Conversations on Early Learning: Building Early Childhood Systems

Conversations Smagsamen 472

On Sunday, June 7, early learning experts and stakeholders from diverse organizations and disciplines gathered in New Orleans for the second symposium in HMH’s Conversations on Early Learning series, keynoted by Dr. Sharon Lynn Kagan, Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Child and Family Policy, Teachers College, Columbia University, and Professor Adjunct at Yale University’s Child Study Center.

Kagan launched the event with a discussion of her celebrated work on a systems and implementation sciences approach to early learning. Myra Jones-Taylor showed this working model in action by providing a portrait of the work in her home state of Connecticut, and Sherri Killins discussed the BUILD Initiative’s theory of change, supporting states in implementing comprehensive strategies. At the heart of each discussion was a thematic emphasis on creating high-quality, equitably distributed programs that are durably sustained by holistic infrastructure.

After the event, HMH’s SVP for Early Learning, Susan Magsamen, sat down with Dr. Kagan to discuss how a systems and implementation sciences approach to early learning can help us work together to care for the whole child.

HMH SVP for Early Learning, Susan Magsamen
HMH SVP for Early Learning, Susan Magsamen

Susan: You've devoted your life’s work to advocating for quality, equitable early learning experiences. One major component of your research applies systems and implementation sciences to early childhood education and care. Can you explain what you mean when you talk about a research-based “systems and implementation” approach?

Lynn: As a field, early childhood has been able to predicate its expansion on an excellent research and theoretical base. Thanks to neuroscience, we know how critical the early years are to healthy growth and development. We’ve leveraged evaluation research to learn that high-quality Early Childhood Education produces lasting cognitive results, and the econometric sciences tell us that there are proven long-term economic benefits when we invest in early childhood education. Taken together, these three scientific bases have merged to create unprecedented support for early learning. The challenge, now that public and policy support prevails, is how do we convert science to action?

New research on systems and implementation sciences can help us to do this, but sadly this research has not been thoroughly incorporated into the work. In part, this is because thinking systemically is hard; it means NOT thinking about only a single classroom, an individual program or an isolated service, but envisioning them as an integrated whole, a system. Moreover, to optimize systems thinking, we also need to focus on the infrastructure that supports the programs, which consists of policy, PD, nutrition, funding, family services, home visits and much more. Implementation science helps us understand how to bring systems thinking to light. It’s not easy and it’s a lot to juggle!

Susan: What are some of the challenges we face?

Historically, in the US, we’ve started with programs and attempted to implement systems after the fact, in response to various needs. This means we don’t have one coherent system when it comes to Early Childhood Education and this has created challenges. We have hundreds of programs, including public and private programs, child care, Head Start, Pre-K, home visiting and family support programs. Each of these is accompanied by its own unique set of regulations, funding sources, mandates and guidelines. Moreover, each state has its own culture and priorities, so there is confusion for providers, program sponsors and parents. This is a non-system that is very challenging for all involved to understand, much less navigate.

When I speak about a systems and implementation sciences approach to early learning, I’m talking about developing an infrastructure that supports all these different programs and promotes quality services for all children. To do this, we need to understand the interdependence of various systems and programs. I think of it as a flower bed. We may see many varieties of flowers growing from the earth – they are different programs, and it is highly unlikely that we will ever merge all these programs. But underneath them all, like the soil from which flowers grow, is an infrastructure that must be nourished or the programs, like the flowers, will not thrive.

Susan: At Sunday’s discussion, you talked about how your research has expanded and evolved. Can you share some of that thinking with us?

Lynn: It is important to realize that science and theories are always evolving. You can never be static. The way we think about children in society has evolved. For example, today we understand the real capacity of young children and see them as very competent learners. We also understand that societies have an obligation to young children and that they are entitled to services; in other words, children have rights. Finally, we also understand how to think about children in an integrated way, being concerned about their health (physical and mental) and nutrition, about their education, and about protections from exploitation. As we think about children differently, we also must act differently.

And here is where systems thinking and implementation science comes in. When I started thinking deeply about these newer, different ways of understanding Early Childhood Education, I also identified goals and sub-systems to underpin our work:

  • Learning Sub-System: To optimize learning environments, we can leverage Learning Sub-Systems, like standards, curriculum, workforce development, family and community programs. These all drive to our ultimate goal of Quality Care.
  • Provision Sub-System: When we think about children’s rights, it quickly becomes clear that there are disparities in access to quality programs. Governments and policy-makers are increasingly acknowledging a role in early education by expanding and creating new programs and efforts, which encompass a Provision Sub-System with the goal of ensuring that all children are Equitably Served.
  • Infrastructure Sub-System: When we think in terms of holistic care, we must work toward a robust Infrastructure Sub-System. Government entities, community health access, workforce development, financing mechanisms – all of these are elements of durable infrastructure that Sustains Services.

None of this work is easy, and it will take time. But in all cases, we’ve started working toward a cohesive, total system driving toward quality, equity and sustainability in early childhood education.

Susan: Where do we go from here?

Lynn: We are at a critical moment. At the Conversations event, Dr. Killins reminded us of this with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s powerful words, “tomorrow is today.” We need to be really clear about our goals, and we need to clarify our language so that those of us in the field, partner organizations and services and, of course, families all understand how we can move the dial by using an embedded systems and implementation approach. We need to be on the same page, and we need to remain dedicated to shared goals above all. Dr. Jones-Taylor offered a fabulous piece of wisdom to those of us at Sunday’s discussion, and it is a great launching point –“fall in love with the problem, not your own solution to it.”

The Conversations on Early Learning series, which launched earlier this year, is designed to foster collaboration and to advance the national dialogue around the fundamental role of quality early childhood education in ensuring long-term success and equal opportunity for all learners, regardless of background.  Learn more here.

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