Author Archives: Sara Mead

Media: “Full-day, not part-day, programs should be the default for Head Start” in The Hill

In late March, with little to no public attention, the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services proposed new regulations that would undo a major component of Obama-era rules that improved quality in Head Start programs. As I argue in a new piece at The Hill today, this is a bad idea:

A few weeks ago, as President Trump tweeted attacks on “failed” media coverage of the Russia investigation, his administration quietly proposed new regulations that would undermine learning for low-income preschoolers…The Trump administration claims its proposal would give programs flexibility to meet local needs, and prevent reductions in Head Start slots. Both these explanations are incorrect.

A little bit of background: Continue reading

Is Idris Elba the Reason You Can’t Find Affordable Child Care?

Idris Elba should be the next James Bond. But even as the “sexiest man aliveteased that prospect in recent appearances, his latest role — as a failed DJ who becomes a nanny for his successful friend’s daughter in Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie — seems an odd choice for a prospective 007.

actor Idris Elba

Actor Idris Elba

Or maybe not: There’s a surprisingly robust history of movies featuring action stars playing comedic roles as caregivers of young children: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop, Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby, Hulk Hogan in Mr. Nanny, Eddie Murphy in Daddy Day Care, and Vin Diesel in the Pacifier. (Even Sean Connery worked as a “babysitter” in real life before hitting it big.)

When you think about it, the prevalence of movies built around the premise of tough guys taking care of little kids is actually pretty weird. I can’t help but wonder what that says about how our culture values and views the work of caring for young children. Continue reading

Why Is Charter School Growth Slowing? New NACSA Research Offers Insights — But No Easy Answers.

 After growing rapidly for the past decade, the pace of charter school growth has slowed in recent years, provoking consternation among some charter school supporters — as well as debate about causes and responses. As my Bellwether colleagues noted in a recent report on the state of the charter sector, there are multiple potential factors influencing this shift, and it can be difficult to know which are at play because recent trends and the different factors influencing them vary considerably across states and geographies.

Ultimately, however, the pace of charter school growth is a function of just a few factors:

  • How many individuals, organizations, and groups apply to establish new schools?
  • What percentage of those applications are approved?
  • Are existing schools growing, and by how much?
  • What percentage of charter schools are closed?

Charter school authorizers (which I was one of when I served on the DC Public Charter School Board) are the entities entrusted in state law to approve and oversee charter schools. These bodies are uniquely positioned to shed light on the first two questions.

Reinvigorating the Pipeline,” a new report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), explores what authorizer data can tell us. NACSA (on whose board I now serve) reviewed nearly 3,000 charter applications to authorizers in 20 states who oversee more than two-thirds of charter schools nationally. The report surfaces some interesting insights:

  • There is wide variation in the types of schools that charter applicants propose to create, including classical, “no excuses,” inquiry-based or child-centered, vocational, alternative/credit recovery, blended/hybrid, STEM, and arts schools.
  • Applications for some types of schools are much more common than others, and approval rates also vary widely across types of schools created. Schools proposing to implement classical or “no excuses” models are more than twice as likely to be approved than those proposing arts-focused, gifted-education, and single-sex models.
  • The percentage of charter applications for schools using “no excuses” models declined considerably in the past five years, as did the percentage of “no excuses” schools approved.
  • The majority of charter applicants are for stand-alone schools not affiliated with a charter network or management organization. Indeed, despite common perceptions that networks dominate the charter sector, the percentage of applications for free-standing schools is at a five-year high. Schools affiliated with nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs) are more likely to be approved than free-standing schools, but, because there are more applications from free-standing schools, CMO-run and free-standing schools each account for about 40% of approved applications. Schools run by for-profit education management organizations, which have attracted considerable criticism in recent years, account for only about 20% of approved schools, and applications for EMO-run schools have declined dramatically.
  • The types of schools that applicants propose to create vary widely across states. Applications for blended or hybrid models, for example, account for more than a quarter of proposals in Arizona, D.C., and Illinois, while authorizers in Connecticut and Minnesota received no applications for this type of model. Conversely, proposals for child-centered models such as Waldorf or Montessori accounted for a much larger share of applications in some states (e.g., Minnesota and Georgia) than others. And groups associated with EMOs accounted for a meaningful percentage of applicants in only a few states but were a big percentage in Florida, Ohio, and Arizona. All of this suggests that what the “charter sector” looks like varies widely across states and communities, a factor that bears remembering in national dialogue about charters.

In some ways, the report raises more questions than it answers. It can’t tell us, for example, why some types of charter applications are much more common than others, or why authorizers are more likely to approve certain types of schools. Further, it’s not easy to tell whether trends in the number of applications for different types of schools reflect intrinsic demand and interest of prospective founders and their communities, or whether perceptions of political and other barriers (such as lack of access to facilities), authorizers’ openness to certain types of models or to approving new charter applications at all, and other political and policy factors are influencing the pipeline of applications that authorizers receive.

These are questions that deserve further inquiry. And given the high level of state and local variation in charter growth and pipelines, many of these questions need to be explored at the state and local level, not just nationally.

