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Voices from the Field

“It’s hard to find people at the state level that don’t support early childhood. But what you really need isn’t just people who say it; you need people willing to step up and advocate for it.”

Interview with Clayton Burch
Chief Academic Officer for Teaching and Learning
West Virginia Department of Education


by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Clayton: It actually started in college. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was one of the college students who by the time you’re a junior reaching your senior level you think, “I need to make a decision.” I had a professor [at Marshall University] who said she had a friend who was running a local childcare center here in Huntington, and they were looking for someone to run the afterschool program for four year olds. I did that my entire junior and senior year in college and that was it—I was hooked. I knew from that point on that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in early childhood. I left the university and my first job out of college was teaching second grade in Kuwait City. I spent two years working with eight and nine year olds there. I got into some of the pre-K and kindergarten activities in the school too. Later I got a phone call from Marshal University to see if I would you be interested in coming back and running our laboratory preschool. So from 1999 to 2007, I spent eight years teaching curriculum and [providing] guidance to pre-service teachers, running their laboratory school, and doing outreach for the Southern West Virginia area on early childhood. Honestly, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Steven: What can be done at the State level in improving the quality of early learning?

Clayton: It’s hard to find people at the state level that don’t support early childhood. But what you really need isn’t just people who say it; you need people willing to step up and advocate for it. Saying you support early childhood is one thing, but in the state of West Virginia, what we’ve been able to do in the last decade is we don’t just want legislators saying they support early childhood. We want to work with them so they understand how to support early childhood. We have a governor’s office and a state board of education that says we really know what we’re talking about. When they say early childhood, it’s not just kindergarten anymore in West Virginia. They want to talk birth through eight years old. And they want to have a comprehensive conversation. And I know that makes people nervous sometimes because in the state of West Virginia, we have universal preschool and kindergarten and we don’t really have authority over birth to three. But when you have folks at that level who really know how to support early childhood and they have a very clear understanding that whatever their authority is over—pre-k or kindergarten-it’s one little piece of the puzzle of birth to third grade. I think if you can get people at the state level to understand their role and whatever role that is, it goes a long way in creating a comprehensive system—and not a system that all of us in early childhood are used to: a very segmented, siloed system, whether it be birth to three, family care, home visitation, Head Start, early head start, preschool, kindergarten. We want to have a conversation that says all those siloes brought together are part of a larger context of birth through third grade. We are looking at $90 million a year in state funding just for preschool. And funding isn’t just being used in schools; its being used in collaboration with Head Start and child care. And we just saw this year the Governor putting a $5.7 million increase in first to third grade literacy. We have a brand new program that targets third grade literacy when most states are having a conversation around what does it mean if students can’t read by third grade. Are we going to retain them? West Virginia’s approach is very different because we had leadership that understood the comprehensiveness, the money is going to birth to third grade initiatives: school readiness, attendance, how to support the workforce, family engagement, and how to really put those supports in place in the community from birth to third grade, not just focusing on that third grade year.

Steven: Why is the President’s proposal to provide high-quality early learning programs for our children important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Clayton: We see the President’s proposal almost mirroring what we’ve been doing in West Virginia: bring local folks together to understand what a comprehensive approach to four year olds looks like. And when you start talking about the opportunity, we see the opportunity if done correctly is just more and more resources earlier for our children. To have a national dialogue around four year olds is really important, but when people start understanding the return on investment, and what it means to the long term impact on society, they see we have to begin early. West Virginia is paying attention to that research like the rests of the nation. We truly believe if we can target early childhood and put more resources earlier, then that return on investment is going to be huge for our state, and I think the President’s saying the same thing. The hard thing, I think the challenges, are the same challenges West Virginia’s faced the last decade. And that is, if you put forth an early childhood initiative, especially Preschool for All, be sure you’re not redundant, you’re not duplicating services, and that it actually truly does mesh with what’s already in existence. I think one of the things we’ve done well is honor what’s already in existence. We have a long history of Head Start in this state. We have a long history of child care and family care. How does this initiative support and not supplant and duplicate those efforts? And that’s one of the challenges we continue to face. The more resources we put into early childhood, does that offer opportunity to shift some of our current resources even lower down into the birth to three year olds? I know in West Virginia when we talk about the President’s proposal, one of the things we’re interested in is does this potentially allow us to expand what we’re able to do for young children?

Transformative Family Engagement at the White House Symposium by Deputy Assistant Secretary Libby Doggett

“Transformative family engagement is more than parent involvement- it is a shared responsibility of families, schools, and communities aimed at helping students learn and achieve.” That was the central message at the White House Symposium held on July 31st, attended by members from the White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC), U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Serving as a panelist, I was able to share both my professional and personal experiences. Early in my career, I served as a bilingual first grade teacher in Austin, Texas and witnessed first-hand the importance of engaging families to improve student achievement. Later and throughout my career, I continued to see the strong connection between family engagement and student success.

Family engagement provides a critical link between home and school and has a profound impact on a child’s learning. Last week’s symposium highlighted the importance of family engagement and advanced a framework to transform our thinking. Some of the key elements of this framework are seeing families from a strength-based perspective and sharing the responsibility for student success with families. We must work as partners adapting our work to the needs and priorities of a diverse array of families, helping all children learn and grow.

