This is a critical moment in American early childhood policy history as states become increasingly responsible for moving the needle for young children and families. Since its founding by four-term North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt in 2001, The Hunt Institute has established itself as an invaluable support to the nation’s senior-level state elected leaders who are looking to make meaningful progress on education issues. Through evidence building, convenings, and technical assistance, The Institute educates state leaders in their Early Childhood Engagement program about brain development research, hosts discussions about effective state and local early childhood strategies, and encourages collaboration across states, initiatives, and programs.
Recently, The Hunt Institute hosted a Campaign for Grade-Level Reading webinar, “Starting Early: State Investments That Support Children’s Language & Literacy Development,” co-sponsored by Overdeck Family Foundation. This webinar featured an in-depth conversation with state leaders who are finding innovative and powerful ways to meet the needs of young learners in their respective states. Afterwards, we had a chance to catch up with The Hunt Institute’s President & CEO, Javaid Siddiqi, and Senior Director of Early Learning, Dan Wuori, to ask about The Institute’s role in supporting state leaders as they navigate early childhood policy, how funders can support early childhood strategies across states, and more. The responses below were condensed and edited for clarity.
The interactions that young children have with their caregivers—both familial and otherwise—are critical to their healthy and optimal development. All environments are learning environments for young children. The question is: how good are they?
We know that the pandemic has had detrimental effects on kindergarten readiness nationwide, and has exacerbated disparities among our nation’s youngest learners. Can you talk to us about how Covid has impacted The Hunt Institute’s approach to its Early Childhood Engagement programming?
Javaid Siddiqi: Our work at The Institute is about being responsive to policymakers—providing the timeliest unbiased research, guidance, and resources available in response to whatever their states’ needs may happen to be in the moment. So, in a lot of ways our approach is tailor-made for something like Covid, but the pandemic was definitely an opportunity to prove how nimble we could be in responding to a situation that was quickly unfolding.
On relatively short notice, for example, we managed to create what became the nation’s most comprehensive, real-time tracker of child care closure status, emergency actions, and public health guidance to preschool providers. More broadly, we’ve built out our virtual programming and worked closely with former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise on something we’re calling “The COVID Constituency,” an initiative designed to collect the firsthand experiences, perceptions, and priorities of those most impacted by the pandemic in our education system in an effort to translate them into actionable policies.
Dan Wuori: The pandemic has really dominated early childhood policy conversations over the past couple years. As Javaid mentioned, early in the pandemic it was really immediate things like closure status and emergency health guidance. States were turning to us to see how they could benefit from the best thinking of their peers.
Since then, a lot of time and energy has been focused on how states might best approach the expenditure of one-time Covid relief dollars, which has been a real challenge. State early childhood systems—and child care in particular—have so many ongoing challenges with access and workforce compensation that there’s a strong desire to get in there and address what’s broken. But that has to be carefully balanced in this case against the knowledge that this is not recurring funding. It’s been a historic opportunity, but also a real puzzle for policymakers.
What common themes are you hearing from state leaders right now in terms of their top concerns for early childhood education in their respective states?
Dan Wuori: Right now, we’re hearing a lot about child care as a barrier to workforce participation. For many families, the shrinking availability of affordable, accessible child care means that parents—and mothers especially—are making the difficult choice to forego employment. This impacts families’ individual budgets; it impacts workforce productivity and the bottom line for their employers, and will ultimately impact state economies.
To solve this problem, states are going to have to really grapple with some of the field’s underlying challenges. Earlier in the pandemic we saw child care supply limited as a result of closures and public health directives that limited group sizes. Those have been lifted, but access to care is now limited for a different reason. In a tight labor market with too few workers, child care providers simply can’t keep pace with the wages being offered by fast food restaurants and big box stores. The physical capacity exists to serve more children, but preschool providers struggle to attract teachers. It’s going to take a real re-thinking of the industry’s economic model.
Javaid Siddiqi: There’s no question that the economics of early childhood are taking center stage right now. Early in the pandemic there was a legitimate concern that the child care industry was simply going to collapse, and that we’d see the widespread, permanent closure of providers. Fortunately, that didn’t pan out because Covid relief dollars arrived just in time.
Now the question—and what we are supporting elected leaders to navigate—is what happens when these one-time dollars run out? We’ve heard references to a “return to the pre-pandemic status quo,” but that world doesn’t exist any longer. The landscape has shifted dramatically and it’s going to take really thoughtful public policy to prevent some of those more dire predictions from coming true.
Relatedly, how have you seen the recent Tennessee Pre-K study results affect how states are approaching their own Pre-K programs?
Javaid Siddiqi: First it’s important to situate the Tennessee study within a much broader body of evidence around the benefits of Pre-K. We know that high-quality programs are producing measurable, long-term results, especially for low-income children—that’s a finding that has been replicated over and over.
The Tennessee program, unfortunately, was not a high-quality program at the time these children participated. And that’s the big lesson for states here. Not just any program for four-year-olds is going to achieve the kind of long-term results they’re hoping to document. It has to be high quality. It has to be developmentally appropriate.
Dan Wuori: So true. At the time of the Tennessee study (2009-11), 85 percent of the classrooms assessed by Vanderbilt University were found to be “less than good quality” on a research-based measure. In fact, the Tennessee legislature was so concerned that they enacted a sweeping set of reforms designed to improve the program’s quality shortly thereafter.
But I think that the most fascinating part of the Tennessee study has been the authors’ analysis of what needs to happen as a result. They’ve spotlighted, for example, the importance of play and the dangers of an overly academic approach to preschool. They’ve also uplifted the importance of mixed delivery models in which both public and private sector providers share in the delivery of services, and noted that things as basic as the architecture of many elementary schools may not always be well matched to the needs of younger preschoolers. For example, when young children have to be transported in groups to restrooms that may be distant from their classrooms, large chunks of learning time may be lost.
