Making Critical Investments in Our Youngest Citizens

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

The Department of Education has unveiled a new grant opportunity to partner with states and local communities to expand the reach of high-quality preschool. The $250 million grant competition will provide thousands of additional 4-year-old children across the country with a high-quality preschool education. The Obama administration’s Preschool Development Grants program is a critical piece of the President’s plan to boost access to high-quality preschool and support early learning for every child in America, beginning at birth and continuing through school entry.

The return on our dollar is highest when we invest in our youngest children, and we have recent research showing that sufficiently scaled Pre-K programs in cities like Boston and Tulsa are having a significant, positive impact on children’s literacy, language development, and math skills. Still, only approximately 28% of America’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in state preschool programs in the 2012-2013 school year. The high cost of private preschool programs and insufficient funding for public preschool in many communities narrows options for families, especially those in low-income communities.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to expand access to high-quality preschool education to every child in America. Last January, he challenged more Americans to join this effort — and governors, mayors, school superintendents, corporate and community leaders, foundations, and policymakers have responded.

More than 30 states and the District of Columbia increased funding for preschool in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, and 10 of these states increased funding by more than 20%. This school year, 11,500 more low-income children in California will enjoy high-quality preschool thanks to the leadership of Governor Jerry Brown and Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. The State of Michigan also increased funding for Pre-K by $65 million for the second year in a row, adding more than 10,000 additional seats for 4-year-olds in state Pre-K for the 2014-2015 school year, and more than doubling overall funding for Pre-K in Michigan. Alabama, Connecticut, and Maine, as well as other states and dozens of cities across the country, like San Antonio, New York, Cleveland, and Seattle, have also established new preschool programs or are pushing forward with major expansions.

As we celebrate the expansion of high-quality preschool in states and cities across the country, President Obama continues to call on leadership in Congress to renew our federal commitment to our youngest children, and to the future of our country by partnering with states to provide high-quality Pre-K to every American child. There truly is no better investment in the economic security of our families and our communities than making sure our youngest citizens are ready to succeed in school and in life.

Cecilia Muñoz is an Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council.

New Preschool Grant Program Will Expand Opportunity to More of America’s Early Learners

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Secretary Arne Duncan interacts with a student at the Hug Me Tight Childlife Center in Pittsburgh. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Across the country, there is a great need for early learning. But the need isn’t just for preschool seats — it’s for high-quality early learning programs that can put children on the path to thrive in kindergarten and beyond.

Research has shown the powerful benefits of high-quality early education. Children who receive rich early learning experiences are less likely to need special education services. They’re in better health, and they get better jobs. Yet, today, only 30 percent of 4-year-olds in the U.S. participate in state preschool, and 10 states don’t offer it at all. Among other industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks 25th in enrollment of 4-year-olds in early learning.

President Obama has issued a call to expand access to high-quality preschool to every child in America. Yesterday, an important down payment was made toward that goal when Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell announced the availability of funds through the Preschool Development Grants program.

This new $250 million federal program will support states to build, develop, and expand voluntary, high-quality preschool programs for children from low- and moderate-income families. It will be jointly administered by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. All states — including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico — are eligible to apply by Oct. 14, 2014.

Secretary Duncan noted, “Through the Preschool Development Grants, we continue our efforts to create educational opportunities that prepare our youngest Americans for success in kindergarten, through elementary school and beyond. This new grant competition will prepare states to participate in President Obama’s proposed Preschool for All program — a federal-state partnership that would promote access to full-day kindergarten and encourage the expansion of high-quality preschool programs for 4-year-olds from low- and middle-income families.”

He added, “We urge states and communities to seize this opportunity, form partnerships, and begin drafting their proposals for the Preschool Development Grants program, because providing high-quality early learning opportunities is the most important single step we can take to improve the future of our young people.”

Secretary Duncan highlighted the new grant program yesterday during a trip to Pittsburgh, where he joined Mayor William Peduto in a visit to the Hug Me Tight Childlife Center and a community conversation at Hill House’s Kaufmann Center.

While at Hug Me Tight, Secretary Duncan toured classrooms, met with early childhood education providers, parents, and community members, and engaged in arts activities with some of the city’s youngest learners. Following the visit to the center, Secretary Duncan and Mayor Peduto participated in a discussion on early learning hosted by the city of Pittsburgh and the National League of Cities.

For more information about the new Preschool Development Grants program and how your state may apply, visit here. For more information on early learning at the U.S. Department of Education, visit here.

