Transformative Family Engagement at the White House Symposium by Deputy Assistant Secretary Libby Doggett

“Transformative family engagement is more than parent involvement- it is a shared responsibility of families, schools, and communities aimed at helping students learn and achieve.” That was the central message at the White House Symposium held on July 31st, attended by members from the White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC), U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Serving as a panelist, I was able to share both my professional and personal experiences. Early in my career, I served as a bilingual first grade teacher in Austin, Texas and witnessed first-hand the importance of engaging families to improve student achievement. Later and throughout my career, I continued to see the strong connection between family engagement and student success.

Family engagement provides a critical link between home and school and has a profound impact on a child’s learning. Last week’s symposium highlighted the importance of family engagement and advanced a framework to transform our thinking. Some of the key elements of this framework are seeing families from a strength-based perspective and sharing the responsibility for student success with families. We must work as partners adapting our work to the needs and priorities of a diverse array of families, helping all children learn and grow.

At ED, we are committed to supporting transformative family engagement, and some of the one-billion dollars allocated to the 20 Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) states is being spent to support families and early childhood educators to achieve this goal. All states are finding ways to improve the quality of early learning centers and communicate the quality features to families. In Delaware, for example, the Office of Early Learning has launched a new website, Great Starts Delaware, to provide families with information on the quality of early learning programs, the latest brain research, and tips on what they can do at home to support improved outcomes for their young children. Washington State has launched “Love. Talk. Play,” a campaign that seeks to equip parents with three simple things that they can do every day to help their children learn and grow: love, talk, and play.

Waiting until preschool to implement family engagement strategies, however, is too late. Hart and Risely’s groundbreaking research highlights a “30 million word gap” between children of low-income versus higher-income families —a gap that begins before age three and can continue throughout school unless interventions are put in place. Mothers with a college education or higher spend roughly 4.5 more hours more a week directly interacting with their children than do mothers with a high school diploma or less. These findings provide us with evidence-based knowledge about the importance of family engagement, and how critical it is not only in K-12 education, but especially in birth through age five.

Most parents want what’s best for their children, but many parents do not know how important their role as their child’s first teacher is. This is what true family engagement is all about: making sure parents and caregivers have the knowledge and resources they need to help children get a strong start and reach their full potential. As we continue to look for ways to support families, it is my hope that as a country we will act to support families wherever they are to ensure all our children get the strong start that is needed for success in school and later as productive citizens.

Voices from the Field

“It turns out that teaching young children is complicated!”

Interview with Council for Professional Recognition CEO Valora Washington

Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Steven: Could you talk a little bit about how you began your career?

Valora: I started out in anthropology, and in my junior year of college I had the chance to spend the summer in West Africa doing some field work. That was so exciting, but I found that when I was there, I was just really interested in watching the children — children everywhere! They were so competent. They were so skilled. They were so woven into the family and community life. These children — even if they were gathering sticks, or whatever they were doing — they were important. What they were doing mattered. I saw how skilled they were, and of course, many of these children were simultaneously learning 2, 3, or 4 languages. Oftentimes when I’d go in villages, I’d have to find young people to be the interpreters because they were all learning English in school. I was just so amazed by the children, and that’s how I decided to go into child development. I entered a doctoral program, and as they say, the rest is history.

Steven: Why do you think the President’s proposal to provide high-quality preschool for all four-year-olds is important to our country, and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Valora: The reason I think it’s important is because it’s not just an isolated one thing he’s doing. It’s part of series of very important initiatives that are really upgrading the quality of life for young learners in our country. That’s the main reason why it’s so important, because it’s not just a stand-alone initiative, and that’s it. It’s part of a big package in a big picture of a number of things across HSS and ED that we’re trying to do for young children, and I think that’s what makes it important. I think trying to really engage states to think about quality. We know from the NIEER reports that come out every year that there is so much work that still needs to be done at the local and state levels to improve both access and quality. I think that this is a major effort that is going to push that bar. Also, four-year-olds have been somewhat pushed off into a number of disconnected programs, so it really matters if you walked into a Head Start, family childcare, public school , or community-based programs. I think that this initiative has the potential to bring some coherence around what states are doing with that age group.

Steven: What do you see as the role of the Council for Professional Recognition in improving the quality of early learning in our country?

Valora: I think that what we know, is that if there’s one place 8 million people are teaching young children today, we know that way too many of them have had very little opportunity to learn, either in an academic sense or in guided practice in what they’re doing with young children. I think what the Council has been doing for a long time — and we significantly upgraded the professional development experience — is the first step that many early educators continue to take. While we really are celebrating and encouraging people to enter into the profession from a lot of different places, for many of them, the CDA is still place where they are introduced to the field in a formal way, through the competency standards, and through the kind of observations and experiences that they will have in their work life because it is a comprehensive assessment. So, quality really matters in that. The first challenge for quality is recruiting the kinds of people that we really want to work with young children, not just people who show up because they’re free of tuberculosis and need a job. I think the CDA introduces people to the profession in a comprehensive fit and really helps with that introduction to recruitment. I think also, it helps in terms of retention and retaining quality people because you also know that’s another problem. What we know from some of our workforce data from many of our partners is their staffs who have CDAs tend to stay in the workplace rather than leave after a couple of years.

So, the quality really matters in terms of introducing people to the work, that it is a professional work, and then retaining them and helping them grow in the work. I think quality really matters to us; that’s why we’ve spent three years creating the CDA. Our whole mission is really upgrading and recognizing the workforce. That’s what we’ve been doing, that’s our whole mission, that’s all we do, and it matters a lot to us that early educators get the respect they deserve, that they get recognized for the skills that they have, that they even understand what the competency are, and that they can move forward in the profession. We say that the CDA is the best first step, but we don’t want it to be the last step. There are so many examples of people with CDA who go on and get other degrees, which is what we encourage people to do. There are lots of stories of people who really begin their careers with a CDA. Quality really matters because of how you bring people in. If you bring people into the field thinking this is a job and that it doesn’t really matter, they either leave or continue with tacit knowledge. We really need people to understand that what they do needs a theoretical background, but that they also need practical experience about how you set up a classroom, how you get results for children, how you interact with children, how you interact with their parents, and how you do assessments. It turns out that teaching young children is complicated! I think a lot of people think that it’s just a job, but it’s turning out that it requires a lot of very specific skills.