Building a More Inclusive Sandbox: Inviting New Collaborators to Support Children, Families, and Early Learning
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“The truth is we need all kinds of people playing together in this sandbox,” he said. “People who tweet, people who protest, people who give money, people who have meetings, people who know other people. Because there aren’t enough people in the sandbox to begin with.”
This quote appeared in a New York Times profile of social justice activist Michael Skolnik, who aptly used a sandbox metaphor to describe a challenge facing the civil rights movement in the United States (Feuer 2015). The metaphor could also apply to the field of early education, which currently faces a similar challenge. The early childhood education movement has grown steadily over the past two decades, plateaued in recent years, and currently is in dire need of reinforcements.
Don’t get me wrong, the early education and care sector already has many allies, like business leaders, elected officials and journalists. At times it seems everyone has climbed aboard the early learning bandwagon. The support is welcome and often applauded by the field. By “the field,” I mean those professionals doing the work of supporting, educating, and caring for young children: infant, toddler, and preschool teachers, administrators, support specialists, teacher educators, and researchers. This field has many likely allies, including advocacy groups, member associations, policy think tanks, and a growing number of the K–12 establishment (superintendents, school committees, and teachers unions).
But much more support is needed if we want to reach a point in our society where all children have access to high-quality early learning opportunities before they begin kindergarten.
Imagine this: all families of young children (birth to age 5) in all communities have access to a range of high-quality early learning supports that are free, friendly, knowledgeable, and engaging. Families are able to use them as often as needed. This includes play groups, children’s museums, libraries, and educational supports at the pediatrician’s office (like access to children’s books), as well as early education and care programs for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Identification of developmental delays or other risk factors occurs as early as possible, followed by supports and interventions for children who need them. Parents and other family members raising young children don’t feel isolated and alone—on the contrary, a vibrant social network connects them to each other and to early learning and health professionals in their community. When children enroll in kindergarten, they are happy, healthy, curious, and thriving. They are ready and eager to keep learning.
This picture is what some would call a “vision of success” for early education and care. But we have a long way to go to achieve it. Few children, particularly those living in low-income households, experience early childhood this way (Friedman Krauss, Barnett, & Nores 2016).
The harsh reality is that high-quality early childhood opportunities are subject to the economic market. Affluent families buy their children access to enriching early learning programs and experiences. Some children in families with low incomes are able to obtain entry into publicly funded programs (pending eligibility criteria, lotteries, waitlists, and budget cuts). For the remaining families, access and affordability are huge challenges—and often out of reach.
Meanwhile, “If families can’t afford to pay, teachers also can’t afford to stay.” This well-known slogan describing the field’s chronically low compensation dates back to at least the 1980s (Herzenberg, Price, & Bradley 2005; Moony 2011) and has become popular again in 2016. In Massachusetts this year, compensation was the top priority for early education advocates and policy makers, leading to a $12.5 million investment in teacher salaries in the state budget (Crimaldi 2016). But even $12.5 million, distributed evenly across several thousand early educators, is not nearly enough to close the pay equity gap: pre-K–3 public school teachers earn between $20,000 and $40,000 more per year than community-based preschool teachers (US DHHS & ACF 2016).
Imagine this: all families of young children (birth to age 5) in all communities have access to a range of high-quality early learning supports that are free, friendly, knowledgeable, and engaging.
Advocates in every state are working to improve this situation and persuade elected officials to invest more resources in high-quality early education, expanding access, improving quality, and supporting the workforce. Progress has been made in recent years. Cities such as New York, Denver, San Antonio, and Washington, DC, have been expanding preschool at the local level (Muenchow & Weinberg 2016), and federal investment through competitive state grants has catalyzed significant innovation in the early learning space (Helm 2016). But continued progress is not inevitable. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) estimates that at the current pace of states’ investment in high-quality pre-K, it would take 150 years to provide access to 75 percent of 4-year-olds (Barnett 2016). That’s at the current pace of progress—slow and steady—here in Massachusetts. If another recession hits, or if elected officials simply focus on other issues, we could be advocating for an even longer period.