Tiffany Taber is Chief of Staff for Communications Development at the U.S. Department of Education. 

Ready To Learn Series Gets the Red Carpet Treatment

Cross-posted from the OII blog.

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Billy Aronson (second from left) and Jennifer Oxley, co-creators of “Peg + Cat,” a production of the Fred Rogers Company, share their Emmy Awards for “Outstanding Pre-School Children’s Animated Series” and “Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation for Production Design” with Ready to Learn (RTL) Program Manager Brian Lekander (left) and RTL Program Officer Adam Bookman. (Department of Education photo by Paul Wood)

Peg + Cat, the animated PBS KIDS math series launched last fall, won three Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Awards last month, including Outstanding Pre-School Children’s Animated Series. Funded in part by ED’s Ready To Learn (RTL) program, the series follows the spirited Peg and her loyal sidekick Cat, as they embark on hilarious musical adventures, learning math concepts along the way. The series provides young viewers with a new way to experience math and highlights its importance in a variety of everyday situations. Music is used as a teaching tool throughout the series and each episode features an original song.

Series co-creator and executive producer Jennifer Oxley also received the Emmy forOutstanding Individual Achievement in Animation for Production Design. Oxley made her first film at the age of 7 and has devoted much of her professional career to educational television and film, including direction of 15 short films for Sesame Street, as well as the award-winning adaptation of Spike Lee and Tanya Lewis Lee’s children’s book, Please, Baby, Please. Eleven-year-old Hayley Faith Negrin, the voice of Peg and the youngest nominee at this year’s Daytime Emmy Awards, received the award for Outstanding Performer in a Children’s Program.

In a press release from The Fred Rogers Company, the nonprofit producer of Peg + Cat, Paul Siefken, the company’s vice president of broadcast and digital media, said, “We’re delighted that the Emmy Awards committee has recognized Peg + Cat as an exceptional series with much to offer for today’s preschoolers and families.” In its premiere week last October, the television series reached 2.2 million children; in a typical month between October and May, more than 10 million individuals ages 2 and up, as well as 6.7 million households, viewed the show’s episodes.

Like all Ready To Learn initiatives, Peg + Cat employs a variety of media to engage children and families in early learning and school readiness, with a particular focus on low-income children. In addition to the television series, the Peg + Cat multi-platform media experience employs interactive mobile and online content, including games and other online resources at pbskids.org/peg, and additional interactive features, including steaming video, parent and educator resources, and mobile apps. In the first season, the online game collection received nearly 14 million pageviews and a Peg + Cat mobile app was downloaded more than 42,000 times. Community engagement with schools is also an important outreach strategy, and to date more than 1,200 educators and 15,000 children and families have participated in 88 school events.

Peg + Cat is partially funded through a $71 million RTL grant from the Office of Innovation and Improvement to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting Service. The RTL program encourages and supports the development and use of television and digital media to promote early learning and school readiness for young children and their families, as well as the dissemination of educational outreach programs and materials to promote school readiness. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting Service are one of three RTL grant recipients, each of which received awards in 2010.

Doug Herbert is a special assistant in the Office of Innovation and Improvement and editor of the OII home page.

Bringing the Promise of Healthy School Meals to More Children This Fall

Reposted from the Huffington Post.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 enabled the U.S Department of Agriculture to make historic changes to the meals served in our nation’s schools. Breakfasts, lunches, and snacks sold during the school day are now more nutritious than ever, with less fat and sodium and more whole-grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and low-fat dairy. For many kids, the meals they get at school may be the only nutritious meals they receive that day—and when children receive proper nourishment, they are not only healthier, but they also have better school attendance and perform better academically. It’s not enough, though, to make the meals healthier—we must ensure that children have access to those healthier foods.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act authorized a program, known as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), that can help schools achieve their educational goals by ensuring that children in low-income communities have access to healthy meals at school so they are ready to learn. In this program, schools agree to offer breakfast and lunch for free to all students, and cover any costs that exceed the reimbursements from USDA. Designed to ease the burden of administering a high volume of applications for free and reduced price meals, CEP is a powerful tool to both increase child nutrition and reduce paperwork at the district, school, and household levels, which saves staff time and resources for cash-strapped school districts.

Starting this upcoming school year, the program is available to schools across the country. The decision to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision is a local one, and schools must decide for themselves whether this program is right for them. In order to give schools more time to make that decision, we recently extended the deadline to participate in School Year 2014-2015. Last month, USDA announced that schools now have until August 31 to enroll.

