Meera Mani heads up the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Children, Families and Communities program. (Full-disclosure: the Packard Foundation is a funder of New America’s Early & Elementary Education Policy work.) Under her leadership, the foundation launched the Starting Smart and Strong Initiative in 2015, a 10-year effort in three communities in California: San Jose, Fresno, and Oakland. The aim is to focus investments to ensure children grow up healthy and ready to succeed in school by improving the quality of adult-child interactions across all settings where kids learn and grow.
A key part of this effort is the Early Learning Lab, a venture designed to more quickly identify and expand effective teaching and caregiving practices for all young children. We spoke with Mani about her work in California and why she feels the state and nation are at a tipping point in early childhood education.
Why invest in early childhood now?
Over the years, public and private investments have focused on programs and services for a relatively small number of children, usually from poorer backgrounds. Research and evaluations have shown what works, for how long, and under what conditions. But what’s become clear to me is that we have little “know-how” about making those programs available and affordable to the population at large. How do we create programs that put their arms around more than 200 or 300 kids and do it well?
What progress has California made in strengthening its early childhood programs? And what’s still missing?
It’s really been a mixed story over the past 5 years. We’ve been able to increase early learning spaces for 4-year-olds through our transitional kindergarten program (which began in 2010), but infant-toddler care programs experienced severe cuts. So we’ve increased access to programs for 3- and 4-year-olds while decreasing access for infants and toddlers. Additionally, we are testing a quality rating and improvement system (QRIS) across many communities and getting a handle on the quality of our licensed early learning settings. However many (80%) of our children under 3 do not attend licensed programs. They are being cared for by family, friends, and neighbors in more informal networks.
We’re trying to increase access and expand quality programs and services for all low-income children, birth through age 5, across all settings, formal and informal. We believe adults in the lives of young children have an enormous influence on their growth and development. So investing in early learning is an investment in our state’s human capital—parents, caregivers, and teachers—which research has shown will have great benefits.
How do we deliver quality programs in a state as big as California?
If we really want to move the needle on quality for young children, change begins with caregivers. You can build the best child care center in the world, but if the adult-child interactions in that center don’t support that child’s learning and development, you are not going to get the outcomes you are looking for. That’s why we’ve decided to focus on supporting the adults in children’s lives.
Additionally, when we put children at the center, we shift our frame from individual programs to a set of connected systems that children and families travel through during a child’s early years. So we focus on three things: 1) the quality of what happens between adults and children in all settings; 2) the capacity and capability of diverse yet connected systems to deliver quality; and 3) the policy and regulatory context that enables the change we want. That thinking gave birth to Starting Smart and Strong.
How do we efficiently help give parents, caregivers, and teachers the skills they need to do their jobs well?
The Early Learning Lab was introduced to do this very thing—to identify the most important practices we want adults to use, whether it’s a teacher or a caregiver or a parent. The lab will work with stakeholders in the Starting Smart and Strong Communities to co-design approaches to professional development for pre-K and TK (transitional kindergarten) teachers; approaches to support for parents and informal care providers; and approaches to exploring technology as a mechanism to reach adults who care for and educate children. Then we want to drive these adult practices through testing and learning, keeping what works and changing what does not.
Can you give a window into what some of this testing and learning looks like?
Sure, in San Jose, the school district is working to train early childhood professionals to do a better job of understanding and responding to young children’s social and emotional needs through positive guidance. Experts from the lab have worked with administrators and teachers inside the Franklin-McKinley School District, where teachers are serving a large population of low-income immigrant students. The experts are there not to tell the district what to do, but to be that guide on the side and help guide the development of a training program tailored to this particular community’s concerns.
Similarly, in Fresno, experts from the Lab have worked with stakeholders to strengthen the way early childhood practitioners support English language learners as they move through the early care and school system. They’ve focused on strategies teachers can use to support linguistic growth. They’ve had participation from not just teachers within the public school system, but from Head Start, Early Head Start, and the family child care community. And this was developed by leaders in the community along with the Lab, so they’ve been able to create the change they wanted in their own communities.
We think this type of work has a lot of potential.
California is just starting to build back after dramatic cuts in funding over the past decade. What are you learning from a policy perspective?
California has made huge advances recently. We preserved our transitional kindergarten in the most recent budget, and state legislators have kept their word by expanding state preschool and improving rates for child care. But in order to fully realize the outcomes we want to see for all California’s children, we have to look more closely at workforce and professional development.
The Starting, Smart and Strong communities are in a position to allow us to test not only the interventions themselves, but also to test policies and programs that support their expansion. What should the state be doing to help make sure the most effective interventions reach more children?
We want to be looking at things like: What are the structures that best support professional development within school districts? For example, how do we make sure teachers have substitutes so they can attend training? How do we ensure coaching is embedded in our professional development models?
California will elect a new governor in 2018. What might that mean for early childhood?
As we think about the next administration in California, the lessons we are learning from Starting Smart and Strong, from the QRIS collaborative, and from our partners running early childhood programs are going to be really important. The next decade here has to be about getting it right on the front lines, and being sure that state policy is enhancing and supporting what’s going on in local communities.
If it’s working in one district, they should be borrowing and learning from each other. Rather than wait for the state state to make a big change, communities must start testing and implementing practices and policies that improve quality and outcomes for children. Let local practice inform state and federal policy.