Given what research tells us about the developmental importance of the early childhood years (IOM & NRC 2015) and the numerous economic benefits generated from high-quality programming for young children (Bartik 2014), public and private investment opportunities should be apparent to most. But they aren’t always obvious to—or even simply known by—the general public. So our challenge is effectively articulating these opportunities to new audiences and allies. The field needs fresh energy, talent, and resources to help achieve its vision for young children.
Collaboration, innovation, and advocacy
At the policy and advocacy organization where I work, Strategies for Children, in Boston, Massachusetts, we have a unique vantage point. We have learned firsthand that it takes many different skill sets and players to effectively move state legislation and budgetary initiatives. Policy “wins” often happen when disparate actors collaborate to move an issue forward—a journalist publishes a story that gets the attention of a legislative staffer, who asks an economist for a cost-benefit calculation and shares the results with preschool advocates and coalitions that continue to press elected officials to take action. Eventually enough policymakers know of and care about a particular issue that they make it a priority and pass a bill, increase funding, or take some other meaningful policy action. This was the case in 2005 when Strategies for Children led a broad advocacy coalition to work with the state legislature to establish the nation’s first Department of Early Education and Care (Rennie Center 2008). Unlikely messengers add tremendous value to child advocacy coalitions, which is why groups like Ready Nation and Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, representing the business and law enforcement communities, are so important.
At the local community level, multisector collaboration is even more dynamic. Picture a city librarian, a public housing administrator, a pediatrician, a banker, and a parent leader teaming up to expand early learning opportunities. Collaborations like these are happening in cities like Pittsfield, Springfield, and New Bedford in Massachusetts. The citywide Pittsfield Promise coalition for reading proficiency includes more than 80 members from nearly every sector in the community, including banking, higher education, and health care (Strategies for Children 2013). In Holyoke, Massachusetts, a mayor has engaged the city police to help with an early literacy campaign. Police cruisers now carry books in their trunks and give them out to neighborhood children (Saulmon 2013).
Innovation like this is possible when unlikely allies come together for kids. And local teams can often get partnership support from state-level organizations or national initiatives, such as the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (gradelevelreading.net). As an early childhood educator, you hold the key to as many partnerships and innovative collaborations as you can imagine. Odds are that you are already giving 110 percent to your program staff, children, families, and community. Well, if you have 10 percent more to give (early educators tend to be overachievers, so this shouldn’t be too difficult), consider doing the following:
Tell your story. Who are you and why is your work so important? Articulating your story and professional journey can be an empowering experience, and it is essential for shining a spotlight on the early education and care field. Consider both online and traditional media outlets. At Strategies for Children, we help early educators tell and publish their stories in our blog series “Voices From the Field.” Invite the local newspaper to events at your program so it can share your story with the larger community.
Invite people to the table. Have you ever been at a planning meeting and thought, “It would be great if we could get X person to do Y for our program?” Consider inviting that person to visit your program, and start the relationship. Think of whom you’d want as unlikely allies and invite them to join coalitions and working groups. For example, school district budget directors can be valuable additions to preschool planning teams because they help balance “big vision” conversations with real financial constraints. Public health analysts can help early learning administrators stretch beyond their own programs to think in terms of the whole community, and they often have access to population-level data that educators do not. Get to know your new collaborators and their perspectives, needs, skills, and values.
Assign jobs. Partners, allies, and volunteers may get complacent or burn out over time if they aren’t engaged, challenged, and having fun. Think of approaching your allies as you would approach students—how might you differentiate the process to meet everyone’s needs, including your own? If someone has a knack for data, ask her to lead a data working group. Does someone like taking pictures? That’s your official event photographer. Tap into people’s strengths, and delegate as much as possible—you can’t, and shouldn’t, do everything yourself. Others will want to help, especially once they visit your program and get to know the children and staff.