State educational agencies and local school districts often use data collected through the National School Lunch Program to carry out certain eligibility requirements for other programs, including Title I for schools serving students from low-income families. The Department of Education recently released guidance highlighting the range of options that schools have for implementing these requirements while also participating in CEP—and many districts already have successfully implemented Title I requirements using data that incorporate Community Eligibility. We strongly encourage schools and school districts that have not yet adopted CEP to review ED Guidance on Community Eligibility and Title I and USDA’s Resources on Community Eligibility, and carefully consider the positive impact that CEP can have for your students, schools, and communities.

This program has already been working in nearly 4,000 pilot schools across the country, some of which are already in their third year of participation and seeing tremendous results. Schools that participated in the pilot phase of this program saw increased participation and revenue from breakfast and lunch programs:

  • In Washington, D.C.’s public schools, Lindsey Palmer, school programs manager for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, outlined why CEP has worked so well for D.C.’s schools; including reduced stigma, reduction in administrative functions, better prediction of federal school meals funding amounts based on previous participation, more resources available to improve the meals and overall program, and better reach to those students who really needed the benefits of the school meal program.
  • In New York, Larry Spring, superintendent of the Schenectady City School District, also offered high praise. His district can better focus efforts on food- insecure students and provide greater access to meals with the help of CEP. According to Superintendent Spring, his schools have enjoyed an increase in attendance since adopting CEP, which generally translates into higher test scores and improved academic achievement.

We want to give every child an opportunity to learn and thrive at school. CEP has the potential to bring the promise of healthy school meals to over 3,000 school districts nationwide. The Departments of Agriculture and Education have been working together to make sure that every eligible school knows about CEP and has the information they need to determine if it is right for them. To learn more visit USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service Website.

See what others have to say about the program.

Arne Duncan is Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and Tom Vilsack is Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Empowering Our Children by Bridging the Word Gap

Reposted from the White House blog.

Research shows that during the first years of life, a poor child hears roughly 30 million fewer total words than her more affluent peers. Critically, what she hears has direct consequences for what she learns. Children who experience this drought in heard words have vocabularies that are half the size of their peers by age 3, putting them at a disadvantage before they even step foot in a classroom.

This is what we call the “word gap,” and it can lead to disparities not just in vocabulary size, but also in school readiness, long-term educational and health outcomes, earnings, and family stability even decades later.

It’s important to note that talking to one’s baby doesn’t just promote language development. It promotes brain development more broadly. Every time a parent or caregiver has a positive, engaging verbal interaction with a baby – whether it’s talking, singing, or reading – neural connections of all kinds are strengthened within the baby’s rapidly growing brain.

That’s why today we are releasing a new video message from President Obama focused on the importance of supporting learning in our youngest children to help bridge the word gap and improve their chances for later success in school and in life. The President’s message builds on the key components of his Early Learning Initiative, which proposes a comprehensive plan to provide high-quality early education to children from birth to school entry.

The President’s message is part of a week-long campaign organized in partnership with Too Small to Faila joint initiative of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation and Next Generation, to raise awareness of the importance of closing the word gap. The video series follows the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families that explored innovative solutions to help expand opportunities for working families and businesses. The Summit explored a wide range of issues, including expanding access to affordable child care and early education opportunities for families.

Our children’s future is so important, bipartisan leaders are all doing their part to help close the word gap. Watch messages from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Cindy McCain, and share these messages with your networks to help spread the word about this cause.

This fall, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services will team up with Too Small to Fail and the Urban Institute to host an event designed to increase public understanding and make progress on this important issue. This event will highlight initiatives across the country focused on bridging the word gap, including:

