The Way Forward: Reinventing Early Childhood Education After COVID-19

Burt Granosky/EDC

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.

Access to High-Quality Early Education and Racial Equity (NIEER)

NIEER

Excerpt from a NIEER special report:

“The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has focused the nation’s attention on the unequal treatment of Black Americans. Black children experience unequal treatment beginning at an early age, which contributes to inequalities in learning and development.

By the time they enter kindergarten, Black children are on average nearly nine months behind in math and almost seven months behind in reading compared to their White non-Hispanic peers (See Figure 1). Math and reading abilities at kindergarten entry are powerful predictors of later school success, and children who enter kindergarten behind are unlikely to catch up.

High quality early childhood education (ECE) programs can help all children enter kindergarten with the foundational academic and social-emotional skills they need to succeed. However, access to high quality ECE in the U.S. is low and unequal. [Emphasis added.]”

Special Report: Access to High-Quality Early Education and Racial Equity (NIEER)

Racial Inequity and the First 10 Years: 4 Resources

LA Johnson/NPR

To start off what will be on ongoing discussion thread on first10.org, here are four resources on race and equity in the early childhood and elementary school years.

Bias Isn’t Just A Police Problem, It’s A Preschool Problem (NPR)

4 Ways Racial Inequity Harms American Schoolchildren (NPR)

Equity in Early Childhood Education (New America)

A Message From NAEYC: We Stand Together (NAEYC)

A Commitment to Racial Justice and Equity

A photo collage representing A Commitment to Racial Justice and Equity—A Message from EDC

First 10 begins with a commitment to educational and racial equity. The goal of First 10 is for all children to learn and thrive. This goal encompasses academic and social emotional learning and physical and mental health as priorities. Realizing this educational equity goal requires that communities ensure that all children have opportunities and supports to enable their success and eliminate the predictability of success or failure that currently correlates with social, economic, racial, and cultural factors.

Published on June 3 by EDC’s President and CEO, Dave Offensend:

Once again, our country is grappling with its racist reality: the continuous and systemic oppression of Black members of our communities. Spurred by a new spate of high-profile incidents involving hatred and police brutality, people across the nation and around the world have taken to the streets to protest and show their outrage. EDC joins in that outrage and stands in solidarity with everyone committed to ending racism, injustice, and inequity.

As a nation, we still have a long way to go. The problems we are facing in the United States are not new, neither are the feelings of anger, frustration, fear, and anxiety that many of us feel today. Americans cannot sit idly by as such violence and injustice continues, and EDC will not do so either.

EDC will:

  • Continue to promote equity for all people in the work we do. We know how much work still remains. We remain committed to prioritizing and enhancing efforts to end racism, injustice, and inequity as expressed in our Equity Principles.
  • Encourage self-awareness of implicit biases that foster structural and societal inequities.
  • Actively promote equity, diversity, and inclusion within EDC, at all levels of the organization, in the ways in which we recruit and promote staff at all levels of the organization, and in how we interact with and learn from one another.

We appreciate that the problem of racism in our country has existed for centuries and will not be eradicated quickly or easily. Yet, we remain committed to being part of the solution. We look forward to listening, especially to our Black colleagues within EDC and the communities we serve, and continuing to work with our partners to develop concrete actions we can take together. I am confident that if we all remain committed to this course, we can provide a better future for America.

David Offensend signature