New Report Shows Increased Need for Federal Investments in Early Learning

Are there too many federal early learning programs?  This question has been contentiously debated and discussed in Washington, DC for years.  Are programs that simply permit funding for early learning as a part of a larger initiative, such as Title I or English Language Acquisition grants, considered early learning programs?  Should programs that merely mention the importance of early learning – the Appalachian Area Development grants or Donations of Federal Surplus Personal Property program – be considered early learning programs?  These issues have emerged from a 2012 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report.

A “too many programs” argument has been frequently cited as evidence of government waste, overlap, and duplication and a reason not to provide any new investments to support our youngest children achieve success in school.  However, a recent analysis of federal programs conducted by the Departments of Education (ED) and Health and Human Services (HHS) make it clear that the investments in early learning are not meeting the needs of families across the nation and many eligible families are not receiving services.

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Learning by Doing: Hands-On Experiences Help Children Learn and Dream

I recently visited a great hands-on, experiential learning site for young children.  The IntelliZeum, the brainchild of Executive Director Blanca Enriquez, is a one-of-a-kind interactive learning environment, created in El Paso, Texas 10 years ago. This stimulating learning center provides enriching experiences for the lucky area Head Start children who visit twice each year.

There were so many things I liked about the IntelliZeum. Each specialized learning area within the IntelliZeum has different clothing, tools, and unique things to do.  Children may enter a “space center” where they dress in space suits. They may visit a pretend doctor’s office where they don white coats and stethoscopes.  When the children travel to the “Arctic room,” it’s freezing cold; in the “rainforest room,” it’s hot and muggy.  In the “electricity and water center” they discover how water makes power — and they learn about water conservation.

The IntelliZeum sets high expectations for what children can learn. And children learn about all kinds of things, from parts of the solar system, to types of dinosaurs, to names of tools used for building construction. Before each visit, children are prepared with vocabulary and background knowledge so they can get the most out of the experience. And after the visit, learning is reinforced in the classroom by incorporating the concepts and rich oral language into reading, math, science, technology, social studies, and fine arts activities.

The learning environments are sophisticated and designed to stretch children’s minds, encouraging them — even at age 3 and 4 — to start thinking about interesting and important future careers. I know children leave dreaming of becoming doctors, architects, engineers, pilots, or reporters.

Something else that I really liked was the intentional inclusion of children with disabilities. A child in a wheelchair can get inside the time capsule for traveling to the age of the dinosaurs. The underwater “ocean,” an area enclosed by three giant aquariums, is also handicapped accessible, so a child in a wheel chair can wheel right in while the other children scramble under one of the aquariums. But all the kids end up in the same place.

I wish engaging learning centers like the IntelliZeum could be available to all children. But parents can help their children engage in rich learning experiences — at home and during daily activities.

For example, instead of watching television, families can take a trip to the airport, visit a train station, or observe a construction site in the neighborhood and take advantage of teachable moments within these experiences. Even errands to the store can be turned into solid learning experiences by exposing children to vocabulary words, letting the children participate by picking out and weighing fruits and vegetables, taking photos with a parent’s smartphone of something they like, or talking to a person at the store. We need to get back to experiential learning that is real, exciting, and meaningful — and summer can be a great time to do that.

Libby Doggett is the deputy assistant secretary for Policy and Early Learning in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Cities Can’t Wait When it Comes to Early Learning

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A remarkable thing is happening. Local leaders in cities across the country are plowing ahead — in some areas, without additional funding from federal or state governments — and making commitments to quality early education. Increasingly, cities are seeing high-quality early learning programs as a way to improve their communities and to become more competitive sites for the high-skills jobs of the future.

I recently visited two very different communities—Dallas and Salt Lake City. Each city is experiencing disparate challenges and moving forward on early learning in a distinctive way, determined, in part, by the preschool policies of each state.

Let’s look at Texas first.

Texas provides preschool to more than 50 percent of its four-year-olds through the Texas Public School Prekindergarten Initiative, launched 30 years ago.  But in Texas, success shouldn’t be measured in quantity, but in quality. Unless the local districts go above state requirements, the quality of early learning programs can be low. No limit is put on class size so one teacher can have 24 four-year olds without an assistant teacher. Additionally many districts must give educators specialized training because the generalist teaching certificate doesn’t adequately prepare teachers for preschool.

