And How are the Children..?

Archive for the ‘advocacy’ Category

Obama’s Right-Wing School Reform | The New York Review of Books.

I wonder what people think of this article (HT to @Thanks2Teachers via Twitter for bringing it to my attention).  Please share your thoughts:

I have been disappointed with what feels like a pretty conservative approach to education reform.  *To clarify, I mean conservative in the ‘slow, cautious, playing-it-safe’ way, not as a ideological label for a group of people (i.e. the political opposite of ‘liberal.’)*  Also disappointing: support for early childhood remains insufficient, continuing to follow the ‘table scraps’ model of funding.

I don’t know anything about this author, Diane Ravitch.  Her headline is sensational.  She’s marketing a book.  But she also seems to make some sound points.  I wish she had provided some examples of possible solutions among her list of complaints and criticisms.  This piques my ongoing issue with educators: a great deal of willingness to discuss problems, but little action toward solving those problems. This is not a personal criticism of Ravitch, and may not be consistent with her record – I will have to do some reading before making that determination.  Perhaps there are solutions discussed in her book.

She does note that she is seeking leadership outside of herself – political leadership.  If she finds that leadership, I wonder how she would participate.  How do any of us engage with leaders who have taken up our cause?  How can educators really be the change we want to see in the world?

Thoughts?  Discuss!

Obama’s Right-Wing School Reform | The New York Review of Books.


Opening Ceremonies and Keynote

We started off right with a dance party!  After the dancing lights formed into a Kool and the Gang conga line around the room, we all settled down and enjoyed our cupcakes (the electric tea lights were brought in atop cupcakes) while the keynote speaker began.

Let it shine at Leadership Connections 2010!

“Good leaders lead with the heart.” This was a recurring theme in the keynote address given by John Graham, a former diplomat and mountaineer turned philanthropist. Graham is the spokesperson for Giraffe Heroes Project, an organization that encourages people to “stick their necks out for the common good.”

We’ve been hearing a lot of giraffe-related metaphors today as a result.

Graham is not of the early childhood field, but appears to understand the qualities that make for good leaders are required for all leaders, whatever or whomever they lead – like ability to use intuition, to build trust, and to have vision. Regarding vision – he is quick to explain that vision is not code for dreams and fantasies, but rather a visualization of real goals and plans. A kind of projection of the future. According to Graham, “A vision is a great North Star – a vision is a great source of guidance… It inspires. It’s glue…” He talks about using vision as a planning tool for groups working together, reminding us to use heart to guide visioning, not just brain and thinking; non-profits often start with goals and objectives, and he urges them to start with vision.

He touched on a lot of values that feel very spiritual to me, and in such an amicable, straightforward kind of way. I appreciate his approach. Even if he’s not familiar with the details of early childhood leadership, he gets leadership. He gets the humanity required to lead and to make meaning, which he boils down to service and making life better. I believe in my heart that leadership is a way to practice serving society and humanity.

Public Policy Forum

We the PPF took the form of a lecture/presentation (during which I tweeted a few salient points), followed by facilitated breakout discussions. The Forum Facilitators:

  • Kay Albrecht of Innovations in Early Childhood Education
  • Stacie Goffin of Goffin Strategy Group
  • Luis Hernandez of Region IV Head Start
  • Karen Ponder, an ECE Consultant
  • Margie Wallen of the Ounce of Prevention Fund

The Public Policy Forum Keynote speaker was Sharon Lynn Kagan of Teachers College, Columbia University – today’s recipient of the Visionary Award. Her talk was called Advancing ECE2: Early Childhood Education [ece] and its Quest for Equity, Coherence, and Excellence [ECE]. Very clever title.   Kagan stridently puts forth a number of ideas about how she thinks early care and education should be moving forward in terms of policy on the national level. During the breakout sessions, we discussed what she referred to as ‘8 Bold Steps’ that could be taken. I’ll have to find a link to her website so that people can read about that in detail, as we did not get handouts for that session. One of the 8 Bold Steps was to change how we credential ECE professionals. There is ongoing discussion, debate and some tension about how to appropriately require educators to obtain the proper knowledge base to do their jobs effectively and well. Research tells us that quality of education improves if teachers hold degrees, but Kagan points out that she isn’t convinced that there is a big difference in quality between those who have 2 or 4 year degrees.

