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Duncan: Early Ed Can Get Schools Out of 'The Catch-Up Business'

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan presented the fullest picture yet of his vision for a birth-to-8 education system in remarks yesterday at the opening of the annual meeting of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. 

 In a wide-ranging speech that emphasized the importance of "raising the bar" on the quality of early learning environments, Duncan said that early childhood advocates now face two challenges. One, he said, is the need for better transitions and "follow through" between pre-K and the K-12 years. The other is what he sees as a necessary shift in thinking about how to measure quality -- moving from "inputs" like teacher qualifications and child-to-staff ratios to "outcomes" that indicate whether children are developing and learning well.

Duncan praised the NAEYC, the nation's largest membership organization of preschools, child care centers, kindergartens and public elementary schools, for its insistence that to close the achievement gap, we must prevent the gap through high-quality early learning experiences.

"I want our schools to get out of the catch-up business," he said. "To prevent the gap," he continued, "we must be ready to dramatically improve outcomes for our children."

Later in his speech he provided more context for how he might define "outcomes," noting that measures of "school readiness have historically been treated as if they are apart from a child's social and emotional development."  Today, he said, "We recognize that a child's ability to engage in self-regulation and cooperative play are critical to school readiness success ... It's time to recognize that they are inextricably linked."  

Duncan did not address how those outcomes might be measured and used. Here at Early Ed Watch we see this question as critical and expect to be digging into it over the coming year. We agree that without indicators of children's progress - without measures of "outcomes" - we will never have a full enough picture of how well an early learning environment is meeting their needs.

We also agree with the need for "follow through" into the K-12 years. His remarks regarding the need for "better transitions" were especially encouraging.

"The best early learning system is of little use," he said, if a child ends up in "an inadequate or lousy elementary school."  He added: "We cannot diminish the importance of K-12 reform." 

As longtime readers of this blog know, we strongly support PreK-3rd strategies that align curricula, standards and assessments from pre-K to kindergarten and on up through the third grade. Instead of educators focusing on the divide between early childhood community and the K-12 world, children would be far better served by a system that makes no distinctions, providing children with rich instruction, content knowledge and social interactions that are aligned and build on each other throughout each year of their early lives.

Duncan briefly mentioned the prospect of new public funding for early education in the proposed Early Learning Challenge Grants, the Race to the Top initiative and the Investing in Innovation, or i3, Fund.  He also spoke about the Education Department's relationship with the Department of Health and Human Services (which administers Head Start). He said he sees a "new sense of partnership" between the two agencies, adding that Jacqueline Jones, senior advisor for early learning in the Ed Department, and Joan Lombardi, deputy assistant secretary of the HHS's Administration for Children and Families, work together daily.

The secretary also gave voice to some of the obstacles to creating high-quality environments by describing what he called the "iron triangle" that affects publicly funded preschools and child care centers. On one side, providers are being asked to open more slots for more children, otherwise known as "increasing access." On another side, providers are being asked to "boost quality," by paying higher salaries that attract more qualified teachers and investing in professional development. And on the third side, they are being asked to cut costs and show savings.

He did not offer step-by-step guidance on how to break free of this iron triangle, but he did commend several states for making progress.  He singled out Oklahoma for "showing it's possible" and praised Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Alabama and New Jersey for being leaders in building high-quality early learning systems.  He also singled out the Harlem Children Zone and the CLASS observational assessment developed by Robert Pianta at the University of Virginia.

Nor did Duncan's speech answer the toughest questions in early childhood -- such as how to improve teacher compensation, how to do appropriate assessments and how to use assessment data, and where states should look for sustainable funding streams. But he was interrupted by applause throughout his remarks and the audience of thousands -- sitting amid rows and rows of chairs in the cavernous Washington Convention Center -- gave him a standing ovation.  As the NAEYC meeting goes into full swing over the next several days it will be interesting to see how preschool teachers digest the many details in his speech. We'll keep our eyes and ears open, and we encourage you in the blog comments below  to give us your take on Duncan's vision.

UPDATE 11/19 1:35 PM: The full text of Duncan's remarks is now available on the Ed Dept web site, and J.M. Holland over at Inside Pre-K has posted an audio recording.


Hello! I am a student at OSU

Hello! I am a student at OSU in Oklahoma City. I enjoying reading this relavent information about Child Education. I do feel it is extremely important that Child Care Professionals get paid what they are worth. I feel that teachers around the U.S. are not paid enough although they are the ones guiding our future congress men or Presidents. I feel Education is most important.


I think that there is too much focus aimed at children meeting or rising above the bar these days. A child's education should also consist of personal growth so that children can grow up to not only be intelligent, they can be responsible. Rick Posner, author of "Lives of Passion, School of Hope," has a lot of great ideas on how to teach children the concepts of personal empowerment and personal growth. He uses the example of a school in Colorado that uses this model and is proud to say that the alumni coming out of this school has proven that they can actually take care of themselves, have meaningful relationships in their lives and the turn around and give some credit to their school experience! How many public school graduates can say that? School should be about more than just spelling and mathemetics.

I am a proud early childhood

I am a proud early childhood professional who has an advanced degree and more than 20 years in the field. I attended the NAEYC Conference this year and was present for Secretary Duncan's Keynote Address. I will say that I do have high hopes for the work that the Dept. of Education can do under his guidance especially in the area of early childhood education. The job itself is huge in scope, yet at his disposal are some of the best and most respected minds in early childhood education--beginning with Barbara Bowman. In his remarks we heard that one of the very first phone calls he made in his early days on the job was to Sue Russell and Mark Ginsberg--President and Executive Director of NAEYC. At least he knows who they are and what they stand for...something I don't think I can say for previous Secretaries of Education. I also attended the President's Meeting that included Joan Lombardi and Jaqueline Jones (DOE and DHHS respectively) and was pleased to be familiar with their credentials and that they already have partnered within their departments and Head Start to streamline and coordinate their efforts on behalf of young children.

I left the conference more hopeful than I have felt in previous years, yet I am also a realist and understand that any efforts made on behalf of the early childhood profession will take time. I heard all of the right things said---yet rhetoric aside, we are impatient for some action.

I appreciate the work that is being done on this blog to educate non-practitioners about authentic, high-quality early childhood programs. Keep up the good work!

What about the parent factor?

Thanks for this helpful summary of Duncan's remarks.

I'm disappointed that it seems the focus was so dominant on educational programs rather than parent intervention, since parent involvement remains the SINGLE best predictor of educational achievement.

This would seem an opportune time to emphasize the outstanding achievements of Parents As Teachers, or the Harlem Children's Zone Baby College, which Paul Tough calls the ESSENTIAL feature of the Harlem Children's Zone.

Again, thanks for your coverage, and I'm eager to read your reports of how NAEYC tackles closing the parenting gap.