Dallas is boldly addressing these challenges by improving the quality of instruction and the reach of the program. Last year school officials realized many eligible children were not signed up for preschool, so the mayor and others, with backing from the Dallas area foundations, launched a public education campaign and have now signed up more than 3,000 of the 4-year-olds who were previously going unserved.

Seeing these efforts in Dallas is heartening, making me hopeful for strengthened preschool across Texas.

Now let’s look at Utah.

If you searched the latest State of Preschool Yearbook for information on the preschool program in Utah, you’d find a page that says, “No Program” because there is no direct state funding for preschool in Utah.

Despite this, Salt Lake County offers a strong preschool program serving many at-risk children.

The Granite School District works with United Way of Salt Lake and Voices for Utah Children to provide preschool services in the 11 schools most impacted by poverty.

The program uses a sustainable financing model (sometimes called Social Impact Bonds) for funding. This model quantifies the cost savings achieved through reduced special education use and reinvests the savings into the preschool program to serve more children in the future. Early results from the Granite School District in Utah are promising, showing both significant cost savings and improved child outcomes. Other districts in the county are using Title I funding to ensure their children get a strong start.

Finally, both Salt Lake and the state have embraced technology as a way to reach more children and families. The Utah Education Network connects all Utah school districts, schools, and higher education institutions to a robust network and quality educational resources. Every Utah teacher, caregiver, and family with a young child has free access to a “Preschool Pioneer Online Library.”

The U.S. Department of Education also recently awarded an i3 grant to expand the reach of UPSTART to children from rural districts in Utah who have traditionally had less access to educational resources.  This at-home school readiness program is designed to provide preschool children with an individualized reading, math, and science curriculum (with a focus on literacy).

Many other cities also are actively promoting early learning: San Antonio, San Francisco, Seattle, Cleveland, Kansas City—just to name a few. But cities can’t do this work alone. Nor can states. We need every governmental entity to do more to support early learning, which is why the President proposed his Preschool for All initiative, which would greatly expand services for children from birth to preschool in our nation. As the examples of Salt Lake and Dallas show, cities are moving forward in exciting ways, but they need help to reach all children.

Libby Doggett is the deputy assistant secretary for Policy and Early Learning in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Bringing the Tech Revolution to Early Learning

Why do I advocate for “early tech”? I’ll give you three good reasons: my granddaughters Ella, Clara, and Zayla. I’ve seen the way technology has helped them to take charge of their own learning and opened doors to subjects and activities that really catch their interest.

It’s nothing short of amazing to think about how far we’ve come in the past ten years. Our children – and our grandchildren – pick up a device and instantly know how it works. They shift seamlessly from a hand-held device to a laptop or desktop and back again.

Whether we’ve seen it firsthand in our families, read about it in the papers, or heard about it from our friends and co-workers, we know that technology can be a great tool for early learning. That’s why America’s early learning community – and anyone who wants to help build a brighter future for the next generation – must make smarter use of these cutting-edge resources, provide better support for the teachers who use them, and help ensure that all our young children have equitable access to the right technology. “Early tech” can be an incredible tool to increase access and quality, when we understand how to use it for good.

Today, devices can not only bring the world to our students, but they also can bring what children create to the world. Kids can generate their own media through digital still and video camera and recording applications and, if they want, share it with students around the world. Our kids have the power to learn so much from their own creativity – creativity that technology supports and encourages.

In short, technology can spark imagination in young children, remove barriers to play and provide appropriate learning platforms as tools for reflection and critical thinking. It also offers children the ability to reflect easily by erasing, storing, recalling, modifying and representing thoughts on tablets and other devices.

As an educator, I’m excited by the almost limitless potential of really good technology to teach children new skills and reinforce what they already know. Tablets, computers, and hand-held devices, like smart phones and mp3 players, can be powerful assets in preschool classrooms when they’re integrated into an active, play-based curriculum. The National Association of Educators of Young Children, a leading organization that promotes early childhood education, agrees: technology and interactive media should be used intentionally to support learning and development.

What’s more, recent research has found that when used properly, technology can support the acquisition of what are called “executive functioning skills,” such as collaboration, taking turns, patience, and cooperative discussion of ideas with peers.

Technology can also dramatically improve communication and collaboration between each child’s school and home. With the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, teachers can connect with parents, updating them about student’s academic progress or providing information about an upcoming school event.