Build your own sandbox
The next time you observe preschool children playing in a sandbox or at a sand table, pay close attention. Watch the amazing things they do with the sand and their tools. Watch how the dynamic changes when friends come to play. Note the cooperation, imaginative play, and early scientific thinking taking root as children explore cause and effect, size, shapes, and structures. Take in the engagement, the fun, the creativity.
Then think back to the sandbox metaphor and what the early learning sandbox of collaboration and partnerships looks like in your program and community. Start by inviting just one new person to the table. Tell him what you do for a living, and see if he has any ideas for supporting children, families, and early learning. Imagine the possibilities.
Barnett, S. 2016. “Slow and (Un)Steady Does Not Win the Race: What Other States Should Learn From New York.” Preschool Matters … Today! (blog). National Institute for Early Education Research. https://nieer.wordpress.com/2016/05/12/slow-andunsteady-does-not-win-the-race-what-other-states-shouldlearn-from-new-york/.
Bartik, T.J. 2014. From Preschool to Prosperity: The Economic Payoff to Early Childhood Education. Kalamazoo, MI: Upjohn Institute Press.
Crimaldi, L. July 24, 2016. “Legislators Restore $100 Million to State Budget.” The Boston Globe. www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/07/23/legislature/
Feuer, A. November 20, 2015. “Michael Skolnik Taps His Social Network to Fight for Civil Rights.” New York Times. www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/nyregion/michael-skolnik-politicaldirector-for-russell-simmons-fights-for-civil-rights.html?_r=0.
Friedman-Krauss, A., W.S. Barnett, & M. Nores. 2016. “How Much Can High-Quality Universal Pre-K Reduce Achievement Gaps?” Washington, DC: Center for American
Heim, J. August 1, 2016. “Early Childhood Education Gets Push from $1 Billion Federal Investment.” Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/earlychildhood-education-gets-push-from-1-billion-federalinvestment/2016/07/31/a288d948-55bb-11e6-b7dedfe509430c39_story.html.
Herzenberg, S., M. Price, & D. Bradley. 2005. “Losing Ground in Early Childhood Education: Declining Workforce Qualifications in an Expanding Industry, 1979-2004.” Economic Policy Institute. www.epi.org/publication/study_ece_summary/.
IOM (Institute of Medicine) & NRC (National Research Council). 2015. Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/Reports/2015/Birth_To_Eight.aspx.
Mooney, C.G. 2011. Swinging Pendulums: Cautionary Tales for Early Childhood Education. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf.
Muenchow, S., & E. Weinberg. 2016. “Ten Questions Local Policymakers Should Ask About Expanding Access to Preschool.” Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research. www.air.org/sites/default/files/downloads/report/10-Preschool-Questions-EPC-May-2016.pdf.
Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy. 2008. “A Case Study of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care.” Boston, MA: Rennie Center. www.strategiesforchildren.org/doc_research/08_Rennie_Case.pdf.
Strategies for Children. 2013. “All-America City Grade-Level Reading Award Application: The Pittsfield Promise.” www.berkshireunitedway.org/sites/berkshireunitedway.oneeach.
Saulmon, G. 2013. “Holyoke to Promote Child Literacy by Creating ‘Mini Libraries’ at Police Substations, Stocking Cruisers With Books.” MassLive. www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2013/04/holyoke_to_create_mini-librari.html.
US DHHS (US Department of Health and Human Services) & ACF (Administration for Children and Families). 2016. “High-Quality Early Learning Settings Depend on a High-Quality Workforce. Massachusetts Wage Profile.” www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/occ/massachusetts_wage_profile.pdf.
Photographs: 2, © iStock; 1, Karen Phillips
Titus DosRemedios, MA, is director of research and policy at Strategies for Children, an early education policy and advocacy organization based in Boston, Massachusetts. He analyzes state funding, manages strategic communications, and supports local early learning collaborations. [email protected]