third grade early learning agenda and works on two high-profile programs: Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge and Preschool Development Grants. Named a Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year and member of the USA Today All-USA Teacher Team, he also served as an on-line early childhood mentor and a contributing writer for early childhood curricula. As Los Angeles Region Preschool Coordinator for the California Reading and Literacy Project, he trained teacher leaders and early childhood educators for three years on effective literacy practices. He also founded the early learning center at his charter school. Mr. Hicks holds a Master of Arts degree in Early Childhood and Primary School Education and is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in Early Childhood.

PreschoolToday recently received this Tweet, “I really appreciate the efforts being made to change the face of #ECE. Please let us teachers know what we can do to help!” My first reaction, as an early education teacher of 20 years, was to be annoyed that teachers have to ask what they can do. Then I realized that this highlights the extent to which we have shut down teacher voices, especially those in early childhood education. In many schools and community-based settings, early childhood education teachers are not seen as adding value in advancing the current state of education, much less as being capable leaders. And that opinion is not only coming from administrators or colleagues, it’s also coming from the teachers themselves.

Somewhere along the way, early childhood education has been relegated by some to just a few notches above babysitting. I remember in my kindergarten classroom, the superintendent of a very large school district quipped as he walked through my classroom and saw children building structures at the block center, creating patterns with manipulatives, or exploring at the computers, “Oh this must be daycare.” Many on the outside don’t know the value of what we do, nor do they attempt to find out. If we are in an elementary school, we are often relegated down the hall, away from the ‘real’ teachers who teach the things that seem to matter, the things that are tested. And so, since what we do is not always respected on the same level as our colleagues, neither is our opinion.

Steven Hicks teacherAccording to a recent poll, only one-third of teachers feel that their voices are heard in their district, 5 percent in their state, and just 2 percent at the national level. This is for all teachers. You can imagine how much lower the stats would be if we just looked at early childhood teachers. Failure to leverage the voices and expertise of early childhood teachers in schools and community-based settings has deep implications for students, programs, and policies, as well as our profession.

Fortunately, the “face of #ECE is changing,” as the Tweeter reminds us in 140 characters or less. In fact, I’m thrilled to know that early childhood teachers, who have long been perceived as reluctant to embrace technology, are Tweeting. And they’re doing more than that. They’re blogging, Facebooking, Pinning, Instagramming, subscribing to list servs (like this one), and joining webinars and on-line communities using their smartphones, tablets, laptops and now watches! Hopefully, some of this time we spend on our devices is building our professional knowledge and providing ways in which we can find our voice to be not only great teachers, but also great leaders.

“What can we do to help?” Everything. What you do in your classroom is the most important thing you can be doing to ensure the success of our young children and the future economic prosperity of our nation. You are helping to build minds! But sorry, that’s just not enough. Each of us also should be a leader in our schools, communities, and professional organizations, a responsibility all early childhood teachers should embrace. We are the experts on early learning and development. We are the individuals who have the training and the experience to fully understand what children and families need, what is helpful, and what is not.

Education is always evolving with fads and flavors of the month to solve the never-ending challenge of closing the achievement gaps. But real progress happens when teacher leaders strive for changes in the culture of education and in the policies that affect our students. Teachers can find ways to lead at the local, state, and national levels. Often, change will occur because the astute teacher recognizes a void, something that must be done to move us further towards our goals of equitable educational opportunity.

At the local level, this can mean creating better systems for children as they transition from early childhood programs to elementary schools; serving as a mentor for new or experienced teachers; or advocating for better policies to address and reduce bullying, suspensions, or chronic absenteeism at the school or center. There are school board meetings, neighborhood associations, advocacy and union organizations, and advisory committees that would benefit immensely from the input of early childhood teacher leaders.

At the state level, decisions are being made that affect all children and families, from adopting curricula and assessments to establishing learning standards and workforce competencies. Right now, in some states, decisions are being made about mandating kindergarten, expanding early education funding, and setting standards for quality in programs. We should have an opinion on these issues and shouldn’t miss opportunities to insert ourselves into how these policies and issues are shaped.

At the national level, early childhood teachers can influence laws and policies that affect the entire country. Currently, Congress is negotiating the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, our nation’s education law and last reauthorized 14 years ago as No Child Left Behind. Other laws Congress takes up every few years for reauthorization are the Head Start Act, CCDBG and IDEA. When our representatives return after Labor Day, they’ll also be deciding on the new budget, which is due by September 30th each year. The laws and budgets affect our children’s futures, and teachers have multiple opportunities to make their voices heard.

An exciting opportunity early childhood teacher leaders have right now is through Teach to Lead, a joint effort of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the U.S. Department of Education, to improve student success by expanding opportunities for teacher leadership while teachers are in the classroom. Teach to Lead gives teachers a way to share their ideas for improving education in their community, state, or nation and to learn from their peers. Whether teachers are facilitating a professional learning community at their school or center; influencing changes in their state’s licensing requirements; or making comments on policies in the Federal Register, their voices can be a catalyst for systemic and sustained change. What can you do to help? #Lots. The important thing is to do something!


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