  • Too Small to Fail’s Talking is Teaching public action campaign aimed at educating parents about the importance of talking to one’s baby and testing out community-level approaches, including in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Too Small to Fail is working in partnership with the George Kaiser Family Foundation. This campaign will engage pediatricians, business owners, faith-based leaders, librarians, and others to share with parents and caregivers how simple actions (e.g., describing objects seen during a walk or bus ride, singing songs, or telling stories) can significantly improve a baby’s ability to learn new words and concepts.
  • Georgia’s Talk with Me Baby, a scalable, public action strategy aimed at increasing early exposure to language and public understanding of the primacy of language. This program provides professional development to nurses, the nation’s largest healthcare workforce, who will coach new and expectant parents to deliver “language nutrition” to their kids. With funding from the Greater United Way of Atlanta, this collaborative effort brings together the Georgia Department of Public Health and Department of Education, Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and Georgia Tech.
  • The City of Providence’s Providence Talks, which provides members of the Providence community, where two-thirds of kindergarteners enroll below national literacy standards, with home-based caregiver coaching interventions. These interventions harness innovative technologies from the LENA Foundation, including word “pedometers” that record and provide quantitative feedback to caregivers on the number of words spoken and the number of conversations had with children. Providence Talks is hosted by Mayor Taveras of Providence, Rhode Island, and is supported by the Bloomberg Foundation.
  • The University of Chicago, School of Medicine’s Thirty Million Words® Initiative with its tiered intervention approach to optimizing caregiver-child talk at the individual, community, and population levels. Researchers recently received funds from the PNC Foundation to support a five-year longitudinal study of the program’s impact.

To learn more about the Administration’s commitment to early childhood education, click here. Stay tuned for more details on our fall event. And if you’re interested in joining this effort or sharing the great work you’re already doing, email us at wordgap@ostp.gov.

Maya Shankar is Senior Advisor for the Social and Behavioral Sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
 

Learning by Doing: Hands-On Experiences Help Children Learn and Dream

I recently visited a great hands-on, experiential learning site for young children.  The IntelliZeum, the brainchild of Executive Director Blanca Enriquez, is a one-of-a-kind interactive learning environment, created in El Paso, Texas 10 years ago. This stimulating learning center provides enriching experiences for the lucky area Head Start children who visit twice each year.

There were so many things I liked about the IntelliZeum. Each specialized learning area within the IntelliZeum has different clothing, tools, and unique things to do.  Children may enter a “space center” where they dress in space suits. They may visit a pretend doctor’s office where they don white coats and stethoscopes.  When the children travel to the “Arctic room,” it’s freezing cold; in the “rainforest room,” it’s hot and muggy.  In the “electricity and water center” they discover how water makes power — and they learn about water conservation.

The IntelliZeum sets high expectations for what children can learn. And children learn about all kinds of things, from parts of the solar system, to types of dinosaurs, to names of tools used for building construction. Before each visit, children are prepared with vocabulary and background knowledge so they can get the most out of the experience. And after the visit, learning is reinforced in the classroom by incorporating the concepts and rich oral language into reading, math, science, technology, social studies, and fine arts activities.

The learning environments are sophisticated and designed to stretch children’s minds, encouraging them — even at age 3 and 4 — to start thinking about interesting and important future careers. I know children leave dreaming of becoming doctors, architects, engineers, pilots, or reporters.

Something else that I really liked was the intentional inclusion of children with disabilities. A child in a wheelchair can get inside the time capsule for traveling to the age of the dinosaurs. The underwater “ocean,” an area enclosed by three giant aquariums, is also handicapped accessible, so a child in a wheel chair can wheel right in while the other children scramble under one of the aquariums. But all the kids end up in the same place.

I wish engaging learning centers like the IntelliZeum could be available to all children. But parents can help their children engage in rich learning experiences — at home and during daily activities.

For example, instead of watching television, families can take a trip to the airport, visit a train station, or observe a construction site in the neighborhood and take advantage of teachable moments within these experiences. Even errands to the store can be turned into solid learning experiences by exposing children to vocabulary words, letting the children participate by picking out and weighing fruits and vegetables, taking photos with a parent’s smartphone of something they like, or talking to a person at the store. We need to get back to experiential learning that is real, exciting, and meaningful — and summer can be a great time to do that.

Libby Doggett is the deputy assistant secretary for Policy and Early Learning in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Cities Can’t Wait When it Comes to Early Learning

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A remarkable thing is happening. Local leaders in cities across the country are plowing ahead — in some areas, without additional funding from federal or state governments — and making commitments to quality early education. Increasingly, cities are seeing high-quality early learning programs as a way to improve their communities and to become more competitive sites for the high-skills jobs of the future.

I recently visited two very different communities—Dallas and Salt Lake City. Each city is experiencing disparate challenges and moving forward on early learning in a distinctive way, determined, in part, by the preschool policies of each state.

Let’s look at Texas first.