Addressing AA vs. BA – Kagan commented that she doesn’t want to excise or price-out diversity among our practitioners. She says we need to develop a system where educators function like nurses and demonstrate skills, irrespective of the degree. They would take a competency-based exam. I think this is a really good idea. It sets a consistent standard for quality service provision, but allows for more variety of educators. Kagan says she also wants a credential that has national recognition and is transferable from state to state.

In a lot of ways, she seems to want the moon. In a lot of ways, I agree with her; It’s about time we started acting like we deserve the moon in early childhood. We’ve gotten way too comfortable with the assumption that we’ll never get what we need, so we often don’t bother to aim high. Kagan is aiming crazy high, but her aims might be crazy like a fox.

This topic got a lot of attention during the break out session that I participated in. I chose the session facilitated by Kay Albrecht, and she had us jump right in and hit the ground running. It was a bit much – lots of people talking about a lot of topics. My favorite moment during the breakout session was when the event photographer chimed in: Apparently, he is a retired high school administrator. He told us that he believes that what ECE professionals do is very important, and the effects of our work could be seen in the children he worked with. Too bad he’s not working anymore – it figures that when I finally hear someone from the high school side of things acknowledge that, they’re retired. I’m glad he spoke up, though.

Anyway, it was a good session, and Kay Albrecht is an excellent facilitator. I will definitely be following up on Lynn Kagan’s work, and I hope that she can get more educators on board with advocacy engagement. That’s my pet soapbox at these ECE events: We’ve got to get involved in advocacy! Let’s be activists! Stop complaining to each other and start demanding change!

Then we had delicious hors d’ourves and very nice jazz music during the networking reception, where I caught up with some old acquaintances and talked more with new friends before retiring to my room for a little time with my family. My amazing husband has done a lot to make it possible for me to attend this conference, and I am very grateful for his sacrifices and accommodations. I’m drinking lots of water!

I’d love to hash it all out even more, but the Westin Hotel Heavenly Bed is calling me. More tomorrow: Skill-Building Clinics, and the Friday Evening Champions for Change Dinner!  More to come…

Because I am essentially a big nerd, I envisioned that the 57th Street Bookstore would be teeming with early childhood enthusiasts.  I feared that if my friend and I arrived any later than 5:30 pm, we would have to squeeze through a standing-room-only crowd to get a decent vantage of the visiting author, and that I’d have to wait forever to get a book signed, if there were even any copies of the book left.  I am pleased to say that while the event was well-attended, my anxiety was unwarranted.  And it was a lovely time listening to Vivian Gussin Paley talk about children, stories and relationships.

While there was no throng of early childhood practitioners, I set out to buy my books before the talk, so I could have them signed afterward without too much waiting (besides being rather averse to waiting in lines myself, I was accompanied by my 11 month old son, who might not tolerate waiting after an hour-long lecture/reading).  As I approached the book table, Ms. Paley walked into the room with her husband.  Yay!  Almost immediately she engages me, the conversation starting with Duncan (my son), and moving on to the topic of the early childhood job market and what’s going on with the Illinois state budget.  I mention how she was the honored guest at my masters degree commencement, trying my best not to sound like a groupie.  She has that kind of unabashed openness that puts you at ease, and makes you feel like you are talking with someone you already know.  I see my friend Rachael arrive, and I excuse myself go to purchase my copies of ‘The Boy on the Beach,’ and ‘You Can’t Say You Can’t Play,’ before the talk begins.

