How Should the Field of Early Childhood Education Shape the Message of What It Wants From Politicians? | Policy [M]atters, Episode 2

by Teri Talan and Susan Ochshorn

This video chat was recorded on September 29, 2015, by the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership at National Louis University. This is episode two of Policy [M]atters, an early childhood education policy video chat series featuring Susan Ochshorn of ECE PolicyWorks and Teri Talan of the McCormick Center.

In this episode, Susan and Teri discuss how the field of early childhood education should shape the message of what it wants from politicians. Susan advocates for the need for ECE leaders and practitioners to be present at the policy tables and to be vocal about the value of the field. Teri questions whether being at the policy table is enough when too often policy and politics collide. Teri calls for ECE professionals to engage in the political process— to probe politicians on their commitment to support each of the core components of an integrated early childhood system and to  enact budgets that support early learning and development services for vulnerable children birth through age eight. Susan and Teri vocalize the importance of elections at all levels—not just the presidential race. Susan also calls for ECE professionals to believe in themselves and in the power and value of the field—which is based on research and evidence. Teri urges all of us to take the next step of meeting with our elected officials and candidates for public office. She stresses the importance of not settling for the typical sound bite answers but to educate and advocate for what our most vulnerable young children need to thrive.

Below are some questions Susan and Teri have provided to encourage all ECE professionals to be proactive rather than reactive:

How do you know which politician to contact? Use this link to find out!

Dr. Teri Talan is Director of Policy Initiatives at the McCormick Center and Professor of Early Childhood Education at National Louis University. She promotes action by state and national policymakers on early childhood workforce and program administration issues.

Susan Ochshorn is the founder ECE PolicyWorks and author of Squandering America’s Future: Why ECE Policy Matters for Equality, Our Economy, and Our Children. She works in a broad range of settings to bridge research, policy, and practice, to integrate ECE into the larger education reform conversation, and to catalyze social change.






VOICEOVER: This video chat was recorded on September 29, 2015 by the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership.

This is episode 2 of Policy [M]atters, an early childhood education video chat series featuring Susan Ochschorn of ECE PolicyWorks and Teri Talan of the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership.

In this episode, Susan and Teri discuss how the field of early childhood education should shape its message of what it wants from politicians.

TERI: Susan this is the season for coming together and thinking about how to make a difference and an impact on politics and the policies moving forward around early care and education, and one of the things that I’ve been thinking about is how we have to really be careful that we don’t accept a glib answer.

So if folks who are nervous, who are concerned about their professional identity, and maybe they are not the right one to be bringing it up, say, “tell me your position about early learning, our early care and education.” there isn’t a politician out there that’s not going to say, “I value early learning, I know this is the key to how children are going to become valuable citizens and the workers in the future,” but what we know is that that’s not good enough. We need different level, in my opinion, of commitment about the policies that politicians are willing to support in the ability to really make a difference in early learning, and so that’s kind of stimulated my desire for this policy chat.

Like, how do we get beyond the “yes, of course, I’m for motherhood and apple pie, and early childhood education,” and really give people the tools they need to get commitments from politicians where it matters. I’d like to hear your perspective about that.

SUSAN: That gets to the heart of the question Teri, and I would say two phrases from what you said jumped out at me, one is “valuable workers of the future,” and the second is “motherhood apple pie,” and I would add “family values.” And so we know that we live in a country where that’s a tough sell. You know we talk the talk about supporting our families, our women, and now our millennial men, and our children, but we also have a really entrenched, very much ingrained attitude, that the earliest years are not ones that we mess with. We don’t intervene in that sort of sacred realm of the family, and that’s that’s tough.

So I would say the short answer is I think we have to change our message. First of all I would say, we don’t need to ask them what their position, is we need to give them the tools, that based on research, that they need to make the argument. Because you know, most politicians are in it, they’re looking at the short term, they’re not looking at the long term. So to that end in my book
“Squandering America’s Future,” I talk about parents as… children are human capital, and this is an economic argument which of course James Heckman, has been you know making, eloquently and beautifully, until he’s blue in the face.

And children are our human capital and our parents and early childhood professionals are the venture capitalists for the future wealth producers. Okay so, what we are saying to these politicians who very much have the bottom line, and our economic prosperity on their minds, this is an investment as Heckman says that’s going to pay better than the stock market, so that’s number one. And number two, I think that we also need to get away from kind of glomming on to preschool to one of the sort of, one of the elements of high-quality early care and education. And

I’m looking at that from birth through age eight. There were strategic decisions that were made by advocacy organizations, I worked for the one of them many years ago, but they no longer hold because we know that the first few years of life are when the bit brains are being built, and we need to talk about a comprehensive continuum of services and supports for, and I’m calling this universal, for families and children, and supports for their partners who are early childhood educators.

