Last week, I wrote about two frustrating lines of thinking in early childhood education: “Stone Soup“—the pressure for early childhood advocates to stretch limited resources so thin it undermines their impact—and “Gold Standard“—where the perfect becomes the enemy of the good in efforts to expand preschool policy and access. Today I want to talk about what I see as a better approach.
Frustrating as these two are, I think each has deeply admirable qualities: On “Stone Soup,” an adaptability and resourcefulness in tackling pressing challenges, and on the “Gold Standard,” a deep moral commitment to prioritizing children’s learning and development. Ultimately, meeting the early learning needs of our nation’s young children will require a strategy that combines the strengths of both.
Imagine an approach to early childhood education in which providers and policymakers are constantly identifying challenges and unmet needs; developing solution strategies to address those needs and challenges; collecting data and assessing how those strategies are working; making course corrections in response to that assessment (including discontinuing ineffective strategies); sharing what they learn with one another and the broader field; and replicating the most successful approaches.
Rather than a top-down approach that assumes we know how to best deliver programs that meet children’s needs (as in the “Gold Standard”), policymakers and funders would support locally driven innovations that address elements of quality or access. But (in contrast to “Stone Soup”) they would have clear expectations for these innovations and rigorously assess their impact. Through innovations and partial solutions, we would eventually identify the most critical elements for delivering better early learning outcomes, identify efficiencies, and replicate and develop effective strategies.
There are two big barriers to accomplishing this, however. The first is a lack of a common set of expectations for success in early childhood education. Both “Stone Soup” and the “Gold Standard” have their roots in this problem. Without clear standards of success, the mere fact an initiative is doing something is too often considered evidence of success in early childhood education. But the lack of a common definition of ultimate goals also pushes “Gold Standard” proponents to seize on inputs and processes as a way to ensure programs are doing right by kids.
This isn’t just a measurement issue; it’s a deep philosophical problem for the field. There is still no agreement on whether the goal of early childhood policy and advocacy efforts should be to maximize children’s early learning and development, to enable parents to work, or to reduce the extent to which young children are in situations that harm their development. Obviously, well-designed early childhood policies will accomplish all of these things, but various people stand on different points on the spectrum of which of these goals should be emphasized. As a result, many conversations about early childhood education suffer from an underlying disconnect around the ultimate goals we’re trying to accomplish.
Moreover, many in the early childhood sector continue to harbor a fear of outcomes assessment based on both their understanding of child development and fears about inappropriate uses of evaluation data. Yet the irony here is that, to date, the preschool movement owes its policy success almost entirely to the existence of high-quality preschool evaluations, which have helped make the case for preschool’s effectiveness and demonstrate its value for children and the public. Rather than treating those evaluations as the be-all, end-all evidence for quality preschool, however, policy progress requires we treat them as a starting point for a much more sweeping R&D effort aimed at understanding how to effectively design and deliver strategies that replicate that success more broadly and in more varied circumstances.
That gets us to the second problem here: Implementing this strategy will require a political and systemic infrastructure capable of fostering experimentation, evaluation, and action on lessons learned. The non-system early childhood patchwork that currently exists in most states is (with a few exceptions) incapable of doing that. I fear, though, that systems-building efforts in many states are focusing heavily on inputs and alignment, without adequate attention to innovation or continuous learning and improvement.
Political dynamics also play a role here: Early childhood advocates currently face political incentives to overstate their certainty about what works rather than admitting that we still have a lot to learn about how to deliver excellent early learning at scale. At the same time, political forces also make it difficult to discontinue or change programs that aren’t working—a critical factor for driving progress over time.
Is it hopeless? I don’t think so. But it is hard. Giving all children the early learning opportunities they need is a challenge of policy, political will, funding, and delivery innovation. Achieving success will require addressing all of these elements. Here’s a list of steps I think are necessary to get there:
- Be clear about what we’re trying to accomplish, and establish common, appropriate metrics for measuring progress toward that goal.
- Recognize that providing children with the early childhood services they need and deserve will require considerable resources.
- Recognize that we don’t have all the answers.
- Be open to innovation—including removing barriers in some existing publicly funded programs—and support it.
- Use natural experiments and better administrative data to evaluate the heck out of any innovation.
- Create structures that allow for sharing and common learning.
- Stop doing what doesn’t work, and replicate what does.
There are no easy or cheap solutions here, and we don’t have all the answers, but over time, if we take these steps, we can do much better by our youngest learners than we are today—and we must.
Photo Credit: Apple Tree Institute