We want to understand and unpack the insides of child care environments – not just large centers – homes and elsewhere.
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Episode #92: Hear all about the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The initiative (one of the largest funding of early childhood education initiatives in history) focuses on the knowledge, professional learning and collective action necessary to cultivate optimal early learning environments and experiences. They’ve recently launched a first-of-its-kind study on examining the environments where 3- and 4-year-olds learn best. Yet little is known about the children who are looked after under informal arrangements involving neighbors, relatives, friends, or nannies, even though these cover 40 percent of children in Massachusetts.
Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) professors Nonie Lesaux and Stephanie Jones, both developmental psychologists, are launching an ambitious study to follow 5,000 children, ages 3 and 4, for four years. The study will track some students before and after their elementary school years, and perhaps into adulthood. The cohort, recruited from 168 communities, is designed to reflect the changing demographics of children across the state. “We want to understand and unpack the insides of child care environments – not just large centers – homes and elsewhere”.
Resources in this episode:
– Learn more about the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative.
HiMama Preschool Podcast, Episode #92 – Nonie Lesaux & Stephanie Jones Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – April 13, 2018
Well with an expansion and improvements that you find out what are the key ingredients across all these different types because not all children are ever going to be in high quality centers. Not every last child. Right. We don’t want simply advocate for bundles and for being striker’s we want to understand and have to be informed.
Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.
Today on the Preschool Podcast I have Nonie Lesaux and Stephanie Jones from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Welcome, Noni and Stephanie!
So, Noni and Stephanie are working on some really cool stuff over at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And a lot of their work is supported by the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative, which is a really cool donation from Saul Zaentz – who works in the music and film field – and has through his philanthropic work made this donation. Can I start off just learning a little bit about who Saul Zaentz is and why he decided to provide this funding to your work?
Yes, of course. So Saul was, at his core, a mission-driven film producer. He started out in the jazz industry doing a record label. He then moved to producing films that were a little more on the independent side. They were usually based on novels, and he was very committed to their depth and the acting reflecting the depth and the nuance of the script, ultimately. So he really was kind of a risk taker. The films included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, Amadeus, The English Patient.
So he wasn’t looking for the splash; he was looking for the story. And with his earnings he really wanted a post kind of a chapter that focused on giving back and thinking really deeply about giving kids a good start. He really believed in education and he believed in early experiences. He remembers, as a child, experiences of homelessness and wanted to be sure that his money went to children’s health and wellbeing.
Very cool, very cool. And it’s great to see that somebody who’s gone and done such amazing, creative work that’s had such an impact with those films you mentioned – which have won numerous Oscar awards – is focusing his money and philanthropy towards early-childhood education.
And let’s get into the initiative that he’s put his money towards, and what you’re doing with that funding. What is the primary focus of your research, or what are the main areas of focus that you have with the funding from Saul Zaentz?
So the initiative is supported by the 35.5 million dollar gift from the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation, which is one of the largest gifts ever given to a university for an early-education initiative. Our initiative has three interlocking strategies for impact, ultimately. First is what we call the Zaentz Academy, where we bring early leaders in education, high quality executive education.
The second strategy is what we’re calling me Early Learning Study at Harvard, which is a statewide study of 5,000 children and their caregivers, to look at the kinds of places informal and formal that our children in this state of Massachusetts receive their early education and care. And we want to make links between the characteristics of those places and children learning and growing.
And our strategy, you won’t be surprised to hear, is the Fellows Program for Masters and Doctoral Students. We really want to continue to build up the pipeline of leaders in early [education].
Very cool. I actually want to touch quickly on the first part of your strategy – although we’re going to go into more detail on your early learning study – because the Podcast is very much focused on leadership and leaders and early-childhood education. And personally I think it’s a very important skill that we need to build out. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s happening with that, and what some of the annuities are for furthering the education of high quality leadership in early [education]?
Well, I’ll tell you a little bit about the Professional Learning Academy. Fundamentally it’s designed for early education leaders, as Noni said and as you just said, also. And it’s a new model, meaning that what we haven’t yet had in early education is kind of a focus on executive education, professional learning that really builds core knowledge about child development, coupled with strategies and practices for leadership that are supported through in-person or online professional learning.
So we offer a number of in-person institutes here at the ed. school, and we’re in the process of building an online certificate that can be taken through individual modules or in theories or as a whole certificate. And the core of it is really adult learning. And we’d love to share information with anybody who’s interested.
Yeah, that sounds really interesting. And again, I do feel like there’s a gap in opportunities there, especially at the executive level, so that’s very interesting. Okay, so now let’s dive a little bit deeper into the second part of the strategy, which is this study that you’re working on that’s involving 5,000 children. It sounds like quite a groundbreaking study, in terms of what I’ve read. What’s it all about, and what’s the purpose?
Well, the idea is to provide a deep and rich, descriptive portrait of the young children – three- and four-year-olds, in particular – and their caregivers. And in this case we are drawing our sample from across Massachusetts. We’re also focused on describing the settings in which they receive their care and education, not just those formal settings that you typically hear about – formal settings being center-based early education and care – but also those informal settings that you often don’t hear much about. But we know that many, many three- and four-year-old children are receiving their care in those informal settings.
