On a hot, humid day last August, I watched 19 timid first graders walk through my classroom door in Dallas, TX. I greeted them all and checked their names on my roster as they came in. One student told me his name was Junior. I didn’t have a Junior on my roster, so I asked his last name. “I don’t know” he responded. By the end of the day I found out that his name wasn’t Junior and that he hadn’t attended pre-k or kindergarten. As part of our school’s reading inventory I asked “Who reads with you at home?” His answer? “Nobody.”
Needless to say, Junior came to his first year of school well behind his peers who had had more enriching early childhood experiences. As I worked with him, I realized that Junior was one of the sweetest and hardest working students in my class, but despite all his progress in my class, he was still not able make up for the limited school and home education he’d received in his first six years.
Unfortunately, Junior’s story is not unique. Ask any early education teacher who works in a Title 1 school or with an at-risk group of students and he or she will likely have similar stories. When teachers see students like Junior, we wonder where they would be if they had been exposed to more words, more play, and more engaging activities in their earliest years. We wonder where (and why!) our systems have failed our neediest, most vulnerable students and their families. There are numerous state and federal early education programs in place , including Head Start, which just had its 50-year anniversary. So where did Junior — and his family — fall through the cracks? How can we make sure that parents have what they need to set up their children for success?
The State Advisory Councils on Early Childhood Education and Care (SACs) were authorized under the 2007 Head Start rewrite to answer these questions. SACs are designed to respond to and prevent future situations like the one I experienced with Junior. Recognizing the need for high quality, streamlined, and strategically focused early childhood education systems in the states, the SACs were funded through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. With only $100 million dollars (divided among the 45 states and 5 territories) the SACs’ main objective was to gather information, collaborate among stakeholders and make recommendations to inform states’ early childhood efforts, through these seven main tasks (from p. 7 of the report):
- Conduct needs assessments on the quality and availability of early childhood care
- Identify barriers to coordination and collaboration among federally and state funded programs
- Increase participation, specifically among underrepresented and special populations
- Establish recommendations for a unified data collection system
- Establish recommendations for professional development and career ladder for ECE educators
- Assess effectiveness of higher education supporting ECE educators
- Provide recommendations for improvements in ECE standards and develop high quality learning standards
Last month, after five years of work, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) released a report on the status of the SACs. The report finds that 100 percent of SACs successfully met the requirements listed above. It appears that the $100 million dedicated to the SACs went pretty far. Highlights of the SACs’ work include:
- 90 percent of SACs engaged with the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) programs and 71 percent had a representative from the governor’s office at meetings, allowing for collaboration across the spectrum of stakeholders, even though it was not a requirement.
- 92 percent of states revised and strengthened standards for infants or toddlers, or created new ones. All states already had standards for 3-5 year olds before receiving the grant, but the SAC required them to develop early learning standards for infants and toddlers too.
- 62 percent of SACs completed a study of the ECE workforce to determine how to strengthen and further professionalize the early childhood education field. Almost half of states used funding to align higher education coursework to early childhood education guidelines, to ensure that teachers are fully prepared to implement early childhood standards.
- 41 percent of participating states passed legislation to support or sustain SAC initiatives and activities. For example, New York created New York Works for Children, an early childhood professional development system that includes early learning guidelines, program standards, and a career ladder for early childhood educators.
The results of the report are promising; the councils effectively facilitated collaboration among state and federal entities to produce important recommendations for future progress toward strong, coordinated, and streamlined early childhood programs. The grants compelled states to think strategically about their early childhood systems , which is seen as a major accomplishment by the ACF. Now that the SACs have made their recommendations, there needs to be continued collaboration and action to create the type of transformation that is needed in early childhood programs. Then, we can hope for a future where teachers will no longer have to wonder how our students’ lives would have been different if their families had access to early education resources and support. Instead of spending crucial school years playing catch up, we can work with our students to ensure that they excel and are in a position to be successful in any endeavor they undertake.