Voices from the Field

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

Interview with Council for Professional Recognition CEO Valora Washington

valorawashington
by
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.

 

A Head Start Center of Excellence

Dr. Melendez reads to Head Start students.This past Monday, I had the pleasure of visiting a National Head Start Center of Excellence in Baltimore – the Campfield Head Start Center – with the Director of Head Start, Administration of Children and Families, Yvette Sanchez Fuentes. Not only did we take a wonderful tour of the center, but I also had the opportunity to read to a classroom of children! It was a real treat for me to spend time with the pre-schoolers. At one point, I even sang along with them to the old favorite, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” and it was so inspiring to see the pure innocence and joy in the faces of the students.

It’s on behalf of our youngest learners that the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services are partnering and coordinating our work. It’s also why investments in early learning, such as the Early Learning Challenge Fund, proposed in the President’s FY2012 Budget, are so important. We in the Department are deeply committed to an early learning agenda that supports a continuum of learning beginning at birth and continuing through third grade, and we are honored to work with programs like the Campfield Head Start Center to provide the right start for our children’s education.

Celebrating Great Schools in the New Year

 

Dr. Melendez greets a student speaker at the Mahalia Jackson Early Childhood and Family Learning Center.

Dr. Melendez speaks to a young student at the Mahalia Jackson Early Childhood and Family Learning Center (ECFLC).  Read more about Dr. Melendez’ visit to the ECFLC in the Times-Picayune.

I went on my first work trip of 2011 to the wonderful city of New Orleans last week. On Friday the 14th, I spent some time at an early learning school: the Mahalia Jackson Early Childhood and Family Learning Center (ECFLC). Not only did I get to do a tour of the school, but I also was able to spend some time with the Louisiana State Literacy Team, as they were doing a visit of the Center and holding their meeting at the school that same day. Walking around the Center and meeting with its staff and students provided all of us visitors an opportunity to think about what a comprehensive literacy plan starting at birth could —and should – look like. I left the school energized and inspired, and I hope the State Literacy Team felt the same way.

I also visited the Warren Easton High School, which has such a great history behind it as the state’s oldest public high school. The school reopened as a charter school after Hurricane Katrina, but still faced tremendous trials and struggles. The staff members, in conjunction with support from the community, are working hard to rebuild and reform the school to ensure that all its students are on track for academic success.

Although it was a short trip, I’m so glad I had the chance to spend some time with the schools and educators on the ground here in New Orleans. It was a great way to start off the year, and I look forward to sharing more examples of great schools and promising practices in the coming year!