What strikes me most about listening to Paley describe what she sees and learns from observing children’s play, is that she is able to articulate the value of play in a way that relays the essential humanity of it.  I attended a luncheon presentation once, sponsored by the Alliance for Childhood, where the speaker was a woman who teaches children to play for a living.  She expressed her frustration at the limited understanding people generally have for the importance of play; how play skills are taken for granted and her work is often gently dismissed with “Well isn’t that nice?” when she thinks of herself as advocating for a human rights issue.  Vivian Paley gets it, and she explains it rather elegantly.  During her talk, she discussed how children, in play, offer and accept roles from each other, building relationships through the mutual acceptance of each other’s stories.  Talking about loneliness, or “the dark spot of children going to school,” Paley explains how “one piece of dialog makes a friend out of a stranger.”  What great, simple tools for educators to use!  So much of intentional instruction and guidance of children is just this: knowing how to sculpt education and growth out of what already occurs.  She encourages us to make way for conversations that will happen among children, and to see why those conversations- facilitated in imaginative play- are essential to children building relationships, and building community among each other.  Another favorite quote along those lines: “With play, a young child figures out a way to be necessary to the group.”

Of course, the kind of play that Paley is talking about takes a lot of time and space created by adults.  The rich soil of great play is being eroded by time constraints, testing expectations and didactic instruction, and we talked about that.  Paley presented us with the metaphor of “Play is a Play,” and stated that we are cutting that performance somewhere between Acts II and III.  She challenges us to consider what happens in classrooms where play is cut off before Act III emerges, before the story the children are weaving reaches its logical or necessary conclusions.  What is lost when we cut these stories short?

When she opened the floor for questions, a person brought up digital media and how it creates disconnection, encourages short attention span, etc.  Naturally we talked about how preparing for assessments dominates a lot of classroom time.  I have to admit a mild lack of patience for these parts of Q&A sessions, because there is a tendency among educators to begin a lot of hand-wringing and wondering aloud why no one listens to us.  A lot of time can be spent complaining about ways that our collective store of knowledge is ignored.  I don’t mean to say that venting frustrations is a waste of time, but doing it while Vivian Gussin Paley is sitting there, willing to answer questions, would be a wasted opportunity.  My solution to this problem is to circumvent with a well-placed question about action and advocacy.  My question:  As the nation moves in the direction of more assessment-for-accountability and the conversation about common educational standards changes the perception of early childhood on the national stage, have you participated in any initiatives or activities to address prioritizing play in terms of policy and advocacy?  Her answer: Engage parents in advocacy. She said the adult who is most easily reached regarding this topic is the parent, and that parents groups are the best groups to speak to in order to effect some change.  Then, bringing it back to the educators she said, “Teachers can make more use of their parent groups than they have.”  There’s a gentle challenge there, I think.  There is often tension in the relationship between teacher and parent (reasonably so), and too often, even when good relationships exist between parents and educators, there can still be a pernicious Us v. Them mindset that prevents us from fully harnessing the power we could wield if we not only worked together, but advocated for each other (for example, how many parents have out there in Illinois have considered calling your legislator and speaking up to save teachers’ jobs?  How many teachers have contacted their state representative to support house bill 174 -or any legislation- on behalf of families?).

My friend Rachael, a teacher of at-risk pre-k and kindergarten asked a follow-up question asking what advice she had to give to teachers who are trying to preserve play in their classrooms when many are moving towards having common schedules for each grade level yet still want to advocate for play? and Paley responded “It can be done with more… like-minded help,” encouraging Rachael to make more use of a community effort within her school, and find creative solutions to getting enough bodies in the classroom to support such an effort, like using older students to record story dictations.  I appreciate Paley’s suggestions to create more of a community effort within classrooms, however, I think sometimes teachers should be encouraged to advocate outside of the world of the classroom, which can be very insular and isolating. Play is unappreciated in institutions beyond individual schools or school districts, and we have to contend with more than principals and superintendents.  Legislators, and others who influence policy can always stand to hear input from constituents who are educators.  Some teachers may have to step outside of their comfort zones to affect change on a community-wide level.

