And How are the Children..?

Review: The Next Step in Systems-Building, a white paper by Christina Satkowski

Posted on: February 21, 2010

When I went to check out the New America Foundation’s Early Ed Watch blog inaugural podcast, I was pleased to see that it was accompanied by a new white paper: The Next Step in Systems-Building: Early Childhood Advisory Councils and Federal Efforts to Promote Policy Alignment in Early Childhood, by Christina Satkowski (New America Foundation, 2009).  As it turns out, the podcast was a vehicle for the paper.  Policy issues are critical to anyone interested in advancing the early childhood care and education field, so I was pleased to come across the publication.

Satkowski’s writing speaks articulately to the topic at hand, though her comments on the podcast seem a bit less well-prepared.  I have to agree with the lone commenter on the blog who challenges her assertion that “we don’t know that much about what works and what doesn’t in early childhood education.” We don’t know everything about it, but we certainly have learned quite a bit.  I wonder if she meant to frame that notion in the context of coalition building, which would make sense.  We do still have quite a bit to learn about successful collaborations, and there’s no harm in admitting that.  Satkowski’s talking points during the podcast seemed a bit vague, but she’s a researcher, not a radio personality.  The paper tells us what we need to know.

The Next Step in Systems-Building describes disconnected systems of early care and education services.  This is a real problem, as such inefficiency limits the quality of services available for groups that are already experiencing high stress and high need.  The Head Start Reauthorization Act of 2007 sought a remedy to this problem by calling for the creation of Early Learning Advisory Councils (ECACs) in every state, but the act went unfunded, and therefore, impotent.  Satkowski explains how one year ago, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA, aka The Stimulus) loaded 100 million dollars into funding a solution to this – and states have been applying for these grants since June 2009 (through August 2010) to form, support and implement the work of ECACs.

Most people who work in the realm of early childhood are familiar with such councils (also known as advisory boards, task forces, etc.).  People interested in early childhood issues get together – usually people with some vested interest, or influence in the field, be it practical, political or financial – and they attempt to shape aspects of early childhood practices in their communities.  As Satkowski describes, some are government appointed, and some are interested volunteers.  She makes the point that it is sensible to involve people on councils who are not so high-ranking that they can’t see the ground, i.e. practitioners  or implementers.  It’s an ongoing challenge in early childhood to balance between roots and wings, so to speak.  How these groups are defined and generated varies widely.  But the ARRA seeks to formalize and institutionalize the existence of early learning councils by funding them with a 70-30 % dollar match, and offering them opportunities to advance their agendas.  This includes the goal of solidifying what may have been loose associations of parties with common goals, and helping them to focus their energies together.  The fact that federal funding is huge – unlike so much ADA/IDEA and No Child Left Behind policy, there are dollars in place to make this happen, though the 70-30 % match is a challenge for many states, and prohibitive for others (to be clear, it is the states that provide 70%, and the Feds provide the remaining 30% ).  It would be a shame to have a council ready and willing, but short on budget dollars.  Satkowski acknowledges the precarious nature of early childhood funding as a barrier to effective early childhood advisory councils being effective in their collaborative work.  It is an ongoing challenge, and putting early childhood issues high on the slash list is a cultural norm.

Satkowski has written a useful document.  It does a good job of outlining what the Early Childhood collaborations scene looks like, describing groups in various levels of proximity, with varying degrees of connection and investment.  Satkowski points out that not everyone that comes to the table has the same goals, likes each other, or works well together, which she speaks to in her recommendations for policymakers.

These recommendations for policy on both state and federal levels are arguably the most useful part of this white paper.  The state-level recommendations have to do with ways to create a more comprehensive network with sustainable leadership. For example, one recommendation is to  nurture leadership, relationships, and communication among mid-level managers:  A smart idea.  The problem is that while logically speaking, mid-level management is in a good position to function as ECAC leadership, practically speaking, this grade of leaders is often subject to layoffs due to budget cuts, in a field that takes financial instability as a norm.  The recent debacle of the state budget crisis in Illinois is a perfect example of this: hundreds of organizations across the state either closed altogether or laid off workers, leaving the ranks of human services stripped of many mid-level managers.  The next recommendation goes on to say that ECACs should be positioned as key players in the policy process.  This is truly important, and compounds the challenge of the prior recommendation, because one way to gain influence on policy issues is to be an influential person.  Such influence is seen less in the realm of middle management, more among executives and board members, those workers that may be “further distanced from those individuals responsible for day-to-day implementation of policy.”  On the federal level, she recommends systemic approaches to not only support ECACs, but to institutionalize support of ECACs so that progress can continue into the future, not necessarily attached to any one funding push or administration.

I hope that people will at least take the time to read through the policy recommendations.  Satkowski provides a truly useful guide to how to think in terms of early childhood systems when steering and navigating these waters.   If the economy actually does continue to improve, and we see more money coming into the field, we will all have to step up to the plate and offer services that are smarter, more comprehensive and more sustainable than they have been in the past.  We will have to put our money where our mouth is, and deliver on all that we’ve been promising for years.


2 Responses to "Review: The Next Step in Systems-Building, a white paper by Christina Satkowski"

Dear Ms. DannerMcPhaden,
I am so happy to have found you on twitter because I, too, am interested in early childhood development. Although I am not an educator myself, I have worked with many educators, and other professionals who work with children, to help them acquire award-winning materials to use with their charges.

I am a big fan of Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and I will be in Chicago in July for the national convention of Discovery Toys. Please contact me privately at twitter or at my website.
Billie Elias

Thanks, Billie! I’m glad you’ve made the connection – early childhood is an important field, and we all have parts to play. Best of luck with your ventures, and stay tuned! Hope to hear from you again!

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