Category Archives: Early Childhood Education

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

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.

Are You a Presidential Candidate With a Child Care Proposal? Pay Attention.

As candidates put forward their visions for 2020, potential Democratic frontrunner Elizabeth Warren has chosen to make childcare a centerpiece of her campaign to rebuild the middle class. Warren’s announcement builds on recent arguments that child care is a vehicle to increase women’s workforce participation and, therefore, economic growth. Warren’s proposal has since stimulated a good deal of coverage and debate about both the merits of her plan and the value of early childhood education more generally.

One overlooked factor in this debate is the debt that Warren’s plan owes to Head Start, which Warren acknowledges in the unveiling of the plan. Head Start, the country’s largest pre-K program, is a federally funded child development program that supports local early childhood programs to provide early learning, family engagement, and comprehensive supports for nearly one million preschoolers in poverty and their families every year.

Warren is smart to seize on Head Start as a model. Research shows that Head Start students overall make meaningful gains in school readiness during their time in Head Start, and that the quality of Head Start programs is better than many other early childhood settings. But other research shows that the quality of Head Start programs varies widely, with some programs producing much bigger school readiness gains than others.

My Bellwether colleague Sara Mead and I have spent the last three years studying five of the highest performing Head Start programs in the country, programs that have produced significant learning gains for the children they serve. We examined every aspect of these programs in an effort to understand what practices led to their effectiveness and how, as a field, we can leverage their successes to improve the quality of all early childhood programs — Head Start and otherwise.

After closely analyzing these programs’ practices, we produced a series of publications called “Leading by Exemplar,” released today. This research is the first of its kind to do such an in-depth study of program practices. It offers lessons for other Head Start programs and for policymakers — including Warren — who want to expand access to quality learning in the early childhood world.

So what is the “secret sauce” that contributes to these programs’ successes? Three practices stand out: Continue reading

Boston’s Education System Is a Microcosm for the Country

My colleagues Bonnie O’Keefe, Melissa Steel King, and I have a new report out this week looking at recent educational trends in Boston Public Schools (BPS). Even if you’re not from Boston, Boston’s educational outcomes are on a similar trajectory as the nation as a whole. We write:

In general, Boston’s performance on standardized tests has tracked the national trends since the early 2000s, but Boston made faster progress when the nation as a whole was improving, and Boston’s slowdown in the past five years has been more pronounced. Furthermore, while Boston continues to outperform many other large urban districts, some peer cities have instituted reforms…that have contributed to more rapid progress in recent years compared to BPS. Meanwhile, BPS has struggled to make a dent in persistent racial and ethnic disparities in test scores and graduation rates. Without the launch of new and innovative initiatives to improve equity and address stagnating achievement trends, BPS could be at risk of losing its status as a national leader in pre-K-12 education.

Speaking personally, I found writing the report to be a sobering exercise. BPS was certainly busy over the last ten years — including big changes to teacher hiring practices, an expansion of pre-K, and a change to how it funds its schools, among other things — and yet student achievement scores didn’t budge. Worse, some initiatives, like a re-designed school assignment system, led to increased racial segregation and may have contributed to declines in achievement for black and Hispanic students. Meanwhile, other efforts, such as plans to deal with Boston’s aging school facilities and to create a unified school application process, have struggled to get off the ground amidst political battles and public pushback.

Boston’s education system is unique in its particulars, but the broader story is similar to what’s going on in the rest of the country. And Boston, like the rest of the country, is now at an inflection point. Boston is currently searching for its fifth superintendent in 10 years, so it will be critical for that leader to articulate a clear vision forward. While we don’t claim to have answers, we hope our report is useful to leaders in Boston and elsewhere to diagnose current trends and give some historical explanations of what happened and why. (You can also watch a live discussion of this report here.) Like Boston, the country is becoming more diverse, and any future gains will depend on how well schools are able to provide educational services to our most disadvantaged students.

Little Kids, Big Progress: New York Times’ Head Start Coverage

It’s not often that early childhood stories make the front page of the New York Times. But this week, the paper featured an article by Jason DeParle about Head Start, a federal early childhood program that serves nearly 900,000 low-income children, and how the quality of the program has improved over the past several years.

DeParle’s article is a great example of journalism that moves past the common (and relatively useless) question of “does Head Start work?” and goes deeper into exploring how the program has improved  its practices, including changes related to coaching, teacher preparation and quality, use of data, and the Designation Renewal System (all of which Bellwether has studied and written about previously). This type of reporting contributes to a more productive conversation about how to create high-quality early learning opportunities for all children that can inform changes to early childhood programs beyond Head Start.

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

As DeParle points out and the data clearly show, while there is wide variation between individual programs, overall the quality of teaching in Head Start is improving. But while this trend is undoubtedly positive, it raises some questions: What effect will these changes ultimately have on children’s academic and life outcomes? And what can Head Start programs do to their program content and design to even better serve children?

Next month, Bellwether will release a suite of publications that tries to answer those questions. We identified five Head Start programs that have evidence of better-than-average impact on student learning outcomes and thoroughly examined these programs’ practices to understand how they contributed to their strong performance. I visited each program, conducted in-depth interviews with program leadership and staff, reviewed program documents and data, hosted focus groups with teachers and coaches, and observed classroom quality using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, CLASS (the measure of teaching quality on which DeParle notes Head Start classrooms nationally have shown large quality improvements). By better understanding the factors that drive quality among grantees and identifying effective practices, we hope to help other programs replicate these exemplars’ results and advance an equity agenda.

As the New York Times front page recently declared, Head Start’s progress offers a ray of hope in a dysfunctional federal political landscape. But there is still room for progress. Looking at what high-performing programs do well can help extend the reach and impact of recent changes to produce even stronger outcomes for young children and their families.