While we know its power to transform preschool classrooms, systemic and cultural barriers have prevented the early learning field from fully embracing technology. Preschools often have limited funding and few good hardware and software choices. At times, early learning teachers and directors have actually had less exposure to technology than their students have. They fear that technology won’t be developmentally-appropriate and that devices will distract students from rich, play-based classroom experiences. Teachers have told me they are daunted by the task of selecting the right apps and devices.

We need to change this way of thinking – and the systems behind it.

We need all early learning centers to have broadband access like that provided to schools. As the ConnectED Initiative works to ensure all schools and libraries have the infrastructure to take advantage of learning powered by technology, we also need to make sure all Head Start and community-based preschool programs are included, so our youngest children can take advantage of these tools.

Center directors, school principals and other early learning leaders must step up and lead by example, facilitating the successful use of technology, particularly in preschool settings. Teachers shouldn’t – and can’t – be alone in this endeavor. They need fearless principals and administrators who will advocate for pre-service and in-service learning that supports teacher understanding of how to use technology in early learning settings.

At the same time, we need more models of how technology works in early learning classrooms. Technology strengthens and deepens classroom instruction. It can extend and support a child-centric, play-based curriculum just as other manipulatives  do, including wooden blocks, magic markers or a classroom pet – but in a format that can be accessible far beyond the classroom. But, in order to make effective use of these new strategies, teachers need to see them in practice – and that currently isn’t happening in enough places.

We need research that helps identify effective technology tools to support learning – and we need this research to be completed on a timely basis. A study that takes three years to complete doesn’t help educators and parents make informed decisions today. We need more places like The Joan Ganz Cooney Center to help us understand the challenges of educating children in a rapidly changing media landscape.

We also need easier ways to find the best tools and apps. We need more programs like Ready To Learn, which has adapted its former TV-only content to new platforms and is now available to all families and children across the country.

And last, but certainly not least, we need more funding for early learning. When Congress passes legislation to implement and fund the President’s Preschool for All proposal, we will have the financial resources to drive the tech revolution that we so urgently need in our early learning system.

We have, quite literally, tens of millions of reasons for taking action in all our precious children and grandchildren. Each and every one of them deserves a great start in life – and that’s exactly what “early tech” helps to provide.

Libby Doggett is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education

The President’s Budget: Early Learning

Fifty adults — including the Secretaries of Education and Health and Human Services, Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Representative Jim Moran (D-Va.) — visited the newest preschool among the Child and Family Network Centers (CFNC) to observe a quality bilingual program in action and to discuss President Obama’s newly released budget request for Fiscal Year 2015.

The children and their engaging teacher, Tonya Johnson, showed us, once again, how much young children learn through play and working together in a stimulating environment. Even with 15 visiting adults in the room, the children stayed on task, interacted positively with each other, and went about their business of learning.

I had as much fun listening to the happy sounds of learning from these joyful preschoolers as I did hearing from some of our country’s leaders, as they discussed how early education is represented in the federal budget requests for both the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. The President’s budget proposes $500 million — double last year’s funding — for Preschool Development Grants and reintroduces the Preschool for All initiative, with an initial $1.3 billion investment. There is additional funding in the budget request for Head Start, child care, Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities, and the new Early Head Start – Child Care Partnership grants.

Margaret Patterson, the Executive Director of the CFNC told the group how 30 years ago, eight parents of children who had failed kindergarten came together to assure their children gained the skills to succeed in school and in life. Thirty years later, ten CFNC centers are spread across Alexandria, Va., in close proximity to where some of the poorest families in the city live.

During the event at the preschool,  Rep. Moran lamented the lack of educational funding for our youngest children, noting that “you would never plant a seed and then fail to water it.” Senator Warner observed how the children playing at the sand table reminded him of his job in the Senate— cooperation and sharing are key to getting things done, and, in the process, you had better make sure that you don’t get sand in your eyes. Secretary Sebelius reminded us of the importance of parents in their children’s lives and discussed the President’s proposal to increase funding for home visiting. Secretary Duncan closed the meeting by iterating the importance of quality programs and reminding us of the huge unmet need for preschool in our country.

Watch a clip of the visit below, and visit ed.gov/early-learning for more information.




Libby Doggett is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning at the U.S. Department of Education