Q & A with Dr. Ruby Takanishi, our New Senior Research Fellow

In March, we welcomed Dr. Ruby Takanishi as a senior research fellow with the Education Policy Program here at New America. We are looking forward to working with her over the next year.

Last week, Dr. Takanishi was  honored with the 2014 Distinguished Public Service Award of the American Educational Research Association for her efforts to promote the use of research in early education policy and practice. Her  AERA lecture, The Early Education Debates: Informing Policy and Practice in Early Education Through Research" can be found here.

We asked Dr. Takanishi a few questions about the project she'll be undertaking as part of her research fellowship at New America. Her responses are below:

You are a leading figure in the scholarship on PreK-3rd approaches to public education. What led you to focus on this topic in the first place? 

PreK-3rd had a brief life in the 1970s. Forty years ago, The Spencer Foundation awarded me a small grant to conduct research on what was then called developmental continuity. Edward Zigler, while he was head of the US Office of Child Development had launched Project Developmental Continuity recognizing that a year or two of early education, typically half-day at the time, had to be bolstered through the primary grades. Life and history intervened, but I had the opportunity to pick this up around 2000, when I was president of the Foundation in Child Development (FCD).

At that time, there was rising interest in universal pre-K. Advocates were claiming that UPK would have lasting effects. Distinctions in program quality were not as common as they are today. So I felt that the resources of a private independent foundation could be used to test the idea that greater continuity between pre-K and primary education was desirable. Short, one- or two-year programs can have immediate effects, but children require sustained effective instruction and support every day of their lives.

Debates about typically short-term early education programs have stagnated on their lasting influences. We need to move on and focus our energies on creating more effective programs for more children, as part of a new beginning for public education in America.

Do you have a title for your book? What are the main themes?

First Things First:  Redesigning America's Forgotten Primary School. But don't hold me to it!

The main themes are:

The American primary school, typically kindergarten to Grade 5 or 6, has been neglected in education reform during the past 50 years. Much more attention has focused on waves of middle and high school reform, which should build from effective primary schools, which now constitute first six to seven years of  public education, and are the foundation for later learning.

The primary or elementary school today is poorly informed by scientific evidence of how children learn and the influences of educators on their learning trajectories or pathways. Opportunities for children to learn more effectively and deeply are being missed, and later remediation is inefficient and costly in both financial and in human terms.

Early learning, not yet a public good, is ridden with inequalities in which children participate in programs, the quality of their learning experiences, and their opportunities to learn. These inequalities are related to family resources, and lead to gaps even before public education begins, typically with kindergarten.

Without fundamental changes in how educators are recruited, selected, prepared, and supported, pedagogy or instruction will be deeply compromised. As a result, large numbers of children will continue to be poorly educated.

Redesigned primary schools already exist. But too few children attend those schools. The American dilemma is how to make them more common in an education governance system of state and local control. Trying to change 15,000 districts and 50 states is daunting. We must begin by changing where the starting line for public investments in children's education begins.

To transform primary schools, what do principals, teachers, and school districts need to do differently?

District would institute policies to ensure continuity of learning experiences from pre-K or early education programs into grades 1-6. This includes clear pathways for attendance in the same primary school from PreK to Grade 6. When students move, their families have the choice of continuing in the same school. Districts would also have policies and coherent curricula that are similar across the district, so that when students move, their learning is not disrupted.

Principals would be responsible for the entire primary school from pre-K on. Pre-K would not be an add-on, but an integral part of the primary school, which begins at age three.

Teachers would be prepared for this primary school and developmental range of the children. They would work in joint professional communities with responsibilities for all children, not just those in their classes.

What do policymakers typically miss or disregard when it comes to children's learning? What do you wish they would do differently?

Policies are blunt instruments. I hope that policymakers can understand that details matter in implementation of legislation, involving adults bringing their values and personal and professional histories to their work. Policymakers at all levels need to recognize that, in order to change the educational experiences of children, changing adults’ minds and practices is our central challenge.


Laura Bornfreund is director of early & elementary education policy with the Education Policy program and co-director of the Family Centered Social Policy program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts working on new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third grade learning experiences.