Texas provides preschool to more than 50 percent of its four-year-olds through the Texas Public School Prekindergarten Initiative, launched 30 years ago.  But in Texas, success shouldn’t be measured in quantity, but in quality. Unless the local districts go above state requirements, the quality of early learning programs can be low. No limit is put on class size so one teacher can have 24 four-year olds without an assistant teacher. Additionally many districts must give educators specialized training because the generalist teaching certificate doesn’t adequately prepare teachers for preschool.

Dallas is boldly addressing these challenges by improving the quality of instruction and the reach of the program. Last year school officials realized many eligible children were not signed up for preschool, so the mayor and others, with backing from the Dallas area foundations, launched a public education campaign and have now signed up more than 3,000 of the 4-year-olds who were previously going unserved.

Seeing these efforts in Dallas is heartening, making me hopeful for strengthened preschool across Texas.

Now let’s look at Utah.

If you searched the latest State of Preschool Yearbook for information on the preschool program in Utah, you’d find a page that says, “No Program” because there is no direct state funding for preschool in Utah.

Despite this, Salt Lake County offers a strong preschool program serving many at-risk children.

The Granite School District works with United Way of Salt Lake and Voices for Utah Children to provide preschool services in the 11 schools most impacted by poverty.

The program uses a sustainable financing model (sometimes called Social Impact Bonds) for funding. This model quantifies the cost savings achieved through reduced special education use and reinvests the savings into the preschool program to serve more children in the future. Early results from the Granite School District in Utah are promising, showing both significant cost savings and improved child outcomes. Other districts in the county are using Title I funding to ensure their children get a strong start.

Finally, both Salt Lake and the state have embraced technology as a way to reach more children and families. The Utah Education Network connects all Utah school districts, schools, and higher education institutions to a robust network and quality educational resources. Every Utah teacher, caregiver, and family with a young child has free access to a “Preschool Pioneer Online Library.”

The U.S. Department of Education also recently awarded an i3 grant to expand the reach of UPSTART to children from rural districts in Utah who have traditionally had less access to educational resources.  This at-home school readiness program is designed to provide preschool children with an individualized reading, math, and science curriculum (with a focus on literacy).

Many other cities also are actively promoting early learning: San Antonio, San Francisco, Seattle, Cleveland, Kansas City—just to name a few. But cities can’t do this work alone. Nor can states. We need every governmental entity to do more to support early learning, which is why the President proposed his Preschool for All initiative, which would greatly expand services for children from birth to preschool in our nation. As the examples of Salt Lake and Dallas show, cities are moving forward in exciting ways, but they need help to reach all children.

Libby Doggett is the deputy assistant secretary for Policy and Early Learning in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Washington D.C. Charters, District Schools Collaborate Around College- and Career-Ready Standards

The rhythmic sound of poetry could be heard coming from the second-grade classroom at Ross Elementary School in Washington, D.C., though the students already had left for the day. Inside, teachers from several schools in the city were trying to find a poem that would captivate second graders, teach them about figurative language, and serve as the basis for a writing assignment.

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Ross Elementary School educator Kelly Worland Piantedosi leads a group of second-grade teachers in a discussion about literary analysis and poetry as part of the DC Common Core Collaborative. Photo credit: Nancy Zuckerbrod

The teachers are part of the DC Common Core Collaborative, which has about 200 participants from 22 District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools in the city. They get together regularly to discuss how to align their instruction with new college- and career-ready standards, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which were voluntarily adopted by the District of Columbia and 45 States to prepare students for college and careers. The teachers work in small teams of about six educators, all of whom teach the same grade, but at different schools in the city.

Kelly Worland Piantedosi teaches at Ross Elementary School and serves as the coach for the group of second-grade teachers that met in her classroom that afternoon. She said the teachers get inspired by hearing about strategies other educators use. “The exchange of ideas is great—nine times out of 10 you hear, ‘Oh we hadn’t thought about that yet,’” she said. “I know for myself, collaboration makes me a better teacher.”

Now in its third year, the Collaborative is managed by E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. Haynes and the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy were both awarded Professional Learning Communities for Effectiveness sub-grants from D.C.’s Race to the Top program. One of the purposes of Race to the Top was to ensure that teachers and principals were receiving the support, coaching, and professional learning opportunities they needed to help their students succeed.

While all States that received Race to the Top grants are working to achieve that goal in various ways, the District of Columbia program stands out because it helped forge connections among teachers in charter and district schools. Julie Green, the chief marketing and development officer for E.L. Haynes called the Race to the Top grant “really profound for the city,” in that it brought together the traditional and charter sectors in common purpose. “It was tremendous to move toward a unified vision for the kids in the city,” Green said.

