Over the past 6 months, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about educational innovation, because Andy Rotherham and I have been writing a paper for the Brookings Institution on the federal role in supporting educational innovation. One of the things that’s become increasingly clear to me is that the early education sector is much more innovative—and offers a much more hospitable climate for innovators—than the K-12 education system.
Consider: Last week I attended a meeting about the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), a validated, reliable observational system, about which we’ve written previously, that enables trained observers to, in a relatively short amount of time, measure the quality of teachers’ interactions with children in the classroom. Most importantly, evidence shows that kids whose teachers perform better on the CLASS learn more than children whose teachers score less well. That’s a tremendously important innovation that can support all kinds of new approaches to teacher training, professional development, and even program monitoring and accountability, and right now the researchers at the University of Virginia who developed CLASS are working with local and state policymakers to implement innovative approaches that utilize CLASS.
Interestingly, CLASS can be used in both early childhood (pre-k) and early elementary (K-3) settings, but the vast majority of interest in using it has come from early childhood—there don’t seem to be a lot of states or districts that are aware of CLASS or interested in using it their elementary school classrooms.
Similarly, Wireless Generation is a for-profit company that produces a technology platform that allows teachers to track students’ reading progress and administer real-time assessments on handheld devices (similar to PDAs) that automatically upload data to the web, where teachers can analyze it and use it to guide instruction. Wireless Generation's major products are automated versions of early literacy assessments and other tools for use in early childhood classrooms.
The early education sector has also been innovative in delivering new delivery models to serve the diverse needs of young children and their families. For example, Illinois Action for Children has developed an innovative delivery model, called Community Connections, that partners home-based care providers with center-based pre-k programs, so that children in home-based childcare can receive a half day of high-quality pre-k, while their parents still benefit from the flexibility, affordability, and extended schedules home-based providers offer. The program also provides support to help home-based care providers improve the quality of care and educational supports they offer. This is an innovative model that shows promise for reaching low-income children, who tend to be in home-based care, and might not otherwise be able to participate in pre-k programs.
And these are just a few examples of innovation in early education.
Why has the early education sector fostered and embraced innovation in ways the K-12 world has not? It’s a question that’s been bothering me a lot lately. I think there are a number of reasons.
First, it’s worth noting that the idea of early education programs for young children is itself something of an innovation. The idea that parents and educators should be providing education, rather than simply safe, nurturing care, for young children is a relatively new one. As recently as the 1950s only about 10 percent of children attended preschool or pre-k programs, compared to more than two-thirds of 4-year-olds today.
Related, early education doesn’t have the kind of deeply entrenched structure that exists in the public education system, with its school districts, the public schools they operate, and the webs of state-level policies, funding streams, and institutions that fund, regulate, and oversee the public schools. Instead, early education is delivered through a diverse patchwork of public schools, community-based providers, Head Start, and both center-based and family childcare. This diversity and lack of an established system can often frustrate early education reformers, and lead to gaps in access and quality. But they also help create a fertile climate for innovation, because there is less of an entrenched system to stand in the way of new ideas, and diverse providers provide more opportunities to try out a diverse array of models, approaches, and tools.
Similarly, the early education system features a tremendous amount of parent choice and competition, which creates both opportunities and incentives for providers to innovate and differentiate their services.
Also, in comparison to the K-12 system, the early education sector is relatively strapped for resources—state early education programs often provide far less funding per-child for pre-k than K-12, providers often have to scrape together funds from private and philanthropic sources to fund early childhood services for which there is no state funding, childcare providers’ ability to raise costs is constrained by what parents can afford to pay--which means that providers and reformers face constant pressure to seek out innovative approaches that enable them to do more, and provide better quality, with less resources.
Finally, the early education sector benefits from an especially rich body of research. There are, of course, the seminal randomized controlled studies of model early childhood programs in the 1960s and since—Perry Preschool, Abecedarian, Chicago’s Child Parent Centers. And this kind of high-quality effectiveness research is often lacking elsewhere in education. Early education has also benefitted from the now well-known neuroscience, psychology, and child development research, summed up in works such as Neurons to Neighborhoods and Eager to Learn, that, starting in the 1990s, began to focus much more of parents’ and policymakers’ attention on the importance of brain development and early learning in the first several years of life—and also established a base of scientific evidence about the reality of what children need during this time. Less noted but equally important have been non-experimental and quasi-experimental studies based on large samples of children in childcare and early education programs: The Cost, Quality and Outcomes Study, the NICHD Study of Early Child Care, the SWEEP and Multi-State studies of state pre-k programs. These studies have provided valuable information about the reality of children’s early education experiences, as well as further documentation of the link between quality and child outcomes, and refinements in our understanding of what quality means in large scale early education and childcare programs. Moreover, this research, and the need to for measures of classroom quality to support that research, gave rise to tools like CLASS that are now available to help improve quality in early childhood education.
Now, early education’s experience is also an illustration of the limits of what innovation can do. In large part because of the lack of funding and non-system nature of the early education sector, quality in early education programs is still highly varied, and too often not good enough to support the kind of learning children need in these early years. To improve results for children, innovation needs to be partnered with resources, infrastructure, and policies that allow early educators to implement effective innovative approaches in a high-quality way, as well as accountability and ongoing assessments of innovative models.
But it’s also true that the more hospitable climate for innovation that can be found in early education has fostered the development of ideas and resources that are now playing an important role in efforts to improve quality, access, alignment, and outcomes for children in early education. When it comes to innovation, the K-12 public school system could learn a thing or two from the early education sector.