So our plan with this study is to provide a picture of the entire landscape of early education and care for three- and four-year-olds. The focus is documenting the different kinds of places – as I said, both formal and informal – that our young children in this state receive their early education and care, and then to make links between characteristics of those places and children’s learning and growing over time.
And we see that kind of research – this sort of new generation of science in early education – as key to informing how we can strengthen the quality of early education and care for all children in all types of care.
So is it fair to say that one of, if not the primary, objective[s] of the study is to understand the differences in characteristics and outcomes with the type of learning environment, whether that be sort of like the more formal environment in a childcare program or academy versus in-home or at-home care?
Yes. What we really want to do is identify the key ingredients across the spectrum – in other words getting to sort of this micro level where there’s been so much emphasis on, “Does it work? What are the effects? Up or down, yes or no?” And what we want to say is, that doesn’t really help us with an improvement in a scaling strategy. What will help us with an expansion and an improvement strategy is to find out, what are the key ingredients across all these different types? Because not all children are ever going to be in high quality centers, not every last child, right? And we don’t want to simply advocate for bundles and for big structures. We want to understand and unpack the insides. Does that make sense?
Totally makes sense. And obviously in-home care is a massive percentage of childcare and early learning that’s happening across the country, I have no doubt. So it’s important that we take a look at that as well.
And what about in terms of accessibility? Is there any information or data about accessibility of in-home versus sort of like the more formalized childcare programs. And is that one reason behind why you’re taking this wider view as well?
Well, I think what’s important to remember is the home is not necessarily parents and family members. There’s a huge class of care called “family-based childcare,” “home-based childcare”, which may be that they have a license and it’s commercial, right? It’s a woman up the street or in our neighborhood and takes a certain number of children. So we’re trying to hit all of the different types of formal and informal care. It’s hard to understand and identify these key ingredients that are at the level of being able to then inform an improvement strategy for all settings.
But also because we do know that many families are tapping care that is not in their own home but is not necessarily a traditional school-like approach, the preschool-like approach. And in some cases they’re doing that because that’s their primary choice. So that’s actually what they’re seeking for their young child, their three-year-old or their four-year-old.
So what this study really will shed light on is not only the key ingredients across these different types of settings, but also information about what people are seeking for their early education and care for their young children, which isn’t always exactly what we assume it to be.
I think the only other thing I would add is that this is a whole group of early educators who have felt left out of the conversation, who have not felt a part of the conversation about what works, and who also need support. And if we’re going to build a stronger pipeline of leadership and help leaders create the conditions for supporting adults then we have to include those adults in those studies. And they are a huge part of the landscape. There are lots of three-year-olds in informal settings and in informal, home-based settings.
Yeah, and I think your point about them historically not being a big part of the conversation is a very good point, too, because they’re obviously super-duper fragmented. There’s likely tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of these family or in-home childcare programs. And you’re right – I mean, from my knowledge of the landscape of the different associations and organizations that are representing early-childhood education, those that represent family or in-home childcare programs are very small or localized or are at-best at the state level.
And I think it’s also, a lot of the in-home and childcare programs may not even be part of those organizations. That’s why I think it’s excellent to have a study that really recognizes that that is a very important element of childcare and Early-childhood education. And if we’re doing a study we have to incorporate that.
Yeah, and I think we want to elevate the whole sector, right? The whole profession: all adults, the whole sector. And it really… I mean, there’s so much great science already in this field. And the challenge with it is it doesn’t tell the whole story yet. So we have practitioners, we have policy makers, we have people in the field making decisions based on incomplete information about what’s actually out there.
So let’s get into that a little bit more. So this makes a lot of sense in terms of why we would do this study. Let’s talk a little bit about how you’re conducting the study. I’m sure it’s quite complicated to get into the details, but at a high level, how are you conducting the study? What are some of these key ingredients, for example, that you’re talking about that can help bring this to life a little bit for our listeners?
I think to just summarize the high level is, we’re knocking on doors, ultimately, to find all of these places and children and families. And from there what we do is we work with children year-over-year, right? The kinds of games and activities that might be in a preschool classroom, sort of gauge children’s literacy, language and cognition, etc. And then we look at the features of the setting the they’re in, the sort of visible space and the language and the interaction, the way children and adults are working with each other and talking with each other, the way children are talking with each other.
And we really just… not unlike the public health study, we really just look at children and families and caregivers and early indicators and the quality of the settings all the way through. We’re going to try to follow them as long as we can. And a key point about all of this is that it’s a representative sample, meaning that anything we say about our sample says something about the entire state of Massachusetts, so all the kids in Massachusetts and all the settings in Massachusetts, and to the degree that another state is like or has a system like that of Massachusetts will be speaking to those as well. But we feel like with that kind of design we can say a great deal about the landscape of early care across the U.S.
Yeah, and it sounds like what you’re trying to create is almost like a baseline study for everyone to use across the country about the different environments and methods and ingredients, as you say, that make up childcare in the U.S. and what’s working and what’s not working, which seems like it would fill a really big gap in the current research that’s out there.