There’s a lot for states to consider here, but the takeaway definitely isn’t that they’re wise to back away from Pre-K.
How can national and local funders be most helpful in supporting early childhood strategies across states?
Javaid Siddiqi: Philanthropy plays a really critical role in early childhood in the sense it can serve as an important catalyst for change. Foundations are definitely nimbler than most state legislatures, which typically discuss budgets once a year. Foundations, on the other hand, have a much greater ability to respond to needs in the moment. In this way they can act as the “first responders” of the funding world as governments work their way toward more permanent solutions.
Dan Wuori: Philanthropy is also better equipped in many cases to push the envelope and pilot promising practices in ways that state legislatures might not always be ready for, especially in the absence of data. Philanthropies help get these practices established and document their success in the ways that are often necessary to help identify more stable, long-term funding solutions.
After decades of discussion on Pre-K, we know better than ever that the best way to close achievement gaps is to prevent them from opening in the first place.
Of course, parents and caregivers play a central role in children’s early academic and socioemotional development. What questions should state leaders be asking themselves as they build effective supports for families?
Dan Wuori: This is such an important question. For many years it was common for policymakers to express the desire that children “come to kindergarten ready to learn,” which in hindsight can be a confusing goal as we know that learning doesn’t begin at age five. In fact, it begins even earlier than DAY five, and the interactions that young children have with their caregivers—both familial and otherwise—are critical to their healthy and optimal development. All environments are learning environments for young children. The question is: how good are they?
Javaid Siddiqi: That’s right. And as we develop a greater understanding of the period from prenatal to three, policymakers are increasingly attuned to the fact that investment in the earliest years doesn’t necessarily translate to classroom-based services. Some of the very best documented strategies are actually designed to support families, whether through access to pediatric care in the form of programs like CenteringParenting, or making tools like LENA’s “talk pedometer” available to encourage serve and return interactions and language development.
Approximately 77 percent of U.S. children under five are currently in some form of non-parental care. As you mentioned, we know that access alone is necessary but not sufficient without a focus on quality. What are the top three things states should consider to improve the quality of early learning environments?
Javaid Siddiqi: At risk of sounding like a broken record, compensation of the early childhood workforce is critical to the sector’s quality. We know that the years from prenatal to three are the single most critical period of human development—a time when interactions with stable, nurturing caregivers matter above all else. And at the same time, we have annual turnover among child care teachers estimated at anywhere from 25-40 percent. At precisely the time children most need continuity of care, our system is failing them by failing to offer a living wage. Making early education a viable career path for more teachers would be a huge step forward in terms of quality.
Dan Wuori: Another one I’d add is professional development. The literature is mixed on whether preschool teachers require a bachelor’s degree, for example, but there’s widespread consensus that teacher knowledge and training are critical to quality. Very few four-year degrees, even in “early childhood,” are designed to address the needs of younger preschoolers. If you’re attending a four-year program in early childhood, it’s far more likely you’re being prepared to work with first graders rather than younger preschoolers.
Finally, I’d say I’m excited to see so many states really looking carefully at prioritizing and measuring interaction quality. For a long time, we looked primarily at the structural aspects of early childhood quality: the number of books in the classroom, the height of the sinks, etc. But now with program quality assessments, states are better attuned than ever to what really matters most in the classroom, which is the quality of teacher-child interactions.
You recently hosted a webinar with state leaders who are finding impactful ways to meet the needs of young children in their respective states. What innovations are you most excited to see right now across state investments?
Javaid Siddiqi: There are so many bright spots here. We’ve been excited to see the policymakers we’re working with take leading roles in creating statewide newborn home visiting programs, as has recently happened in Oregon and New Jersey, using the Family Connects model developed by our colleagues at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.
I’ve also been excited by the number of states working to consolidate their early childhood governance models. It’s not uncommon for states to have early childhood programs split across 4-6 state agencies, which is not only inefficient and duplicative, but creates confusing bureaucratic mazes for families. Increasingly states are stepping in to address this problem. Some are creating stand-alone early childhood agencies, while others are taking more incremental approaches—it’s exciting to watch. Over the past year we’ve helped to support consolidations in Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon, Delaware, and North Dakota.
Dan Wuori: Right now, I’m excited to see states really beginning to step up on workforce compensation. Washington, D.C. has just dedicated funding that will provide child care teachers with annual raises of up to $14,000, which is a huge step. Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut are all dedicating state funds to supplement compensation. We’ve also supported a number of states, including The Institute’s home state of North Carolina, in the creation of early childhood legislative caucuses.
Lastly, we would love to know: what are your predictions for the early childhood landscape in the next 5-10 years?
Dan Wuori: I’m really hopeful that we won’t even have to look that far out into the future to see meaningful, bipartisan reform. Right now, we have dueling early childhood plans in the U.S. Senate. When you pull up to 40,000 feet and look beyond the partisan politics of Congress, there’s a Venn diagram here with a lot of overlap between what Democratic and Republican leaders are proposing for child care. For the good of families, children, and the American economy, I believe we’ll see significant steps toward recognition of child care as a public good over the coming year, or certainly no later than the time Covid relief dollars are exhausted in 2024.
Javaid Siddiqi: I think Dan’s right that some major reform is likely coming on a short timeline, but longer term I think that over the next 5-10 years we’ll also see states more fully embrace the benefits of supporting children between prenatal and three. After decades of discussion on Pre-K, we know better than ever that the best way to close achievement gaps is to prevent them from opening in the first place. And that means treating the years of early childhood as the unique developmental window that they are.
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