Category Archives: Early Childhood Education

Reflecting on 10 Years at Bellwether

This is my last week at Bellwether. Next week, I’ll be joining D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education as Assistant Superintendent for Early Learning. As a District of Columbia resident, I’ve long been incredibly proud of my city’s leadership in early childhood. I’m thrilled to work with State Superintendent Hanseul Kang and our exceptional early childhood professionals; schools; and community, health, and advocacy partners to support children, families, and early childhood educators through this current crisis and build an even stronger system going forward. But I’m also sad to leave Bellwether, an organization I’ve helped build over the past decade and whose mission I believe in deeply.

Bellwether was created because its founders knew that achieving the results we seek for all children requires strong organizations, system and policy changes grounded in evidence, and leadership with a deep commitment to equity. We were — and still are — unique in that many organizations focus on one of these areas, but very few work across all of them. 

When I joined in February 2010, I never dreamed that I would be here for over 10 years or that Bellwether would grow from five people to over 60. Bellwether has taught me not just how to be a smart policy wonk but also a strategic advisor and people manager. Through collaborating with scores of early childhood and K-12 clients, I’ve deepened my understanding of the business, operating, policy, and practice challenges facing early childhood and K-12 educators and systems leaders. And I’ve seen first hand some of the most promising strategies and innovations that leaders around the country are putting in place to address those challenges. 

My early days at Bellwether coincided with the first year of the Obama presidency and the trough of the Great Recession. States were eagerly enacting new education policies tied to Race to the Top, Common Core, and expansion of charter schools. There was a great energy around reform and a lot of enthusiasm to try new things. A decade later, much has changed in the economic, political, and education policy landscape. We now face tremendous public health, economic, and political crises that we never expected in 2010.

And many of those who have led change are wondering how to renew momentum in a landscape where other issues dominate public dialogue. Some ideas that pushed education progress over the last two decades appear to have run their course and are ripe for reinvention. At the same time, policymakers, parents, and the public have increasingly recognized the importance of early childhood care and education — and the need to do better by our youngest kids and families. Now, COVID is creating major financial and operational challenges for the early childhood sector, in large part because it amplifies existing flaws in early childhood business models and funding mechanisms that were already broken. 

These are big challenges with no easy answers. But some of the things I’ve learned at Bellwether over the past decade may help leaders chart a course forward: 

Continue reading

Bellwether Partner Sara Mead to Serve as Assistant Superintendent for Early Learning in DC

Longtime Bellwether Partner and noted early-childhood education expert Sara Mead will leave the organization at the end of this month to become the next Assistant Superintendent for Early Learning in DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE).

Staff pictures for Bellwether Education, in Washington, DC, 10-27-2015. Photo by Toby Jorrin.Mead has been a part of Bellwether from its beginning, joining in 2010 as the third official employee. As a partner and the head of our Policy practice, she has advised hundreds of clients and authored dozens of papers examining the impact of various policy levers. 

At OSSE, Mead will help shape the development of the early childhood sector in the city she calls home. Her last day at Bellwether will be July 29th. She begins her new role on August 3rd.

“This is an exciting opportunity for me to directly benefit DC’s youngest learners at a time when early childhood programs and families of young children face unprecedented challenges. My new role will build on work I’ve been doing for 10 years at Bellwether, helping improve outcomes for underserved children,” said Mead. “I’m grateful to have seen the team grow from six to sixty, and know that there are incredible leaders — including Andy Rotherham, Jennifer Schiess, Julie Squire, Allison Crean Davis, Jeff Schulz, and Rebecca Gifford Goldberg — to continue our work on behalf of clients and kids.” 

Partner and co-founder Andy Rotherham added: “Sara was instrumental in building Bellwether into what it is today and is part of its fabric. She’s a wonderful, generous, and caring colleague and while we’re all excited for her, she will be missed in big and small ways.”

Partner Jennifer Schiess will step into the role of practice lead for Bellwether’s policy and evaluation team. A six-year veteran of the team, she’ll oversee Bellwether’s work answering questions of policy. Looking forward, we’ll continue to iterate on how we grow and create impact across the P-20 spectrum as a firm. 

“We have always said that Bellwether is a great place to build a career, learn a lot, and carry that knowledge forward to other positions,” says Bellwether managing partner Mary Kroupa Wells. “While we’re going to miss her deeply, we are absolutely thrilled to see Sara support DC’s youngest residents in this critical role and cannot wait to see the impact she has.” 