But by bringing this data to bear, NACSA is helping to shed empirical light on key questions facing the charter movement — and also countering some common misperceptions about the charter sector. I hope that this work provokes further dialogue and inquiry for the field.

Walking While Chewing Gum: Why Curriculum and Quality Teaching Are Both Crucial To Improving Children’s Learning

Are high-quality teachers the key to improving student learning? Or is curriculum more important? Early in the last decade, reformers, persuaded by research that “teachers are the most important factor in a student’s school experience,” pushed for teacher evaluation, performance pay, and other teacher-focused reforms. As these reforms have fallen out of favor, however, a growing contingent of education leaders argue that curriculum, rather than teacher quality, should be the focus of improvement efforts.

It shouldn’t be either-or. In our new paper, Ashley LiBetti and I argue that the real key to improving children’s learning may lie not in curriculum or teacher quality alone, but in how schools or early childhood programs integrate curriculum with supports for quality teaching to deliver high-quality learning experiences for children.

logos of five Head Start programs profiled in Bellwether Education Partners' case studies

Earlier this week, as a part of the new report package, we released our study of five Head Start programs that produce significant learning gains for children they serve. We identified cross-cutting themes and common practices across the five programs that contribute to their impressive results. What we found underscores the importance of both teachers and curriculum for success.

All of these programs place a high priority on quality teaching. They hire teachers with more training than Head Start requires, pay them more than the typical preschool program, and support them with coaching and professional development. At the same time, they also pay careful attention to curriculum by adopting evidence-based curricula, adapting it to their needs and communities, supporting teachers to implement it with fidelity, and regularly testing and or piloting new curricula or enhancements in an effort to further boost children’s learning and results. And they constantly use data — including ongoing formative assessments of children’s learning — to improve teaching practices and differentiate learning for individual children. These practices related to curricula, assessment, and teacher quality and support offer models that other early childhood programs can learn from.

The  real “secret sauce,” however, isn’t in these programs’ approaches to teaching or curricula on their own, but the way they carefully and intentionally integrate these components. We call this careful integration of curriculum, expectations for what quality teaching looks like, and support for teachers an “integrated instructional model” — and it’s the key to these programs’ success.

This intentional, integrated approach isn’t as sexy as “silver bullet” solutions. It requires skilled, thoughtful leadership willing to constantly reassess and refine practice, and a lot of work from teachers, the coaches who support them, and program leaders. That makes it much harder to replicate or scale than curriculum or teacher credential requirements. But it’s crucial to improving learning results, particularly for the most at-risk students.

Rather than continuing to debate whether teacher quality or curriculum matters more for improving educational results, education leaders should take a page from these exemplary Head Start programs and focus on how to help more schools develop and implement integrated models of curriculum, assessment, and supports for quality instruction.

What Japan’s Rental Family Industry Can Teach Us About Child Care in the United States

When I started reading Elif Batuman’s recent New Yorker piece on Japan’s rental family business, I expected it to be fascinating. What I didn’t expect was that it would offer striking insights on the current debate over credentials and compensation for early childhood workers in the United States. You should really read Batuman’s whole piece, but the key paragraph is here:

In a sense, the idea of a rental partner, parent, or child is perhaps less strange than the idea that childcare and housework should be seen as the manifestations of an unpurchasable romantic love. Patriarchal capitalism has arguably had a vested interest in promoting the latter idea as a human universal: as the Marxist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich pointed out, with women providing free housework and caregiving, capitalists could pay men less. There were other iniquities, too. As [19th Century Utopian feminist Charlotte Perkins] Gilman observed, when caregiving becomes the exclusive, unpaid purview of wives and mothers, then people without families don’t have access to it: “only married people and their immediate relatives have any right to live in comfort and health.” Her solution was that the unpaid work incumbent on every individual housewife—nursery education, household-work management, food preparation, and so on—should be distributed among paid specialists, of both genders. What often happens instead is that these tasks, rather than becoming respected, well-paid professions, are foisted piecemeal onto socioeconomically disadvantaged women, freeing their more privileged peers to pursue careers.

Ultimately, this is the core of what the debate over early childhood teacher compensation and credentials is about: As I’ve written in the past, too often these debates still reflect a kind of assumption that childcare is a manifestation of “unpurchasable” love (and that because of that, people who care for children don’t deserve to be well-paid).

Due to that assumption and an unwillingness to confront the real costs of caring for children (and really, for one another), our society is unwilling to accord people who care for and educate young children the professional status or economic value they deserve. The resulting system works well for no one, but it means the costs of professional opportunity for the educated and affluent are born disproportionately by low-income, less-educated, often racial and ethnic minority women. The resulting high rates of early educator turnover in many settings are harmful for children’s development.

Changing this system is crucial to children’s development, gender equity, and social justice for early care and education workers. But in order to do so, we must confront both the underlying history and attitudes that continue to affect thinking about the value of caring for young children, and the economic/financing challenge of how to pay fairly for work society has historically expected to get free or at a great discount by oppressing women.

Until we can honestly engage both, we cannot expect anything meaningful to change.