140+: In the Moment

ECE Advocacy- Blown Away by 3-D Vision: Three Lessons from PAES, 2010

“Blown away.” That’s a pretty intense declaration. But, in fact, when it comes to my perceptions of the advocacy landscape for early childhood, I feel as though I have just put on high-def, 3-D glasses.  I can see more clearly than ever. After my experience as a participant at the Partnership for Economic Success National Economic Forum on Early Childhood Investment, I feel as though for the past 25+ years in the field I have been  been working with a unidimensional picture.  Many of the misconceptions I had about business support for early learning initiatives have evaporated. I’m invigorated by what I’ve learned.

The Forum was replete with complex information, facts, and data presented by some of the most influential business leaders, politicians, and early learning experts in the country. The primary goal of the Forum is to offer the early learning sector the tools and information we need to develop coalitions “of business leaders advocating for increased investments in early childhood.” The sessions provided participants with the stories they need to tell, the data they need to show, and the tactics they need to use to build a movement and collation with the support of local and national businesses.

Of course, at the very foundation of the event was the fundamental message we all know and espouse:  The first five years of life are the most crucial years for child development. What happens during these years impacts cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development like no other time in a child’s life. We know this. We live it. We tell the story day after day. But, the Forum shed new light (at least for me) on more compelling ways to tell the story so business leaders will join our movement and become our programmatic partners.

Because I spend most of my time thinking about engagement and communication, I see this as a communication issue. Have we been effectively spinning our stories? Are we bringing the right messages and the right people to the table with us? How can we impart our sense of urgency to legislators and to the public?

Three big takeaways from PAES:

1) There’s significant support in the business community for early learning. This was a huge surprise to me. Business leaders see early learning as a workforce issue. They know the work we do is paramount to developing good workers 15 to 20 years forward. They consider investments in early childhood “front-loading” costs because the investment results in higher returns down the line. Smart business leaders know that paying for high-quality early learning programs results in more well-rounded, prepared workers. They also embrace the research that high-quality programs result in lower rates of incarceration, which saves money “downline.”

There’s nothing to fear from approaching businesses for public and legislative support or programmatic partnerships. The business leaders who presented at PAES were aware of the urgency for support for early learning.   Using the powerful detailed and comprehensive communication tools provided by the Partnership, advocates can and should start building support now. In their toolkit, the partnership has put together everything except the moxie you need to start talking with business leaders in your community. You supply the moxie.

2) Strengthen your advocacy position by keeping business leaders by your side. We all know our congressional leaders have heard our stories and our appeals for legislation before. We’re very good at crafting stories about the impact our programs have on the lives of families and children, and we know enough to bring parents and/or children with us to provide personal testimonials about the impact our programs have on their lives.  But, congressional leaders must put the budget and the economy at the forefront of every appeal for legislation and funding. If we have any hope of breaking through to connect with legislators, we have to use the “3-D version” of the story and bring reinforcements with us.  Armed with great tools like those provided by the Partnership, and a business representative from your community, you can offer a more crystallized and well-rounded story that speaks volumes.

3) We must put aside our differences to come together with a common voice and look for incremental “wins.” Differences? In the early care and learning community? Really? Yes. We’ve heard them all play out when it comes to funding at the local AND national level. We debate: Quality vs. Care for All, Pre-K vs. Child Care vs. Head Start (and on and on.) The patchwork of programs and state implementation has created a natural breeding ground for controversy. It’s natural that we all argue as we clamor for the hard-to-come-by dollars and legislation.  It’s time to set those differences aside, and come together with a common voice to show the economic value and impact of high-quality early childhood programs.

There is a narrow window of time in the US right now. The national spotlight is starting to shine on our sector. We need to speak with one voice on a local, state, and national level and set our sights on smaller, more incremental expectations.

Things to do right now:

Leave a comment for me! Let me know what you think, especially if you attended the conference.

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7 Responses to 'ECE Advocacy- Blown Away by 3-D Vision: Three Lessons from PAES, 2010'

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  1. Albert Wat said,

    Great discussion. A few points in response are below. First, a disclaimer that these views are entirely my own and do not necessarily reflect the organization that I work for.

    1. Re: the effectiveness of repeating the same message. I was also at parts of the PAES conference and one of my takeways actually came during the dinner before the actual event. I sat next to a couple of people who run a early education center in MO. They told me about how their board really resonated with the economic returns argument when they presented the data to them. I, who have been swimming in this stuff for the past few years, thought this conversation must have happened 5 years ago. But just to check, I asked them when it took place. They told me… just last December! Goes to show even if you’ve heard the message over and over again, it doesn’t necessarily mean it has filtered down to the everyday provider, business person, etc.