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Ross Elementary School educator Kelly Worland Piantedosi leads a collaboration of Washington DC second-grade teachers. Photo credit: Nancy Zuckerbrod

The idea for the Collaborative developed when teachers at E.L. Haynes started to shift to the CCSS a few years ago. They were eager to share what was working for them and gain insight into the experiences of other teachers, Green said.

The teachers meet a few times a month for sessions that tend to last about an hour-and-a-half to two hours. They discuss what they are teaching and how it relates to the standards, produce lessons to try out in their classrooms, and set goals for what they want to accomplish with those lessons. The teachers report back to the group at a subsequent meeting on how well the lessons worked. A web portal also allows teachers in the Collaborative to share their work, such as videos of them giving their lessons.

The Collaborative is definitely working from the perspective of Raquel Maya, one of several Powell Elementary School teachers in the program and part of the team that met at Ross Elementary School. Maya said the group, and her coach Kelly Worland Piantedosi, gave her useful strategies for helping students access nonfiction. Maya said even teachers who aren’t participating in the Collaborative are benefiting from it.

“Once you have an idea from someone in the Collaborative, naturally you go back to your school and share your ideas,” Maya said. “For sure, it’s impacted teaching broadly at our school.”

So the promising collaboration can continue, the Marriott Foundation has agreed to keep the program going after the Race to the Top grant expires.

Read the full story, including takeaways and resources on PROGRESS

Bringing the Tech Revolution to Early Learning

Why do I advocate for “early tech”? I’ll give you three good reasons: my granddaughters Ella, Clara, and Zayla. I’ve seen the way technology has helped them to take charge of their own learning and opened doors to subjects and activities that really catch their interest.

It’s nothing short of amazing to think about how far we’ve come in the past ten years. Our children – and our grandchildren – pick up a device and instantly know how it works. They shift seamlessly from a hand-held device to a laptop or desktop and back again.

Whether we’ve seen it firsthand in our families, read about it in the papers, or heard about it from our friends and co-workers, we know that technology can be a great tool for early learning. That’s why America’s early learning community – and anyone who wants to help build a brighter future for the next generation – must make smarter use of these cutting-edge resources, provide better support for the teachers who use them, and help ensure that all our young children have equitable access to the right technology. “Early tech” can be an incredible tool to increase access and quality, when we understand how to use it for good.

Today, devices can not only bring the world to our students, but they also can bring what children create to the world. Kids can generate their own media through digital still and video camera and recording applications and, if they want, share it with students around the world. Our kids have the power to learn so much from their own creativity – creativity that technology supports and encourages.

In short, technology can spark imagination in young children, remove barriers to play and provide appropriate learning platforms as tools for reflection and critical thinking. It also offers children the ability to reflect easily by erasing, storing, recalling, modifying and representing thoughts on tablets and other devices.

As an educator, I’m excited by the almost limitless potential of really good technology to teach children new skills and reinforce what they already know. Tablets, computers, and hand-held devices, like smart phones and mp3 players, can be powerful assets in preschool classrooms when they’re integrated into an active, play-based curriculum. The National Association of Educators of Young Children, a leading organization that promotes early childhood education, agrees: technology and interactive media should be used intentionally to support learning and development.

What’s more, recent research has found that when used properly, technology can support the acquisition of what are called “executive functioning skills,” such as collaboration, taking turns, patience, and cooperative discussion of ideas with peers.

Technology can also dramatically improve communication and collaboration between each child’s school and home. With the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, teachers can connect with parents, updating them about student’s academic progress or providing information about an upcoming school event.

While we know its power to transform preschool classrooms, systemic and cultural barriers have prevented the early learning field from fully embracing technology. Preschools often have limited funding and few good hardware and software choices. At times, early learning teachers and directors have actually had less exposure to technology than their students have. They fear that technology won’t be developmentally-appropriate and that devices will distract students from rich, play-based classroom experiences. Teachers have told me they are daunted by the task of selecting the right apps and devices.

We need to change this way of thinking – and the systems behind it.

We need all early learning centers to have broadband access like that provided to schools. As the ConnectED Initiative works to ensure all schools and libraries have the infrastructure to take advantage of learning powered by technology, we also need to make sure all Head Start and community-based preschool programs are included, so our youngest children can take advantage of these tools.