For More Information

Alyssa Schwenk
Interim Communications Director, Bellwether Education Partners
alyssa.schwenk@bellwethereducation.org

COVID-19 Sheds Light on Existing Weaknesses in Early Childhood Systems

COVID-19 highlights the foundational weaknesses in our nation’s approach to early care and education. Unlike K-12 public schools, which are funded primarily by state and local government and operated by government entities or under their oversight, early childhood care and education in the United States is funded primarily through parent tuition payments and delivered through a patchwork of providers. These include center-based child care operated by for- and nonprofit entities ranging from small businesses to national chains, home-based childcare, Head Start, and school-based pre-K programs, all of which operate under different regulations and resources depending on the type of program they are, the age of children they serve, and where their funding comes from. 

It’s a complicated system given these underlying financing, structural, and policy factors, which COVID-19 has only underscored. The existing fragmentation has complicated efforts to protect children’s health and safety during the virus, ensure care for children of essential workers, or even collect accurate data to understand what is going on. And the system’s underfunding and reliance on parent payments has made early childhood providers and workers incredibly vulnerable in the current situation. 

As state and local governments began to close schools and nonessential businesses in mid-March, early childhood providers and state system leaders faced several urgent needs. These included making decisions about whether to close child care programs to protect child and staff safety, ensuring continuing access to child care for essential frontline workers, and providing early intervention and development support to children at home. As the chart below shows, these immediate needs cut across interrelated dimensions of health, economics, and child development — as does the early childhood field itself.

chart: "COVID-19 is creating new early childhood sector needs, and exacerbating others"

As early childhood leaders and policymakers begin to look around the corner — to think about economic recovery as the public health crisis begins to subside — new questions and challenges are emerging. Many early childhood providers have lost substantial revenues as a result of COVID-related closures and reduced demand for childcare, and are at risk of going out of business. Getting America back to work will require stabilizing the child care sector to enable workers across the economy to return to their jobs, or find new ones. Continue reading

New National Data on Preschool Programs Particularly Important Due to COVID-19

Most state-funded pre-K programs, like most schools, are closed due to the coronavirus. But most states do not have the same state constitutional obligation to provide pre-K as they do for K-12 students, so pre-K programs can be particularly vulnerable to state budget cuts when tough economic times reduce state revenues. 

As states begin to face the fiscal and economic consequences of COVID-19, the National Institute for Early Education Research released its State Preschool Yearbook, which provides the most comprehensive and accurate information available on enrollment in, funding for, and features of state-funded pre-K programs.

Cover of the National Institute for Early Education Research 2019 State Preschool YearbookNIEER’s current report looks at data from the 2018-19 school year and finds that: 

  • State pre-K programs enrolled 1.63 million children in 2018-19. Most of these children (about 85%) are 4, with far fewer 3-year-olds served.  
  • The number of children served in state-funded pre-K increased slightly (by about 3%) from the 2017-18 to 2018-18 school year, with most of that increase for 4-year-olds. 
  • Taking into account Head Start and special education preschool, about 44% of 4-year-olds and 17% of 3-year-olds attend some type of publicly funded program.* This has stayed largely level even as state pre-K enrollment has increased, in part because some Head Start slots have shifted to serve infants and toddlers, particularly in places with high pre-K enrollment. 
  • Access to state pre-K varies widely by state: Only 10 states serve more than 50% of 4-year-olds and 5 serve 70% or more. Twelve states with preschool programs serve 10% or less of 4-year-olds, and six states have no state-funded pre-K. Only 7 states and the District of Columbia serve more than 10% of 3-year-olds. 

During and in the wake of the 2008 Recession, states cut spending on pre-K and other early childhood programs. While pre-K enrollment levels continued to grow, per-child funding decreased, as states sought to stretch less funding across more kids, with detrimental impacts on program quality.  Continue reading

Media: “Question for the Democratic Presidential Hopefuls — Why Are Government-Funded Nonprofits Fine for Pre-K but Not for K-12?” in The 74

Why do Bernie Sanders and some of his primary rivals think it’s good for government to fund community-based, nonprofit organizations to educate two-year-olds but suddenly an enormous problem when children turn five and start kindergarten?

Read my op-ed in The 74.