    2. Re: Karen’s comment about needing a full commitment to lead the change we need in ECE. Can’t agree more. I believe that part of this is getting our leaders from every sector to start thinking about early education as part of the business of educating children. High-quality pre-k (among other ECE interventions) has one of the most solid body of research behind it in the education field, and yet, few people- including our federal government – see it as a legitimate strategy for school reform. My colleagues and I are ramping up our efforts to make sure that early education has a prominent place in the ESEA reauthorization process. So far, it’s an uphill battle, but we are committed to build a groundswell. Yes, there are lots of concerns about “push down” and the dilution of developmentally appropriate practices. I personally believe that there’s also an opportunity for “push up” if we get early education more integrated with K-12. And unless we do, ECE will never get the sustained resources that will allow the field to increase quality across the board.

    3. This is a point that I made via twitter to Fran: It’s great that the business community has so many champions for ECE. But times are tough. Will the business community support tax increases to help programs weather the storm? One of the more mundane, but necessary, part of my job is to track state budgets on pre-k programs. So many states are confronting drastically declining revenues and are facing the prospect of slashing critical services, including early childhood programs. AZ, IL, OH, NY, WA, VA are just some of the states that have seen large cuts or are considering them. And that’s just pre-k programs. At the same time, we’ve seen that with new revenues, programs have a better chance of surviving. They passed a cigarette tax increase in NM to save ECE programs. In OR, voters voted to tax themselves to do the same. Governors in IL and WA are proposing tax increases. Will the business community support such measures so that their priority – ECE – is saved? I’m not suggesting taxing people willy-nilly. I’m sure there are smart ways to generate revenues and not-so-smart ways. I’m not an expert in that, but I do know math, and I don’t see how many of these states can sustain what we believe to be critical programs and services for young children without generating new revenue.

    Sorry this was a little longer than expected. Hope it contributes to the dialogue!

    – Albert

    • Fran Simon said,


      Great stuff. Your thoughts about “push up” verses “push down” are new thinking… (Something new, Karen!) We need to sing that song! I do have some concerns as seeing universal Pre-K leading school reform because it is so narrowly focused (age-wise.) Is is “school reform” we are after? I’m looking for a comprehensive prenatal through age 8 approach that is far more comprehensive than the traditional concept of “schools.” But, I have to say, as far as looking for incremental wins, universal Pre-K might be a place to start– with the expectation that more will come over time. Unfortunately, as to Karen’s point, the incremental approach hasn’t resulted much change, but has resulted in a patchwork of less than successful programs that don’t connect, can’t be replicated, and have not been sustained (with the very prominent exception of Head Start.)

      I’m rambling now, but as we have the conversations, the more often I see Head Start as an example that has endured and as a potential model for the future. I also know the challenges in Head Start, so I don’t always point to it as my shining star. But I do think in oh, so many ways, there’s a lot to be learned from almost every aspect of Head Start, except the lack of universality. HMMMMMM… Ponder that.

      Albert, the problem with Twitter is those darned 140 characters! I didn’t fully understand your point about taxes until now. Thanks for the clarification. I wish you had asked the question at PAES. It’s a great question. One that might be worthy of an interview with Lon O’neil from SHRM. I think there are some great tax proposals among those you mention. We need to encourage innovative legislative thinking about where the money will come from. I also think it is imperative that non-profit organizations that are part of this patchwork build their programs about social enterprise to find new funding streams that are not necessarily funded by government or private grants.

      The fact is, this is a challenge for nonprofits, Federal, state and local governments, business, and private citizens. We have to come together to solve these challenges because no one piece of legislation is going to do it all.