Center directors, school principals and other early learning leaders must step up and lead by example, facilitating the successful use of technology, particularly in preschool settings. Teachers shouldn’t – and can’t – be alone in this endeavor. They need fearless principals and administrators who will advocate for pre-service and in-service learning that supports teacher understanding of how to use technology in early learning settings.

At the same time, we need more models of how technology works in early learning classrooms. Technology strengthens and deepens classroom instruction. It can extend and support a child-centric, play-based curriculum just as other manipulatives  do, including wooden blocks, magic markers or a classroom pet – but in a format that can be accessible far beyond the classroom. But, in order to make effective use of these new strategies, teachers need to see them in practice – and that currently isn’t happening in enough places.

We need research that helps identify effective technology tools to support learning – and we need this research to be completed on a timely basis. A study that takes three years to complete doesn’t help educators and parents make informed decisions today. We need more places like The Joan Ganz Cooney Center to help us understand the challenges of educating children in a rapidly changing media landscape.

We also need easier ways to find the best tools and apps. We need more programs like Ready To Learn, which has adapted its former TV-only content to new platforms and is now available to all families and children across the country.

And last, but certainly not least, we need more funding for early learning. When Congress passes legislation to implement and fund the President’s Preschool for All proposal, we will have the financial resources to drive the tech revolution that we so urgently need in our early learning system.

We have, quite literally, tens of millions of reasons for taking action in all our precious children and grandchildren. Each and every one of them deserves a great start in life – and that’s exactly what “early tech” helps to provide.

Libby Doggett is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education

Early Screening is Vital to Children and their Families

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The Unity Sunshine Program of Unity House of Troy in Troy, New York, offers an inclusive early learning program.

How a child plays, learns, speaks, moves, and behaves all offer important clues about a child’s development. A delay in any of these developmental milestones could be a sign of developmental challenges, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Early intervention services, like those services that help a child learn to speak, walk, or interact with others, can really make a difference and enhance a child’s learning and development. Unfortunately, too many young children do not have access to the early screening that can help detect developmental delays.

Additionally, the CDC states that an estimated one in every 68 children in the United States has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. Unfortunately, most children identified with ASD were not diagnosed until after age four, even though children can be diagnosed as early as age two or younger.

While it is imperative that all young children have access to screening and appropriate services, research highlights the need to ensure developmental screening in low-income, racially diverse urban populations, where the risk of delay is greater and access to services can be more difficult. Studies found that by 24 months of age, black children were almost five times less likely than white children to receive early intervention services, and that a lack of receipt of services appeared more consistently among black children who qualified based on developmental delay alone compared to children with a diagnosed condition. The research suggests that children of color are disproportionately underrepresented in early intervention services and less likely than white children to be diagnosed with developmental delays.

Statistics such as these can help us raise the awareness about the importance of early screening. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children receive developmental screenings with a standardized developmental screening tool at 9, 18, and either 24 or 30 months of age. Children who are screened and identified as having, or at risk for, a developmental delay can be referred to their local early intervention service program (if they are under 3 years of age), or their local public school (if they are 3 years of age or older), for additional evaluation to determine whether they are eligible for IDEA Part C or Part B 619 services. Further, screening young children early may help families to better access other federal and State-funded early learning and development services, such as home visiting, Early Head Start, Head Start, preschool, and child care.

Last month, I was pleased to announce that the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services worked together to launch Birth to 5: Watch Me Thrive! This initiative encourages early developmental and behavioral screening and follow-up with support for children and families by providing a compendium of research-based screening tools and “how to” guides for a variety of audiences, including parents, doctors, teachers, and child care providers. Research shows that early identification can lead to greater access to supports and services, helping children develop and learn.

I’ve seen first-hand how States and local providers are working to ensure that some of our most at risk children get the supports and services they need…early. I’ve met with providers of early childhood services from Las Cruces, New Mexico to East Boston, Massachusetts. The Unity Sunshine Program of Unity House of Troy in Troy, New York offers a fully integrated and inclusive early learning setting for young children with disabilities to learn alongside their typically developing peers. I’ve also learned how critical it is for States and local providers to engage, support, and empower families of young children with disabilities.

Early screening and identification are critically important steps towards giving young children with disabilities a strong start in life. Check out Birth to Five: Watch Me Thrive! and learn how you can support some of our most vulnerable children and their families.