At ED, we are committed to supporting transformative family engagement, and some of the one-billion dollars allocated to the 20 Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) states is being spent to support families and early childhood educators to achieve this goal. All states are finding ways to improve the quality of early learning centers and communicate the quality features to families. In Delaware, for example, the Office of Early Learning has launched a new website, Great Starts Delaware, to provide families with information on the quality of early learning programs, the latest brain research, and tips on what they can do at home to support improved outcomes for their young children. Washington State has launched “Love. Talk. Play,” a campaign that seeks to equip parents with three simple things that they can do every day to help their children learn and grow: love, talk, and play.

Waiting until preschool to implement family engagement strategies, however, is too late. Hart and Risely’s groundbreaking research highlights a “30 million word gap” between children of low-income versus higher-income families —a gap that begins before age three and can continue throughout school unless interventions are put in place. Mothers with a college education or higher spend roughly 4.5 more hours more a week directly interacting with their children than do mothers with a high school diploma or less. These findings provide us with evidence-based knowledge about the importance of family engagement, and how critical it is not only in K-12 education, but especially in birth through age five.

Most parents want what’s best for their children, but many parents do not know how important their role as their child’s first teacher is. This is what true family engagement is all about: making sure parents and caregivers have the knowledge and resources they need to help children get a strong start and reach their full potential. As we continue to look for ways to support families, it is my hope that as a country we will act to support families wherever they are to ensure all our children get the strong start that is needed for success in school and later as productive citizens.

Voices from the Field

“It turns out that teaching young children is complicated!”

Interview with Council for Professional Recognition CEO Valora Washington

Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Steven: Could you talk a little bit about how you began your career?

Valora: I started out in anthropology, and in my junior year of college I had the chance to spend the summer in West Africa doing some field work. That was so exciting, but I found that when I was there, I was just really interested in watching the children — children everywhere! They were so competent. They were so skilled. They were so woven into the family and community life. These children — even if they were gathering sticks, or whatever they were doing — they were important. What they were doing mattered. I saw how skilled they were, and of course, many of these children were simultaneously learning 2, 3, or 4 languages. Oftentimes when I’d go in villages, I’d have to find young people to be the interpreters because they were all learning English in school. I was just so amazed by the children, and that’s how I decided to go into child development. I entered a doctoral program, and as they say, the rest is history.

Steven: Why do you think the President’s proposal to provide high-quality preschool for all four-year-olds is important to our country, and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Valora: The reason I think it’s important is because it’s not just an isolated one thing he’s doing. It’s part of series of very important initiatives that are really upgrading the quality of life for young learners in our country. That’s the main reason why it’s so important, because it’s not just a stand-alone initiative, and that’s it. It’s part of a big package in a big picture of a number of things across HSS and ED that we’re trying to do for young children, and I think that’s what makes it important. I think trying to really engage states to think about quality. We know from the NIEER reports that come out every year that there is so much work that still needs to be done at the local and state levels to improve both access and quality. I think that this is a major effort that is going to push that bar. Also, four-year-olds have been somewhat pushed off into a number of disconnected programs, so it really matters if you walked into a Head Start, family childcare, public school , or community-based programs. I think that this initiative has the potential to bring some coherence around what states are doing with that age group.

Steven: What do you see as the role of the Council for Professional Recognition in improving the quality of early learning in our country?

Valora: I think that what we know, is that if there’s one place 8 million people are teaching young children today, we know that way too many of them have had very little opportunity to learn, either in an academic sense or in guided practice in what they’re doing with young children. I think what the Council has been doing for a long time — and we significantly upgraded the professional development experience — is the first step that many early educators continue to take. While we really are celebrating and encouraging people to enter into the profession from a lot of different places, for many of them, the CDA is still place where they are introduced to the field in a formal way, through the competency standards, and through the kind of observations and experiences that they will have in their work life because it is a comprehensive assessment. So, quality really matters in that. The first challenge for quality is recruiting the kinds of people that we really want to work with young children, not just people who show up because they’re free of tuberculosis and need a job. I think the CDA introduces people to the profession in a comprehensive fit and really helps with that introduction to recruitment. I think also, it helps in terms of retention and retaining quality people because you also know that’s another problem. What we know from some of our workforce data from many of our partners is their staffs who have CDAs tend to stay in the workplace rather than leave after a couple of years.

So, the quality really matters in terms of introducing people to the work, that it is a professional work, and then retaining them and helping them grow in the work. I think quality really matters to us; that’s why we’ve spent three years creating the CDA. Our whole mission is really upgrading and recognizing the workforce. That’s what we’ve been doing, that’s our whole mission, that’s all we do, and it matters a lot to us that early educators get the respect they deserve, that they get recognized for the skills that they have, that they even understand what the competency are, and that they can move forward in the profession. We say that the CDA is the best first step, but we don’t want it to be the last step. There are so many examples of people with CDA who go on and get other degrees, which is what we encourage people to do. There are lots of stories of people who really begin their careers with a CDA. Quality really matters because of how you bring people in. If you bring people into the field thinking this is a job and that it doesn’t really matter, they either leave or continue with tacit knowledge. We really need people to understand that what they do needs a theoretical background, but that they also need practical experience about how you set up a classroom, how you get results for children, how you interact with children, how you interact with their parents, and how you do assessments. It turns out that teaching young children is complicated! I think a lot of people think that it’s just a job, but it’s turning out that it requires a lot of very specific skills.