By Elaine Weiss, Broader, Bolder Approach to Education and Karen Howard, First Focus

As cities in states as politically diverse as New York, Massachusetts, Georgia, Texas and Washington seek to expand their preschool programs with an eye toward universal access, early childhood education continues to gain traction in policy discussions. At the same time, rising poverty among young students, particularly children of color, and rapidly changing student demographics, along with new findings on the devastating impacts of poverty-related toxic stress on child development, are prompting broader assessments of children’s needs. Policymakers must address factors far beyond classrooms and schools, improving the family and home circumstances in which our children spend the early years when growth and development is most critical. Today, the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education and First Focus are sponsoring a briefing featuring the documentary Ready for Kindergarten, which provides an in-depth look at Educare – an intensive birth-to-five early childhood system that offers lessons that can guide early childhood policymaking at this critical juncture.

For many early childhood advocates, Educare represents our ultimate goal. It empowers some of our poorest, most vulnerable children and families to succeed through a coordinated system of home visits, high-quality care and pre-kindergarten, health and nutrition supports, and parent engagement, all centered within those families’ communities. The value of Educare can be seen in its impressive results. Research shows that children who experience Educare for a full five-year course enter elementary school with far more extensive vocabularies and stronger social skills, including self-confidence, persistence, and self-regulation, than their peers. But these achievements do not come easy. This comprehensive approach requires intensive planning and coordination of interdisciplinary health, educational, nutritional, and social services, braiding of multiple private and public funding streams, quality training, coaching and support for early education teachers, and the establishment of CQI systems that track student progress.

Indeed, Educare’s comprehensive nature has led policymakers to question its scalability, and it has received little attention in early childhood policymaking. We hope that will change. We cannot afford to squander the potential Educare represents not just to beat, but change the odds for many children.

At its core, Educare’s success lies in its holistic approach and its intensive and uncompromising focus on quality. From teacher preparation and qualifications to classroom structure, curriculum, and continuity, Educare’s practices draw on the best available evidence of what works to support children’s development from birth to kindergarten across cognitive, social/ emotional, physical, and behavioral domains. With policy discussions having evolved from questioning the importance of quality to exploring what constitutes high quality and how to attain it, Educare provides relevant and timely answers.

For Educare, parent engagement is central to the definition of quality. Longitudinal studies of the Nurse-Family Partnership home visiting program and of model preschool programs like Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan and the Chicago Child Parent Centers all document the importance of helping parents develop skills to support at home what their children learn in the classroom. And like Head Start, Educare understands that children who are hungry, sick, homeless, or experiencing violence struggle to learn. Similarly, when parents cannot provide a nurturing home environment, children suffer. Educare therefore provides support groups, counseling, employment assistance, and a range of other services to support parents’ roles as caregivers and family providers.

As is true of the K-12 education field, incorporating and valuing students’ diverse cultures in the school setting poses challenges in the early childhood world, where Hispanic children, the most rapidly-growing minority group, and other children of color, remain the most underserved. Engaging parents as partners by understanding their unique backgrounds, needs, and assets has helped Educare develop the kind of cultural competency that other early childhood education programs could emulate.

Educare demands high standards. Schools serve just 140 to 200 children, and they keep class sizes small and teacher-child ratios low to ensure individualized attention. Each preschool classroom of 17 students has three teachers. Lead teachers have bachelor’s degrees, and master-teacher coaches who supervise four class rooms also work inside each. These high qualified educators are supported by full-time social workers and various consultants, from speech pathologists and nurses to visiting artists. Teachers and social workers regularly review and evaluate children’s growth and learning, and adjust practice accordingly.

Educare’s success is also rooted in its partnerships with philanthropic organizations, schools, child care providers, and Early Head Start and Head Start centers, which collaborate to form Educare centers. This alignment enables Educare to leverage community resources that enhance Centers’ environment and learning.

Of course, Educare’s quality, attention to detail, coordination, model fidelity and implementation, and rigorous evaluation requires real resources. A handful of forward-thinking foundations, including Susie Buffett’s Sherwood Foundation, Ounce of Prevention, Irving Harris Foundation, and the George Kaiser Foundation, among others, have led the way by demonstrating the immense value in leveraging significant investments with public funding to create Educare schools across the nation. Policymakers interested in truly transforming the lives of children and promoting our national prosperity should note that closing the achievement gap requires substantial investment early in the lives of children. Educare highlights the fundamental truth in Nobel laureate economist James Heckman’s advice that

we gain money by investing early to close disparities and prevent achievement gaps, or we can continue to drive up deficit spending by paying to remediate disparities when they are harder and more expensive to close . . . Investing early allows us to shape the future and build equity; investing later chains us to fixing the missed opportunities of the past—for which we pay dearly.

Policymakers would do well to heed these lessons and enact early childhood programs that incorporate what we know works from Educare. It has the potential to be a game changer—for our children and our nation.

Educare: A Model for Early Childhood Policymaking – via @First_Focus @BroaderBolder
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Want to learn more? First Focus is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Read more about our work on early childhood.

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