As we rebuild after the pandemic, we have an enormous opportunity to reinvent early education and care in the United States in ways that dramatically improve outcomes for children and families, strengthen communities, and advance equity for all.
In this post, I share three core principles for rethinking how communities serve children and families and make the most of this opportunity. Thanks to the Partnership for Early Education Research at the Yale University School of Medicine for inviting me to blog.
The New York Times business reporter, Andrew Ross Sorkin, asked experts and industry leaders to name one thing we should do right now to “fix America.” Harlem Children Zone leaders Kwame Owusu-Kesse and Geoffrey Canada argue that we must, “We must broaden the focus of education to encompass the communities around the school building.” An excerpt:
“How do we make schools actually work for all children?
The nation has been pondering this question for decades, with answers that have fallen woefully short for poor students. But we think this is the wrong question. What the country should be asking is, how do we change the neighborhoods around schools to make them places where young people can find success — in school and beyond?
If we are going to break the cycle of poverty, we must reimagine education in America. We can no longer view education as simply the things that go on inside that building we call “school.” Such a narrow-minded focus has proved inadequate to the task of moving large populations out of poverty. We must broaden the focus of education to encompass the communities around the school building…
An emerging field of practice centered on “place” (i.e., where a child grows up) has championed the providing of comprehensive services to neighborhoods to effectively combat poverty. These services include high quality education and cradle-to-career youth programming, physical and mental health support, work force development, affordable housing and community leadership development.”
COVID-19 has exposed a fundamental truth about our systems of education, health, and social services: They are fragmented and siloed, thwarting efforts to improve the quality of learning and care for children. Nowhere is this clearer than in the schools, preschools, and community programs that serve the 44% of U.S. children under 9 identified as low-income. The lack of collaboration and shared vision among these systems means that the extraordinary efforts of people who work on the frontlines are severely handicapped in meeting the needs of children and families.
As we rethink national and state education policies, and as we rebuild schooling and caregiving, we must ensure that the schools and programs that serve children and their families work together at the local level where it matters most.
For over a decade, I’ve studied the work of innovative communities nationwide where just this sort of collaboration is in full force. Preschools, elementary schools, and community health and social service organizations join forces to create and carry out a clear equity agenda that focuses on improving the quality of life for low-income children and their families and children of color and their families. Their successes provide a road map to reinventing early childhood education that begins with three core design principles:
Connect Early Years and Early Grades. When early childhood and K–12 educators collaborate, they can ensure high-quality learning for children. Yet this seldom happens. Instead, we have created two systems with very different philosophies and practices for children of similar ages. The innovative communities that I’ve studied bring early childhood programs together with elementary schools to align curricula, work on how best to teach young children, and develop common approaches to supporting families. As a result, children’s learning can proceed smoothly, consistently, and successfully.
Deepen Partnerships with Families. It’s time to move beyond “random acts of family engagement” like occasional back-to-school nights. Research shows that families play a vital role in children’s success in school, and schools and communities must make two major shifts to support families in this role. The first shift is one of mindset: begin with respect for families and their contributions, be responsive to families’ cultural traditions, invite families to participate as full partners in school affairs, and promote families’ development as leaders. These changes must be coupled with new structures to support families with comprehensive services such as family liaison positions, family resource centers, and well-thought-out partnerships with health and social service agencies.
Strengthen Communities. Harvard’s Opportunity Insights project has shown that of all government policies, investments in low-income children have the highest returns and pay for themselves. The project’s researchers have also demonstrated that the neighborhoods where children grow up have enormous impacts on children’s future social mobility. They conclude that, “The broader lesson of our analysis is that social mobility should be tackled at a local level by improving childhood environments.” Here the first two design principles come together with a third: the most powerful way to improve childhood environments is to implement comprehensive strategies across the elementary schools, early childhood programs, and health and social service agencies that serve children and families in the same community.
Translating principles into action:How does life change for children in these communities? Communities in Maine, Nebraska, Oregon, and Pennsylvania are improving home visiting, family childcare, preschool, and Head Start programs. They are finding new, more effective ways to help children acquire key literacy, math, and social-emotional skills. Families are receiving the health, mental health, and social service support they need to build on their strengths and overcome challenges. Schools, preschools, and community agencies are coordinating their work: sharing data, aligning curricula, supporting children and families through the transition to kindergarten, and leading community-wide campaigns on parenting, school attendance, and early literacy. They are sustaining this work during COVID-19. These communities are demonstrating how to create coherent systems. They are showing us the way forward to better futures for children and families.
“Weaving a seamless and tailored web of services for children and families inside and outside of school has been the central tenet of an experiment underway in Salem and five other communities over the past two years.
The cities—Somerville and Newton, Mass.; Louisville, Ky.; Providence, R.I.; and Oakland, Calif.—set off in 2016 on an experimental endeavor with the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to rethink how they support children and families, in some cases from birth through college. (Newton dropped out of the program before the pilot ended earlier this year.)
The program, now in its second phase, encourages city and district teams to craft customized education plans for students, focus on students’ health and social-emotional well-being, and create a governance structure—a “children’s cabinet”—comprised of officials from K-12, government, philanthropy, higher education, business, and nonprofits to work on a kind of social compact for children.”
“It’s devastating to think that as early as infancy, a child might be deemed to be “at-risk” — that is, at risk of failing in school, of being trapped in poverty, of even facing a diminished life expectancy.
And that achievement gap opens up very early in a child’s life.
As a National Association of Elementary School Principals publication noted in 2013, ‘Data from a nationally representative sample of children, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study — Birth Cohort 2001, reveal that gaps in what children know and are able to do appear as early as 9 months of age. Not surprisingly, these gaps only grow over time.’
And sadly, those gaps — if not addressed — can doom a child’s lifelong opportunities before he learns to tie his shoes.
It is a monumental challenge, but it is critical to free children from the life sentence that the ‘at-risk’ designation can be. So we laud those who are working to launch prenatal-to-third-grade, or P-3, programs in Lancaster County.
We’ve repeatedly advocated for quality prekindergarten education, which also is championed by everyone from district attorneys to academics to military leaders because it benefits all of us when children are prepared for school and lifelong learning. It benefits employers (who need skilled workers), the armed forces (which need educated recruits) and taxpayers (prekindergarten education is far cheaper than building prisons).
Now, we are excited by the prospects for P-3 education in Lancaster County. We hope state lawmakers and county officials are excited, too, by this promising new front in the quest to stem intergenerational poverty.”
Last week I posted Thomas Friedman’s article about civic renewal in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. On Sunday Lancaster’s newspaper published an article about the county’s new P-3 initiative (which I’ve been supporting). Reporter Jeff Hawkes does a nice job using local examples to introduce P-3 improvement. See in particular:
How Hawkes follows a family receiving home visiting services to discuss the importance of P-3.
The important roles played by the United Way and the Community Action Partnership (CAP) as intermediary/backbone organizations.
How Jill Koser, a former elementary school principal and the current head of education and child development at the CAP, is able to use her experience to help bridge early childhood and elementary school education.
The connection between P-3 and 2 Generation programs as Anna Rodriguez participates in Parents as Teachers and a GED program.
Woohoo, Lancaster County, PA! What Friedman doesn’t say is that Lancaster County is gearing up for a comprehensive P-3 initiative. More to come about the Lancaster County approach to comprehensive P-3 in the coming months. For the connection between the kind of bi-partisan, place-based collective impact initiative Friedman describes and early childhood/P-3, see A Purple Agenda for (Early) Education.