Two Areas Where Innovations Are Not Happening

Empowering families, parents and caregivers in early childhood education.

GUEST COLUMN | by Chris Drew

Parent University imageSaul Khan is flipping classrooms. Coursera and other MOOCs are opening access to elite universities in unprecedented ways. School choice and the chartered school movement are shaking up traditional district structuring. Tablet devices, gamification, big data, badging, learning apps—if you’re reading this blog you’re likely pretty well versed on all this and the state of edtech and innovation. You’ve read about these K-12 and higher education transformations. This piece, though, does not address any of these innovations, but instead focuses on two areas in which innovations are not happening:

1. early childhood education (birth to age five) and why this is significant, and

2. empowering the mobilization of underutilized infrastructure (families).

With the current education transformation mood being as it is, now is as timely a moment as we have seen for innovating to empower families, parents and caregivers to be more effective early childhood educators.

Until President Obama’s most recent State of the Union address, early childhood education has received little to no effective attention in the education transformation movement. But even Mr. Obama’s plea for more early childhood education access is not particularly inspiring. It calls only for the expansion of day care centers, mostly Head Start. At this moment, only 1 in 6 families eligible for Head Start have access to Head Start programs. And an expansion of centers would certainly address some of these access issues. But since fewer than 30 percent of U.S. families have access to high-quality early childhood education and care, even 100 percent access for every Head Start eligible family would only put a minor dent in the overall problem.

And we know from over five decades of longitudinal data collection and analysis that high-quality early childhood education has meaningful and lasting positive impacts. We have seen from the Perry Scope Preschool project, the Carolina Abecedarian Study and the Chicago Longitudinal Study, for example, that children who have such experiences are less likely to drop out, less likely to become a part of the criminal justice system, less likely to become teenage parents, more likely to go to college, more likely to repay college loans, more likely to be homeowners, more likely to have high paying jobs. The list goes on. And what it means is an economic return of $7 for every $1 invested. 

In addition to making economic sense, early childhood education intervention is just common sense. But it’s also scientific sense. For example, neuroscientists tell us that 90 percent of human brain development occurs within the first five years of life. Attitudes, habits are set, language, learning and problem-solving exposure are creating (or not creating) strong neural pathways. Education researchers tell us that for many students their academic trajectory is already determined by age six. Caregivers in care centers, at home and in the community are modeling behavior, providing rich language experiences, setting expectations and more, and all these have great impacts on children’s life trajectories. But because high quality early childhood education is so limited, before K-12 teachers and schools ever meet their students, there is a lot that has already been determined for our students, for the short term at the very least.

And even though there are over 805,000 daycares and preschools in the U.S., the problem is that the average entry-level education for early childhood caregivers is a high school diploma. Same goes for babysitters and nannies. This means that the overwhelming majority of those caring for our little ones at the most critical point in their development are not trained in how to do so effectively. Having a grown up watch a child and ensure a child is safe and well fed does not equate to early childhood education.

So what innovative supplements are available?

As for early childhood education media, PBS’s Sesame Street and their various cross platform assets are still an important force. Disney has nudged their way onto the scene through acquisitions such as and Baby Einstein. But sitting a zero-to-five year-old child in front of a television set or computer screen does not an education make. Johnson & Johnson’s BabyCenter has a global audience of over 30 million, but they are focused on delivering advice on family wellness and health.

Parents are a child’s first and most important teacher. For the reasons outlined above, the impact that family, friends and peer groups have on a young child may be even more powerful than great schools and great teachers. And every parent wants the best for their child. So why not mobilize parents, family members and caregivers to be more effective early childhood educators. If a parent is a child’s most important teacher, why can’t we make them a child’s best teacher? Consider how MOOCs are opening access to college courses. Parents do not need a degree, they simply need easy access to resources. Parents do not need – nor are they likely to have the time – to invest hours a week studying developmental psychology or language development theory. Easily accessible, not-overly complex, efficacious resources will go a long way.

There is an entire infrastructure in place, one that is deeply committed, motivated and energized to provide the best for a child. Why not mobilize those bodies? Why not empower those families? The outsourcing of our children’s development need not be the standard. Teachers and schools will always play an important role. But every teacher I know pines for the day when parents at home are able to support and supplement student learning.

What are ways you can think of for mobilizing and empowering families and caregivers to be their child’s best teacher? This has been our next big challenge for too long now.

After 10 years in the classroom as a professor and scholar of effective literacy training practices, Chris Drew, Ph.D., left academia and founded Parent University. His venture focuses on empowering and mobilizing parents and caregivers of learners from birth to age eight.


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