The early learning field has reached a galvanizing moment. A confluence of research, practice, policy, content development, informal learning and advocacy work has cultivated fertile ground for the community’s shared commitment and growth by providing the tools we need to ensure that all young learners have access to essential education experiences.
Last week, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hosted the first in a series of four symposia designed to foster dynamic collaboration within the early learning space at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. The first event in the Conversations on Early Learning: Inform. Inspire. Act. series gathered more than 70 key stakeholders from myriad disciplines and organizations including the National Head Start Association, the US Department of Education, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Early Care and Education Consortium, the National Science Foundation, and the Association of Children’s Museums, for a moderated panel and town hall-style discussion.
By bringing diverse voices and experiences to the table, we aim to foster a collaborative environment to inform the development of a national framework for change — a set of actionable, research-based guidelines that will provide a benchmark for future early learning initiatives.
The passion in the room was truly inspiring, and we heard loudly that it is critical to identify, understand and address specific constraints and opportunities to create an effective national early learning system that meets the needs of our youngest citizens. Amongst attendees, there was a shared commitment to move forward with boldness and clarity of purpose. Included in this ongoing discussion will be the following topics:
- Increased integration of the science of learning research to inform education best practices
- Workforce development and training
- The connection between home and school, including family engagement and stability
- The connection between physical and mental health, education outcomes and child development
- Consistent funding to support long term success
- The role of and approach to assessment and evaluation
- A shared vision of what a quality early learning program is and what it is not
Here are a few high-level takeaways from our inaugural Conversations on Early Learning event:
Every Child Deserves to Shine
Children are born learning, and positive relationships matter. We began our discussion on Monday with these basic facts, establishing a clear baseline for all to follow: every young child has the birthright to be whomever he or she aspires to be. Efforts to care for and educate little ones must embrace this notion of inherent potential and create healthy, nurturing environments – at home, in school and in the wider community. We must also ensure children and families are healthy and that basics like food, housing and mental and physical care is reliable and available.
Thanks to neuroscience research, we know unequivocally that engaging interaction between adults and kids in both formal and informal settings supports healthy cognitive development. We simply can’t underestimate the importance of quality interpersonal engagement and connection. Encouraging curiosity is key; children learn best through play and exploration.
It Takes a (Multidisciplinary) Village
The critical importance of equal access to quality early childhood education is a bipartisan and multidisciplinary issue. Young children live, grow and play in a variety of settings, and are constantly observing and exploring their worlds. A key goal of the Conversations series is to hear and learn from those that teach, parent, advocate, conduct research and operate in these diverse environments. To ensure that all children have the opportunity to shine, we need the entire village – parents, teachers, pediatricians, policy makers, content developers, private and public organizations, media and many more – to join the national conversation and support efforts to deliver high quality content and care informed by the science of learning to all U.S. communities, from urban city centers to vast rural regions.
Creating a Common Vision and Building Criteria for Success
So, how do we get everyone involved in a meaningful way? First, we must align our collective understanding of the current early education landscape in order to then envision a framework for success.
In the past two decades, there has been a surge of discovery and an increase in cross-disciplinary research in the fields of neuroscience, cognitive science, public health, psychology, human development and education. The science is more definitive than ever and continuing to grow – our earliest years play a vital role in setting the stage for success in school and beyond. Quality early learning builds strong neural pathways that bolster critical thinking, cognition and language skills.
We all know the data around the word gap – children growing up in poverty enter Kindergarten with 30 million fewer words than middle class peers. We also know that children not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are less likely to receive a high school diploma. And yet, less than three in ten 4-year-olds are enrolled in early education programs that are considered high quality.
Currently, the early learning space is diverse and complex. There is no single set of national guidelines for early learning. Standards vary across states and districts; some educators possess specialized content knowledge and certifications, while others have no formal training. Likewise, some families have shelves of books for shared reading, while others, caught in the word gap, have none.
We have many questions to address – how do we define quality education? How do we reach more families, and how do we support those families that cannot afford quality childcare in its current model? How can we restructure professional development opportunities, or rethink qualifications for early educators? What community partnerships can we nurture and create?
Moving from Intention to Action: Next Steps
Inspired by the power of partnership, as demonstrated by the White House’s Invest in US initiative, HMH is committed to working with a wide range of stakeholders to build this connected community that can bridge the gap between research and practice and build a holistic national framework for early learning.
Throughout the year, we will facilitate more Conversations in Early Learning, nurture multidisciplinary partnerships and leverage creative thinking. We’ll share our thoughts through this blog and other channels so that our discussion stretches beyond the meeting room. We’ll host three more summits this year, exploring topics such as English language learning, health and wellness, special education, the connections between home and school, and how we can best leverage digital tools in early learning spaces.
The next Conversations on Early Learning event is scheduled for June 7 in New Orleans, ahead of the National Institute for Early Childhood Professional Development. We’ll examine successful early learning models across the country. Sharon Lynn Kagan, Co-Director of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, will keynote.
Stay tuned to this blog for more detailed information and insight, including expert interviews and video highlights, and insight from our inaugural event.
Victor Hugo said “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” I believe we can all agree that early learning is a critical area whose time has certainly come. I look forward to continuing the conversation.
Susan Magsamen is the Senior Vice President of Early Learning at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a member of the Educational Advisory Board for the Goddard School, senior advisor to The Science of Learning Institute and Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
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