I look forward to reading Paley’s latest work, and benefiting from her insights.  Her voice is an important one among advocates for play.  I’m glad I got a second chance to hear her speak, and thank her for her words and wisdom.

Here is a great, easy-to-use advocacy tool for citizens of Illinois interested in supporting quality school environments and education jobs: NO TO  You fill in your info, and it not only locates you legislators BUT ALSO generates a message that you can edit with personal touches, and automatically send to all of them.  Incredibly easy and fast.

The form also generates phone numbers for your personal senator and representative, and if you are in Chicago, the senator and rep for whichever CPS school you enter.

NO TO 37– Contact Your Legislators.

Keep in mind. personal letters and phone calls have the greatest impact on legislators.  We all pay closer attention to a handwritten letter than a form letter.  People think about how much effort you put into getting in touch with them.  So if you have the time, go that extra mile – it will be appreciated!

But this is so easy that there’s no reason not to, and if you follow up with a phone call or personal note, or office visit, so much the better.

NO TO 37– Contact Your Legislators

Every voice matters!

Early childhood programs receive public money primarily in the form of education and human services dollars.  There is a complex filtration system that the money goes through, starting with government dollars, and at the end, flowing out to schools, child care subsidies, early intervention services and other public programs.  This money pays for more than the cost of a child’s pre-k tuition, or a physical therapy session.  It pays for salaries of people who provide and coordinate those services.  It pays for supplies that stock the buildings where these people work, and equipment used to support that work.  It pays for some of the education required for workers to continue to do their jobs well, maintain certifications and uphold licensing requirements.  It is an industry web comprising retail, business and repair, educational services, personal services (these are categories of industry according to the U.S. Census Bureau) and more.  According to Illinois Action for Children’s newly published report, Child Care & Early Education in the Cook County Economy (March, 2010):

  • At least 40,867 full-time equivalent jobs are generated by the child care and early education industry in Cook County…
  • Revenues of the child care and early education establishments in Cook County total approximately $1.2 billion.
  • These revenues are from private families’ purchases of child care and early education and from public purchases through programs such as the State of Illinois’ Preschool for All program and the Illinois Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP).

Though it provides significant jobs and revenue, this network of people, places and things is supported with sparse public funding.

Illinois is now facing a budget deficit of 13 billion dollars.  There has been ongoing, heated debate about whether or not to cut spending or increase revenue.  The governor has proposed legislation to address taxes, as have several lawmakers.  Governor Quinn’s bill calls for a 1% income tax increase, in addition to significant cuts to education.  Several advocacy interests have decried this bill as inadequate.  The favorite bill among early childhood advocates is House Bill 174, introduced by Senator James T. Meeks and Representative David Miller.  According to analysis by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, HB174

“effectively changes the Illinois tax structure in a number of ways. It would raise anywhere from $5.0 billion to $5.2 billion in new, recurring tax revenues, provide tax relief to homeowners and low income families, and provide additional funding for public schools, health and human services.”

Early childhood advocates most likely support this bill because of the mixed nature of early childhood funding.  This bill specifically addresses human services and education, which both support early childhood programs.

The Ounce of Prevention Fund Advocacy and Policy web pages describe cuts to early childhood education (click to see descriptions of effects on child care and early intervention funds):


Illinois is known as a national leader of the early childhood movement thanks to its early education system.  The Early Childhood Block Grant funds Preschool for All for three- and four-year-olds, as well as high-quality child development and family support programs for at-risk infants, toddlers and their parents.  However, several years of underfunding compounded by FY10’s cuts and delayed payments have led to children being turned away from programs their families have come to rely on; program closures across the state; and unmet preschool access goals for our state’s most at-risk children.