Michael Yudin is Acting Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education

 

Four New Civil Rights Data Collection Snapshots

Last week, the Department of Education released the latest data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). The CRDC is a vital resource that provides the public an opportunity to understand how our nation and individual states, districts, and schools serve all students, including our students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities. The troubling disparities revealed in this comprehensive, searchable database serve as a reminder of the importance of ensuring all students have equal access to educational opportunities.

Holder at Wilson Elementary

Attorney General Eric Holder talks with a student following the announcement of the latest CRDC collection at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

For the first time in more than a decade, the CRDC contains information on approximately 16,500 school districts, 97,000 schools, and 49 million students. The data shines a spotlight on educational equity in areas such as discipline, access to preschool, teacher equity, and access to college- and career-ready courses.

To coincide with the most recent data release, the Office for Civil Rights has created four new snapshots to help understand the data:

Data Snapshot: Early Childhood Education

Examples:

  • Public preschool access not yet a reality for much of the nation: About 40 percent of school districts do not offer preschool programs.
  • Black children make up 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 48 percent of preschool children suspended more than once. Boys receive more than three out of four out-of-school preschool suspensions.

Data Snapshot: School Discipline, Restraint, & Seclusion Highlights

Examples:

  • Disproportionately high suspension/expulsion rates for students of color: Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. On average, 5 percent of white students are suspended, compared to 16 percent of black students. American Indian and Native-Alaskan students are also disproportionately suspended and expelled, representing less than 1 percent of the student population but 2 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 3 percent of expulsions.
  • Disproportionate suspensions of girls of color: While boys receive more than two out of three suspensions, black girls are suspended at higher rates (12 percent) than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys; American Indian and Native-Alaskan girls (7 percent) are suspended at higher rates than white boys (6 percent) or girls (2 percent).

Data Snapshot: College and Career Readiness

Examples:

  • Limited access to high-level math and science courses: Nationwide, only 50 percent of high schools offer calculus, and only 63 percent offer physics.
  • Significant lack of access to other core courses: Nationwide, between 10-25 percent of high schools do not offer more than one of the core courses in the typical sequence of high school math and science education — such as Algebra I and II, geometry, biology, and chemistry.

Data Snapshot: Teacher and Counselor Equity

Examples:

  • Teacher salary disparities: Nearly one in four districts with two or more high schools reports a teacher salary gap of more than $5,000 between high schools with the highest and the lowest black and Latino student enrollments.
  • Access to school counselors: Nationwide, one in five high schools lacks a school counselor.

Learn more about the 2011-12 CRDC collection at ocrdata.ed.gov.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education

The President’s Budget: Early Learning

Fifty adults — including the Secretaries of Education and Health and Human Services, Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Representative Jim Moran (D-Va.) — visited the newest preschool among the Child and Family Network Centers (CFNC) to observe a quality bilingual program in action and to discuss President Obama’s newly released budget request for Fiscal Year 2015.

The children and their engaging teacher, Tonya Johnson, showed us, once again, how much young children learn through play and working together in a stimulating environment. Even with 15 visiting adults in the room, the children stayed on task, interacted positively with each other, and went about their business of learning.

I had as much fun listening to the happy sounds of learning from these joyful preschoolers as I did hearing from some of our country’s leaders, as they discussed how early education is represented in the federal budget requests for both the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. The President’s budget proposes $500 million — double last year’s funding — for Preschool Development Grants and reintroduces the Preschool for All initiative, with an initial $1.3 billion investment. There is additional funding in the budget request for Head Start, child care, Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities, and the new Early Head Start – Child Care Partnership grants.

Margaret Patterson, the Executive Director of the CFNC told the group how 30 years ago, eight parents of children who had failed kindergarten came together to assure their children gained the skills to succeed in school and in life. Thirty years later, ten CFNC centers are spread across Alexandria, Va., in close proximity to where some of the poorest families in the city live.

During the event at the preschool,  Rep. Moran lamented the lack of educational funding for our youngest children, noting that “you would never plant a seed and then fail to water it.” Senator Warner observed how the children playing at the sand table reminded him of his job in the Senate— cooperation and sharing are key to getting things done, and, in the process, you had better make sure that you don’t get sand in your eyes. Secretary Sebelius reminded us of the importance of parents in their children’s lives and discussed the President’s proposal to increase funding for home visiting. Secretary Duncan closed the meeting by iterating the importance of quality programs and reminding us of the huge unmet need for preschool in our country.

Watch a clip of the visit below, and visit ed.gov/early-learning for more information.




Libby Doggett is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning at the U.S. Department of Education