Yeah, and it would give other states a chance to say, “How do you do a statewide study? What does it look like? How much does it cost?” We’re going to broker that information. To your point we’re hoping this isn’t the only one. We’d like to see many more of these so that we can really propel the field forward.
And it sounds like something that keeps coming up a little bit, too, and maybe the word is like “holistic” study, because I think there’s a lot of really interesting research that’s maybe like a deep dive into children’s brain development, or a deep dive into play-based learning in a childcare environment, which again is a very specific thing. But it sounds like this kind of takes a more holistic view of what all the different elements are, which sounds like it will be a benefit of the outcome as well.
Yes. And with this kind of study as a foundation or as a setup, a study as a foundation, we can do additional sub-studies. We can do deep dives in different areas if we want to, over time.
Very cool, very cool. Okay, now, moving the conversation forward a little bit: What is the timeline on this study? When are you hoping to release some results or output?
We will start this summer. We’re going to have results as early as this summer and we’re going to continue… we’re sort of committing to a rapid cycle approach. We’re going to keep releasing results every few months, probably for a long time.
And what’s the longer-term extent of this study? How long do you anticipate that it will be carried on for?
That’s the million dollar question, which is not a joke. In other words we’re going to keep trying to raise money to do this for as long as we can. As you can imagine, not unlike the large public health study it’s extremely expensive to keep it going. But if we can keep the funding going, we will.
Sure. Well I’m sure it’s one of those things where the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know, right? And you want to get into more research and studies to understand those things, too, which is great.
Yes, exactly. The stuff we learn over time will help us adapt and shape future ways of data collection, future different types of information we collect over time.
Totally. And again, I know you mentioned it but just to reiterate: it sounds like, to me, one of the benefits coming out of this as well is not just the data or the information or results, but also the methodology and approach of how to conduct a study in early-childhood education, which I think will be very valuable.
So in terms of our listeners: so if I’m an early-childhood educator and I’m working with children in a classroom every day, what would you want me to know about this study and how it may impact me, or what I should know about it? Or in learning so far, in your work, what would you want to tell me as an educator?
I think the thing to watch for, if I’m tied in with that educator I think a couple of things: I think we say, “All voices and people represented,” which is exciting, right? A first pass that every educator, irrespective of their model or center or settings. And I think the second thing is, we’re going to get away from the big solutions that are bundled, like saying, “It has to be this curriculum with these regulations and this approach to health and safety.” And instead we’re going to say, “We’re focused on kernels, smaller, grain-sized ideas about nudges in a positive direction.”
We’re looking to help leaders better support educators to do their job, as well. It’s a very, very, very challenging job. It’s high-stress; it demands a ton of planning and organization and troubleshooting in real time and midcourse correction. We need to know a lot about children, and we need the support and the space to develop relationships and to do the planning and delivery that we know that everyone is capable of doing. And so we’re really going to focus on, how can we bring more support to them via their leaders?
I think we take a holistic view of child development, which means that we’re focused on all domains, not just necessarily in language and literacy but language literacy, self-regulation, social-emotional, behavioral. And we’re really focused on adults as well, how adults are doing in a setting in addition to how kids are doing.
Yeah, and I know the Harvard Center For the Developing Child focuses a lot on that as well. And I assume you have some communication and involvement with them as well, is that correct?
Yeah. The Centre of the Developing Child is affiliated with the ed. school, and we’ve partnered with them in lots of different things and we’ll continue to in the future. And share that focus on the adults in the system. Too often we jump over the adults and we focus on the children.
Yeah, very good point. And I know in some of the reading that I’ve done from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a lot of it has been on that. And it’s so logical; it makes so much sense. These are really excellent points, and I really like the point that you make about there’s no big solution or sort of one-solution-fits-all answer to early-childhood education. And really what this study will help bring to light is, those “kernels” as the word that you used, all these different little things that we can take away and provide to our executive leaders, directors, administrators and early-childhood educators who are working directly with children in terms of how we can improve educational outcomes for our youngest children.
This is very cool stuff. Where can I go to find out more about your work, if I would like to read a little bit more about it?
So we have a Zaentz website: www. Zaentz.GSE.Harvard.edu. We also can be followed on social media. You can sign up on that page and we’ll continue to release reports, especially in the coming months.
Awesome. And for our listeners Zaentz is spelt Z A E N T Z. And I had to almost correct myself because I was going to say “Zed”.
I hear you, all the time.
I’ve been corrected enough times already – it’s “Zee”. So this has been a really, really cool conversation. [It] sounds like really, truly a groundbreaking study that’s going to give an awesome baseline. And it’s so exciting to hear that you’re involving everyone in the early-childhood education community, because who who’s to say that a big childcare solution is the better solution versus a family childcare program, or anything, for that matter? Because we haven’t done the studies.
So this is really cool, and I’m looking forward personally to seeing some of the results coming out of this. Thanks so much for telling us more about it, Stephanie and Nonie.
Great, thank you, Ron. It was fabulous. Thanks for the opportunity.
It’s been our pleasure. Thanks so much for coming on the show.