TERI: So I think you’ve touched on some really important pieces. The question about universal versus targeted for the children who are growing up in families with the greatest need. The issue about what is early childhood’s age span go off in the policy has been limited to four-year-olds.

And then what 10 years from now we’ll say, “oh no three-year-olds are really critical,” and another ten years to get 2-year-olds. I agree with you about the span being the birth through age eight continuum, but I guess my thinking in terms of crafting messages for politicians and I don’t
mean the pundits who can cite the research, I’m talking about the person on the ground who is a family child care provider, was a head start teacher, or a Preschool for All, universal pre-K center director.

How do we help them be engaged in this policy debate? And one of the things that’s been on my mind, is the tension between policy and politics. And you kind of got there with the Family Values piece because if you allow policies to be out of the context of the politics, then you’re going to get a lot of glib, uniform, “yes I support early childhood education,” but we need to get people empowered to be more specific and I just want to give you an example.

We have, I mean, Illinois right now is operating without a budget, and we have operating with a situation where there is this stalemate between the governor and legislators in our General Assembly. Previously, childcare was seen as a bipartisan issue. Everybody supported on both sides of the aisle the idea that helping poor parents be able to work while their children were in high-quality settings was something everyone could get their arms around.

Politics has really gotten in the way of that, so at this point in time, even though there has been support for so-called early learning where additional dollars have gone into state pre-K, we have had a decimation of childcare. 90% of those families that previously would qualify for child care assistance, aren’t able to access subsidized child care because of new rules that have been put into place.

And this is done not because anyone thinks that’s good policy, but because of politics. So I was thinking about this, that how do we help our people who are so immersed and committed to this work be effective in their politicians’ communications?

And to me, what I’m aware of now, is that we have worked so hard to think about early care and education asa system that requires investments in pre-K, and birth to three, early Head Start child care partnerships, but these parts of the system they have to work together. And what’s happening, and Illinois as an example of this is, you can say you support early learning, but allow child care to completely implode, and you can’t deliver on early learning.

So I guess where I’m going to is helping people articulate the complexity of providing the kinds of supports for early learning that is going to make the difference.

The venture capital approach, “where is that return on investment?” It’s going to require there to be an ability to say, “we need all parts of the system functioning like a well-oiled machine, so don’t tell me that you’re in favor of early learning, tell me you’re going to support a state pre-K, Head Start collaborations, childcare collaborations with Head Start, and universal pre-K so that our early childhood system can move forward and produce the learning outcomes and the workforce outcomes we all want.

SUSAN: Yes, that is beautifully said and I couldn’t agree more, I think that the problem is that in our soundbite world, of you know, Twitter haiku and social media, it is very difficult to convey that complexity. But what I’m gonna jump on, what you said, which I think so beautifully states the problem or the challenge, is the outcomes.

What I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as I live in New York City, and Bill de Blasio has implemented a very bold universal preschool initiative that the whole nation is looking at. And I fully support it, however, what I really know and what you’re saying is that we are not going to get the kind of outcomes that the politicians are proclaiming we’ll get, like de Blasio, and anyone else who’s going ahead in this.

If we do not deal with children’s needs from the get-go and that’s where our child care, Head Start, family visitors, you know, directors, administrators, teachers, etc. We need to make it, you know, the field has been grappling with this for years now, the making of this message, and policymaking is so incremental Teri, we know that. It’s one step forward, one step backward, but what the message we need to get out is, these are the outcomes you can have, but unless we provide high-quality child care, paid family leave, you know, home visiting, support for parents, especially
vulnerable ones (although i believe it should be universal), but you know I that’s another story.

You know, Millennials are dying of envy looking at Finland they have these baby boxes that are starter kits with all kinds of things. We have a very different attitude. It’s rugged individualist, each family on its own. So, all which is to say is we are not going to get out outputs, outcomes, unless we have the inputs, from the beginning of children’s development. And we have this amazingly robust evidence base and we have a Nobel laureate economist, James Heckman, who has you know incredible, I love his graph, looking at the investment in birth through three, actually, birth through five, as compared to the k-12 system, and meet the older end of the spectrum.

There is no argument and it’s a no-brainer pun intended.

TERI: [laughs] So, we go forward and give people tools. So if the message is complicated, and it’s predicated not just for policymakers or politicians, it’s complicated for individuals to communicate. What we need for people to advocate, to probe. to seek commitments from politicians that embrace the complexity and appreciate that the complexity is what happens you have a system.

SUSAN: What we need to do and what is starting to really emerge in the early childhood field and it’s very exciting, is that early childhood professionals need to be at the policy tables. They have not been historically. I mean, there’s been some, some have been, but really not. And practitioners have certainly not. I mean you have an example of this with the Common Core State Standards, you know, when those were being designed, there wasn’t one early childhood educator in the room.