Summary of Governor’s Proposal:

The Governor’s proposed budget cuts state funding for education by $1.3 billion, a 17% reduction from FY10. This cut reflects the loss of funds provided by the federal stimulus program which will end this year (July 1, 2010).  Within this plan, the Early Childhood Block Grant is cut by $54 million, a 16% reduction that mirrors the total cuts to education.  The Governor’s address called for a 1% income tax surcharge for education which would make up the gap left by the stimulus funds, restore the education budget to current levels, and restore funds from the delayed payment cycle.  A powerful body of research clearly demonstrates the positive effects of early childhood development programs such as those provided by the Early Childhood Block Grant, both in the short- and long-term for the individuals who participate in them and society as a whole.  Without new revenue for education, the short-term savings earned by budget cuts will cost more in the long-run as we spend more to fix the problems we could have prevented in the first place.  Especially during difficult economic times, investing in our future – our children – is the smartest decision we can make.

The reason this is problematic and dangerous, as opposed to just being sad, is that people who are already struggling, and more vulnerable than most depend on these services as a safety net.  This net can catch people before they fall into hunger, homelessness and desperation.  Remove that net, and what do we have?  Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

Such cuts spell big losses for Illinois’ diverse early childhood programs.  This is a particular shame, because while it is far from perfect, our early care and education system has some great features: Support to improve home-based child care quality, including quality enhancement for license-exempt providers; Preschool for All and Prevention Initiatives – programs that provide services for children up until the age of 4, designed to improve school readiness, based on research and best practices; well-established and influential Early Learning Council, and a set of Early Learning Standards that actually correspond with developmentally appropriate practice, developed in cooperation with early childhood professionals.  Not to mention the firestorm of advocacy power and comprehensive programming found among Illinois Action for Children, Voices for Illinois Children and the Ounce of Prevention Fund – Illinois’ early childhood policy experts.  There is also the Erikson Institute, a renowned graduate school in child development that turns out graduates primed for leadership in the early childhood professions). These all depend on state funds to support their programs and their clients.  Every state can’t take such resources for granted, and for Illinois they are being chipped away and degraded by our own leaders.

What else does this budget shortfall mean for ECE funding in Illinois?  It means some grassroots planning is in order.  Though we were fortunate enough to get a boost from the stimulus dollars last year to save Illinois programs from doomsday, the feds are not likely to swoop in and save Illinois programs this time around: SAFRA, anyone?  Passed in July 2009, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) initiates student loan reform, and boosts financial aid (e.g. increasing the maximum Pell Grant scholarship amount).  As it was initially drafted, there were also significant set-asides for ongoing support to early childhood education.  But, as ECE author/consultant Karen Nemeth commented on Twitter after the historic vote on health care reform (tied to SAFRA through the reconciliation process), “Ah, Early Learning Challenge Grants, we hardly knew ye….”  From New America Foundation’s report by Jennifer Cohen on the latest incarnation of SAFRA:

“However, a couple programs are obviously missing from the most recent version of the House bill. Most notable is the Early Learning Challenge Fund, an $8 billion competitive grant program meant to improve quality of and access to early learning programs in states. The absence of this program in the bill could mean a blow to the Obama Administration’s early education agenda, which was largely touted during the campaign.”

I think we all knew not to hold our breath for too long on the Early Childhood Challenge grants, but it was still a disappointment. This is another example of the status quo where early childhood is delivered straight to the chopping block and we are made to watch while the politicians debate and the cleaver gets closer and closer and then strikes. It is another policy process that engages in the de facto de-prioritization of children and families in a national, cultural habit or shortsightedness.  There is still some hope that ARRA (the Stimulus) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will follow through on provisions that support early learning.  But early childhood advocates should have their legislators on speed dial, just in case.  Fiscal support for early childhood is usually hard won, and lobbying may be necessary to maintain funding commitments.

Another question worth asking: When and how do we stop accepting this as the status quo?  What would that look like?

