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.

Version 2.0: A Theory of Action and 7 Principles for P-3 Partnerships

This post updates a theory of action and 7 associated principles that I first posted last year. I’ve revised a few of the principles, and the principles line up with the graphics much more clearly now. I also draw attention to three distinctive features of the theory of action. According to the blogging platform Medium, this post is a 12-minute read. See this page for an overview of the core ideas. Many thanks to friends and colleagues for all the helpful feedback. ¹

Over the last 10 years, research, policy, and expert opinion have converged on the idea that addressing achievement gaps requires a comprehensive focus on the first 8-9 years of life, beginning with prenatal care and continuing with high-quality supports through third grade (P-3). The goal of this work is to improve the teaching and learning of cognitive and academic skills while deepening supports for physical and mental health, social-emotional learning, and family partnerships.

Community partnerships of elementary schools, community-based preschools, and other organizations serving young children and their families have great potential for achieving this goal and addressing achievement gaps. When these organizations take concerted action around a common set of goals and strategies, they are among the most effective and powerful ways of improving educational outcomes for lower income children.

Quality Within, Continuity Across

In order for early childhood education and early elementary school to be most effective, communities need to address two obstacles. The quality of both early childhood and early elementary education is highly inconsistent, and the mixed delivery system is characterized by a high degree of fragmentation. Addressing these twin obstacles–inconsistent quality within organizations and fragmentation across organizations–requires a collective response on the part of communities, efforts that require state and federal support as well.

Communities need to raise the quality of education and care in the various community-based organizations and public elementary schools that serve young children and their families in their locale; they also need to create meaningful linkages that align and coordinate the work of these organizations. Developing this capacity requires partnerships of schools, community organizations and families focused on quality and continuity–what I call P-3 Community Partnerships.

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The Role of P-3 Community Partnerships

Continue reading “Version 2.0: A Theory of Action and 7 Principles for P-3 Partnerships”

New Evidence: The Impact of Community Partnerships

Liberals and conservatives often disagree about the causes of poverty and other social ills. Broadly speaking, liberals point the finger at structural factors and advocate for policy changes, while conservatives look to individuals and families and favor behavior changes. Clearly, both points of view have validity. But what’s often overlooked is what lies between these two poles — communities and neighborhoods — and the value of focusing on this middle zone. (David Bornstein, How Community Networks Stem Childhood Traumas)

In the early 1990s, Washington State created a state-wide Family Policy Council to address a spike in youth violence. The Council in turn funded local community networks to develop integrated approaches to violence prevention. David Bornstein, a reporter for the New York Times, describes the thinking behind the approach in ways that will sound very familiar to those working on P-3 initiatives:

Policy makers analyzed the problem and recognized the inter-connectedness of issues usually handled separately: child abuse, domestic violence, dropping out of high school, teen pregnancy, youth substance abuse, and youth suicide.

The separation made little sense. Youths who commit violence or drug-related crimes at 17, or drop out of school at 15, often have received a first suspension in second grade and have experienced abuse or neglect as toddlers or infants. It is now understood that the best hope of interrupting this downward spiral requires years-long collaboration between child welfare specialists, parents, educators, health workers, police officers, legal advocates and community members. [Italics added.] (Tapping a Neighborhood’s Inner Strength)

Over time the Family Policy Council began sharing research with the community networks regarding the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on young children. ACEs refer to 10 types of abuse, neglect, and family exposure to toxic stress. One in four adults report having three or more ACEs, which are closely linked to a range of problematic outcomes for adults, including drug use, physical and mental health challenges, and early onset of disease.

Washington’s community networks followed the lead of the Family Policy Council and focused their work on addressing ACEs. They launched community outreach campaigns, organized neighborhood associations to address the underlying causes of ACEs, and developed programs in schools and social service agencies. Communities chose to work on a variety of issues, including prenatal smoking and drinking, truancy, youth drinking, domestic violence, foster care, mentoring, and improving playgrounds and parks.

In recent years several evaluations have found that community networks have been highly effective in reducing ACEs, capped off by a recently-published Mathematica study that found that several communities had successfully reduced the “long-term social, emotional, and physical problems related to abuse, neglect and other adverse childhood experiences.”

Continue reading “New Evidence: The Impact of Community Partnerships”

High Population Turnover in Neighborhoods Undermines Parent-Child Relationships

Living in neighborhoods with a high turnover of people damages parent-child relationships, particularly among ethnic minorities, according to our pioneering study of over 3,000 US families. The findings, from research in Chicago, are worrying because millions of people live in neighborhoods with considerable residential flux. Indeed, residential transience has increased since the Great Recession—home ownership has fallen by 5 percent since 2008, and the number of people living in less stable, rented accommodations has increased. Widespread neighborhood impermanence suggests a significant risk to parenting quality and to large numbers of children.
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