And this is a problem because if we’re arguing that especially preschool should be the foundation of the public education, public k-12 system, then those in the field who are the practitioners and the leaders need to be there and they need to be making the case. If we’re not at the table leaning in, we cannot, we can’t say “oh they’re not listening to us,” and we can’t say, “they’re going ahead based on very false premises.”

So I think that that’s happening more and more. Early childhood educators are really starting to speak up, and not just those who historically have been leaders, which I think is tremendously exciting. They are starting to write, they’re starting to join organizations, other organizations. I mean, in a sense it requires coming out of the isolation, that sort of hermetically sealed world of early childhood, which has been so marginalized, and sort of the stepchild, and saying we’re here and we’re all looking to produce these creative innovative, prosperous, happy citizens of the United States so that we can thrive as a nation and that is happening so that really has to be a big part of it as I see it.

TERI: I think that’s really a good message, but I’m still going to push back a little bit about policy versus politics, which trumps which? Oops, that was a an unintended pun.

SUSAN: [joking] Please, don’t mention him.

TERI: But I keep thinking about that it’s not enough to be at the policy table, it’s not enough, even for a state, or a city, or a locale, to have good policies, if the politicians take over okay other reasons. So, one of the things I think is so important is for those who want to engage, to also engage with politics to actually ask questions of politicians, and not just the presidential, which of course is on everyone’s mind.

But the candidates that are running for local offices, really really important. And we need it to really help people see that it’s worth their time to really get engaged at that level, help inform politicians, help inform them about complexity, and give your friend messages and what they can do.

One of my friends who’s a very strong advocate in the healthcare world, she once said to me, “don’t waste the time of a legislator talking at them about what matters to you, unless you have an ask.” So you need to be prepared to tell potential legislators, or other policymakers, what you want them to do. Not just a here’s what we know about early childhood. What do you want them to do? And here’s where I think we can make a difference in two directions; being at the table for policy setting, but also engaging in the political process of understanding and meeting with politicians.

SUE: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more Teri, and I think that they’re so they’re inextricably linked, and I think it also has to happen not only on the local level, which is of course extremely important because most of these, you know, education, and an early education policy is really playing out so strongly in the States, but also at the federal level where there is fortunately, a lot of really exciting movement. I mean from the President on down, and so yes, I think that it has to be a combination of both, and I think what struck me about what you said, really speaks to the issue of professional identity, and a sense of, I don’t love the word, empowerment, but empowerment.

And I know we don’t want to get bogged down in that but, the reality is that early childhood professionals need to believe that they can do this and that the messages that they bring, and the asks that they bring, are based in this very this robust evidence base, which the policymakers and politicians are always talking about.

They also need to be able to tell the stories and to invite, you know, in the case of local, local legislators, to see the programs. Because I think part of the problem is sort of demystifying early childhood, really high-quality early childhood education, something like clay which is you know developmentally appropriate and so hard to describe. Even researchers in the field have a hard time with it.

So the point is there needs to be, as you say, the combination of engaging in the politics being at the policy and decision making tables, but really working on, I guess, growing the field’s sense of its power and value. And I see those as all really connected. I guess I started out saying this, and I believe it so strongly that we need not to fragment the politics, and the messages that we send in our engagement in politics, and at the decision-making tables. It couldn’t be more important, as you said Teri.

Yes, it’s very complex to explain the system, but we are not going to get the kind of outcomes that some of these legendary studies showed and even some more recently, as we know. We’re not going to get those unless we really look at children’s development, human development, as a trajectory beginning I mean really prenatally. There is no way, we know so much now about the
impact of poverty, of toxic stress, of adverse childhood experiences on the physiology of the brain.

And so there’s no going back, we must present it in a very coherent comprehensive way. And I think what we have on our side, is that much of this is now out into the mainstream conversation, so politicians are hearing it. They may not be focusing on it, so it’s the early childhood professional’s task to really hone in, and get it out there.

TERI: So I would just add to that I want people to be concrete. If people are watching our conversation, think well what does that mean, what should I be doing? And I would say meet your elected officials, meet people running for office, ask them about their stance on subsidized child care, on home visiting, on universal pre-K, or targeted pre-K. Ask them about their understanding of k-12 education as really being about p-12 education. What does that piece stand for and give them this holistic approach.

But until we start having people understand that all of those components make up an integrated system that’s going to meet the developmental needs of children birth through age 8, we are still going to get the soundbite answer, that yeah, I’m for early childhood, I believe in early learning, without really knowing what that stands for.

So don’t just settle for that one answer, probe about the components of a cohesive coordinated early childhood system that we all are supporting now is the answer for giving the very best for our young children and future workforce of America.