Other reasons we need a better plan for supporting children and families in Illinois: whenever federal become available, they may need to be matched, i.e., our state will have to put up a percentage before we see the payoff, as is the case for the Early Childhood Advisory Council grants, which require a 70/30 state-to-federal dollar match.  We have to look ahead and ask whether we will have enough to avoid losing millions, and plan accordingly.

I hope Illinois can take lessons from last year, and avoid sustaining so many losses and so much waste.   Last spring, when Illinois state legislators could not present a budget plan that would protect children or families, service providers across Illinois made plans of their own.  Some provided services anyway, and ate the cost – an unsustainable practice.  Some rallied together, and got engaged with advocacy organizations like Illinois Action for Children and the Ounce of Prevention Fund, flooding the capitol and legislative offices with phone calls, faxes, and people.  Some enforced furloughs, creating cracks in the already strained ECE workforce.  Some closed their doors, leaving many dedicated practitioners and professionals to compete for jobs or leave their field in the midst of a national employment crisis.  None of these plans were ideal, and I fear that we will see more of the same, based on the tone of the political rhetoric, and the fact that there are elections coming up in November.  Here is Speaker of the House, Mike Madigan, discussing Governor Quinn’s tax proposal:

As a voter, a tax payer, a parent and a professional, I have little patience for public servants who put their own interests ahead of the well-being of the children, families and communities that they were elected to serve and represent.  I take no comfort in the fact that their checks are coming late as well.  It’s no secret that some legislative offices can’t pay their rent due to late payments.  It would be funny if it weren’t so grim.  Non-profits are accustomed to beleaguered state controllers, and late payments aren’t a big deal if you can be sure the money will eventually come.  Now it is possible that for many, many people working in programs that support communities across Illinois, the payments will stop coming.  Again.

Compounding the frustration: Even if the state finds that money will be there in the coming fiscal year, as with last year, people running these programs can’t take that possibility to the bank, and they won’t get any credit for it.  Meaning they’ll have to slash staff and services or close their doors before the game of Fiscal Chicken is even run out.  These are working, taxpaying people who would like nothing more than to avoid public assistance. It’s one thing to re-hire a few laid-off staffers once the money becomes available, but trying to re-open a closed business is another matter: An executive director cannot put space, equipment, staff and clients on the shelf until another grant comes through.  Those assets are likely gone once their gone, and the related losses are complex and far-reaching.

Initially, Governor Quinn instructed Illinois lawmakers to raise the state income tax by one-third, or cut billions in school funds.  Shortly afterward, Quinn back pedaled and went for a softer sell; a tax increase from 3% to 4%, to fund education. After last year’s debacle, Quinn appears reticent to present voters (or his colleagues) with anything but the tiniest squeak of a tax increase, directing the funds to something few would balk at much – education.  But that still leaves the state facing devastating cuts to human services and educational programs.  It is unclear how this will satisfy our state’s need for new revenue across the board, to cover the holes created by that 13 billion dollar deficit.  Progress Illinois reports (including reactions to the 1% proposal from some local ECE leaders):

Also, watch Governor Quinn talk about his tax increase plan:

We would do well to stop making this a cuts-versus-new-revenue discussion.  It does not occur to me how we can afford to focus on only one of these options: clearly we need to prioritize spending, but a starving person is not saved by telling them to eat less food. We should spend more carefully, but to suggest that early childhood programs, and social services are an expendable casualty of decadent spending habits is disingenuous and irresponsible, especially in the face of evidence like this from Nobel laureate, University of Chicago Professor James Heckman.  We should spend more on early childhood, not less.

We need new revenue to secure needed systems and safety nets already in place, for the safety and wellness of Illinois citizens.  No belt-tightening will solve 13 billion unavailable dollars.  We need bigger pants.  Starving our state to a smaller size is not a good idea.  That sounds like the Colorado Springs option, which is not a smart one.  Let’s not cut off our nose to spite our face.  The people of Illinois deserve better.  Our children, families and communities need more.

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