For years, “children at risk” have been the buzzwords used for describing vulnerable children. Why not think instead of “children at promise” – of assets rather than deficits? This was the theme of last week’s Seventh Annual Community Dialogue on Early Education and Care at Wheelock College – “Moving From At Risk to At Promise: Transforming Policies, Practices and Communities to Support Young Children and Their Families.”
“We went from ‘A Nation at Risk’ [1983 report – ‘A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform’ – of the National Commission on Excellence in Education] to children at risk,” said J. Andres Ramirez of Rhode Island College in his opening address. “The rhetoric changed from a whole nation to pinpointing specific students… I think we should think about children placed at risk. We are trying to change that to children placed at promise. What will it really take?”
Part of the answer, Ramirez said, comes with aligning “mandated curriculum and standards” with “students’ needs, rights and background” and with the accumulation of educators’ experience or the “thought collective of the profession.”
If Ramirez set the intellectual tone for the day, then Helen Blank, director of leadership and public policy at the National Women’s Law Center, set the political tone. She issued a strong call to action after tracing the history of efforts to expand access to high-quality early education and care. As promising as the federal Early Learning Challenge is, she said, it is not enough. (Read Helen Blank’s speech.)
“This is an exciting yet challenging time for young children and early childhood with the growing discussion about the need to lay a strong foundation in the early years. Yet with all this talk in this extraordinarily hostile economic and political climate, we walk a tightrope in terms of sustaining forward momentum while avoiding the danger of promising to do more with less,” Blank said.
“We still haven’t found the will to ensure that all our children, especially the most vulnerable, have the early childhood opportunities they need. We owe our young children better. The gap between the rhetoric and the reality is stunning given the research, the support of our top economists, and the growing understanding of the importance of our children’s earliest years not only for school success, but for our nation’s economic success.”
Blank cited some sobering statistics:
- In fiscal year 2010, with the help of economic stimulus funds, 1.7 million children benefited from federal child care assistance. By the end of this year, this number will likely fall to 1.4 million children, the lowest number since 1998.
- “Only three states now pay [reimbursement] rates that are the 75th percentile of a current [market] rate, compared to 22 states in 2001… While 31 states report that they pay higher rates for higher quality, or tiered rates, in approximately four-fifths of the 31 states, the reimbursement rate at the highest quality level was below the 75th percentile of the current market rate.”
“These gaps are serious, as is the discussion around access versus quality,” Blank said. “These are not and should not be competing issues.”
Blank urged a “flexible, strategic and pragmatic” approach to building a well-funded system of high-quality early education and care.
“We must continue to struggle to expand financing for child care and improve state policies at the same time, we might consider a pre-kindergarten strategy as an approach that could help to ensure that both low-income and middle-income parents get the help they need to afford high-quality care,” Blank said. “Pre-k is part of a birth-to-5 strategy that will not be achieved by a single funding stream or program. We are going to have to build our system room by room. If we can win the financing for six hours of pre-kindergarten in a mixed-delivery system [of public and private providers] for 3- and 4-year-olds with child care funds to extend the day, that is a victory. It should be part of our plan….
“In America, there isn’t always a comprehensive approach to solving problems. If we can build a room, and it is furnished with high standards and a good compensation package for early childhood educators, that is an important step to take. The public may one day accept financing a universal pre-k system before they accept financing a universal birth-to-5 early childhood system.”
In other sessions, Hanna Gebretensae, director of early childhood programs at Wheelock’s Aspire Institute, provided an update on the work of Aspire’s Center for Assessment and Screening Excellence to help the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) establish a developmentally appropriate system for assessing young children in multiple domains. Rather than think of assessment as simply implementing a tool at a single point in time, Gebretensae said “authentic assessment” is an ongoing process that helps inform curriculum and instruction. With young children, she said, assessment should be grounded in play.
“Authentic assessment gives a picture of the whole child, not just isolated skills and milestones, helps differentiate instruction, and expands parents’ and educators’ understanding of the children under your care,” Gebretansae said. “If you are teaching, you should be observing. If you are observing you should be assessing. If you are assessing you should be bringing it back into your teaching.”
EEC Commissioner Sherri Killins, in summarizing the department’s work over the past year, said it focused on four critical areas: teacher/educator quality, program quality, screening and assessment, and engagement of communities and families. She also engaged the audience in a wide-ranging discussion about the implementation of various EEC initiatives. Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville, in closing remarks, looked forward to increased investments once the fiscal climate improves.
Words of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman that Blank quoted in her speech underscore the importance of the work discussed at the Wheelock conference.
“We can invest early to close disparities and prevent achievement gaps, or we can remediate disparities when they are harder and more expensive to close, Heckman wrote in “The Economics of Inequality” in the spring 2011 issue of American Educator. “Investing early allows us to shape the future; investing later chains us to fixing the missed opportunities of the past.”