  2. Karen Nemeth said,

    Thanks for sharing this info. I didn’t know about the Telluride Standards – and I am very happy to see 1C and 2B. This is very encouraging. It’s not new for corporations to be involved in supporting early childhood education http://www.abcdependentcare.com/docs/10th_anniversary.shtml
    I feel that this is such an incredibly important time in the history of our field. Change is gonna come and economists and business leaders are going to be our allies for sure. But I’m afraid we have not yet changed our strategies enough to be ahead of that change. A lot of what we are saying about high quality early childhood education now is the same message we’ve been saying for years. Do we really think if we just keep saying the same things louder or at different venues, that we will really turn things around??? I don’t know all the answers (though I will never admit I said that) but I am very sure of three things: One: Our efforts to lead this change (rather than be dragged along by it) will depend on saying it like it is: The high quality we’re talking about now is mostly designed to serve the children who understand the language of the classroom. We can’t keep building our dream of high quality preschool education for all when if we plan it just for the ones who speak English. Two: Our efforts to lead this change depend our our ability to expand our thinking to call it something like “high quality early learning” because, for heavens sakes, they do not all attend a 9-3, Monday-Friday institution. Nor should they. And the ones who don’t attend are not less deserving. Three: Our ability to lead this change depends on full commitment. In my extremely long and elderly career in this field, I have seen half-baked, watered-down early childhood education efforts waste millions upon millions of dollars for almost no results because ‘funding limitations’ force the omission of a few key elements. The reason I write things like this at 1:00 in the morning is because I really believe we will only realize the change we claim to want when we change the way we lead toward that change. If we want to make a BIG difference in the future of our country, we will move toward full acknowledgment of the diversity in our young population, and we will make sure we meet their early learning needs WHEREVER they and their parents think they need to be, and we will do the WHOLE job – not just the easy parts. Right now, our big High Quality Preschool for All message is really aiming to serve no more than 60% – 70% of young children. I may not get my wish for 100%, but that won’t stop me from squawking about it! I am so optimistic – like you, Fran! I can see the door is opening and I want to make sure it opens wide enough!! Thanks for giving me the chance to speak so frankly here.

    • Fran Simon said,

      Wow! Karen! So much, so right! But, so much to debate!

      I completely agree that we have been stalled for a long time. We’re not getting any traction and we’ve gone nowhere from a political standpoint. I also agree our message has not changed much over time. What shocked me during my time at NACCRRA, was despite saying the same things for the past 30 years, for the most part (with notable exceptions) legislators are STILL completely unaware of the facts. They were frequently bowled over with surprise when presented with the same old and (to us) tired arguments. If you think about how our system works, it should not come as any surprise that as congressional representatives turn over, we have to continue to educate them. One of the great recommendations that came out of PAES was to get to candidates before they are elected. (In fact, there was a call for public education campaigns. Hmmmm… I see lots of great PSAs and public education campaigns from the various national organizations already. What’s missing? Maybe the remote control is tuning us out.)

      You asked: “Do we really think if we just keep saying the same things louder or at different venues, that we will really turn things around???” You are chanting my mantra. But there were differences at PAES. What I really admire most about PAES and the Forum is the effort to build a movement in a very structured, very organized, and very professional manner and powerful partners like SHRM and Business Week. PAES provides the tools and the structure we need to present ourselves with world-class professionalism.

      I also think the messages we were being encouraged (and trained) to use in our efforts were crafted with economics at the foundation. The brain development argument is in the background. The social aspects of the argument are secondary. Basically, what I heard is “it’s the economy, stupid!” It’s just another direction to take when presenting our arguments.

      I also agree that billions of dollars have been spent (I’d argue that they were not “wasted”) on floundering attempts to provide high-quality programs for children. Personally, I believe that the programmatic patchwork non-system of providing programming for young children in America is simply broken. There was never any overarching planning for a strong framework upon which to build a birth through 8 system. Historically, early childhood education was never an “institution” in America. It was an evolution of multiple programs and legislation that never related to one another. If it were up to me, I’d start over completely. I’d tear down the crumbling non-foundation of splintered funding streams, set up national standards, create well crafted funding streams and take a prenatal through age 8 approach. Of course, I have no idea how to do this, and I have zero, zilch, nada authority, but that’s what I think.

      You said: “If we want to make a BIG difference in the future of our country, we will move toward full acknowledgment of the diversity in our young population, and we will make sure we meet their early learning needs WHEREVER they and their parents think they need to be, and we will do the WHOLE job – not just the easy parts.” I agree, but my concern is there always seems to be a trade-off between offering fewer opportunities and high quality or cutting corners (like staff qualifications) in order to make programs accessible to all children regardless of socio-economic status or primary language or ability. I want it all- high-quality and high standards for all. This piece of the conversation was missing at PAES. I urge you to join the monthly working groups to bring your voice to the table.

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by FSSimon: Blown Away by 3-D Vision: 3 Lessons from #PAES http://ow.ly/1liGu My musings: The Econ Forum on #EarlyChildhood Investment #ece #prek…

  4. Vicki Ehlers said,

    Our local early childhood community is learning how vital the business community is to our efforts in advocating for early learning and care programs. Our business leaders are passionate about the same issues and recognize the hurdles in providing quality early childhood programs. They have used their networks and the necessary “biz-speak” needed to nudge passions into action.
    Thanks for sharing the resources…and your 3-D vision, Fran!

    • Fran Simon said,

      It’s great to know there are grassroots efforts and national efforts like PAES. Bridging the two is the challenge. We need convergence to make the kind of impact needed for real change. That’s our challenge.

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