University Scholars Plant Seeds In a New Field of Study: Early Childhood Policy

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When Jessie Rasmussen ran for a seat in the Nebraska legislature, she prioritized serving children and families. She brought to the role practical expertise, having spent more than two decades working as an early childhood educator.

What Rasmussen didn’t have at the beginning of her political career, however, was much knowledge about how to turn her ideas into effective policies.

“I remember when I was elected to be a state senator, I bet I spent the first year figuring out the processes and the nuances of how decisions really get made,” she says. “I didn’t learn until after the fact that you can write a policy for law that’s really well-intended, but how it gets implemented is the real story.”

Experts say this kind of policy knowledge gap threatens to slow the momentum that issues such as affordable child care and state-funded preschool have gained at all levels of government and with candidates across the ideological spectrum. To address the problem, more than a dozen researchers across the country are collaborating to develop resources to prepare future policymakers for success designing, building and evaluating programs for young kids.

Their effort, called the Early Childhood Policy in Institutions of Higher Education Initiative, also aims to establish early childhood policy as a field of inquiry, including at universities, which serve as training grounds for policymakers and hubs of research. Over the past two years, the consortium has created open-access materials intended to make it easy for universities to start offering coursework on the topic of early childhood policy. They’ve made 12 modules, four syllabi for upper-level bachelor’s or master’s courses, and several handbooks for guiding faculty and creating internship programs.

They’re not stopping at resources, though. The initiative also aims to launch full degree and certificate programs in early childhood policy—and to build an alliance among host universities. One sign of progress: Next fall, the University of Colorado at Denver is launching a new doctoral program in the field.

“Our hope is we will be able to prepare scholars and policy implementers not just for Colorado, but also for the country,” says Kristie Kauerz, associate clinical professor and director of the National P-3 Center at the university.

‘Nurturing the Soil’

Interest in effective governance for public programs for young children has grown over the past two decades, Kauerz says, as states invested resources and officials started asking questions about how to appropriately prepare teachers and measure the quality of services. Most recently, early childhood education won big during the 2020 election, with voters in Colorado and Portland, Ore., approving taxes to support universal preschool programs.

“Early childhood is growing up,” Kauerz says. “It’s not only about the pedagogical experiences children have; it’s become a systems-oriented space.”

But most college programs that address early childhood education still focus on classroom teaching, not policy. Meanwhile, political support for early childhood education tends to simply create new programs rather than ensure existing ones are high-quality, equitable, sustainable and efficient, says Sharon Lynn Kagan, co-director of the National Center for Children & Families at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“These programs are like flowers. We plant hundreds and hundreds of them,” she says. “When you overplant a garden without nurturing the soil, those flowers die.”

To train “gardeners” capable of improving the policy landscape, Kagan, who is a professor of early childhood and family policy at Columbia and Yale University, launched the Early Childhood Policy in Institutions of Higher Education Initiative with Kathy Thornburg, emerita professor of education and director of the Institute for Professional Development at the University of Missouri at Columbia. The initiative has financial support from the Heising-Simons Foundation in California and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund in Nebraska.

Rasmussen, the former Nebraska senator, now serves as president at the latter philanthropic organization. Her past experiences as a lawmaker and a state human services director give her personal interest in supporting the initiative, while as a grantmaker, she views it as a promising way to improve kids’ lives on a large scale.

“We need more people trained in this and we need greater diversity around policymaking in the field of early childhood,” she says. “Because we think it’s so important and no one, generally speaking, is preparing people for this line of work, this appealed to us: To develop the resources and the incentives to have early childhood policy tracks in institutions of higher education.”

Planting Seeds

New fields of inquiry sometimes emerge organically at universities. That’s what the initiative found when it commissioned research about how Black Studies, Women’s Studies and Environmental Studies proliferated in higher education.

But that’s not the approach Kagan and Thornburg are taking with their effort to spread the study of early childhood policy. Instead, they’ve recruited an advisory team and developed a strategy for intentionally planting seeds—and sometimes full-grown trees—at institutions across the country.

One of the initial steps was developing course materials for professors to use and adapt without having to start from scratch. Twelve modules, which cover topics including child development, practice and pedagogy, and policy basics, are designed to be plugged into existing courses. The advisory team then reorganized those modules into syllabi for four “approval-ready courses,” which, if combined, could form a minor or a certificate program.

Kauerz at Denver, who is a member of the advisory team, is teaching a course this semester based on the “History, Child Development and Equity” syllabus.

“It has been so exciting for them to be exposed to and grapple with the challenges of thinking about taking services to scale for an entire population at a particular cost, and to make sure there is equity in that,” Kauerz says of her students. “If we really believe family voice matters, how does that look in legislation? How do we design standards that prioritize that?”

And because practical experience is an important component of professional development, the initiative designed a handbook for universities to use to offer students field-based internship experiences, whether with government offices, nonprofits or advocacy groups. To share open-access resources like these, the initiative is currently seeking proposals to design a digital platform to host materials.

Next steps in the strategy vary in intensity, Kagan says, ranging from creating certificate programs at universities to founding entire centers of study. The initiative also aims to build a joint online degree program in early childhood policy through the Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance, a consortium of public universities that offers online degrees in human sciences and agriculture.

“We’ve got big goals,” Kagan says.

New Doctoral Program

The fruits of the initiative’s efforts may look like the graduate program ripening at the University of Colorado at Denver. The school of education and human development there plans to welcome its first cohort of early childhood policy doctoral students in the fall of 2021.

Kauerz credits her participation in the initiative with inspiring the new program at her university, but also the fact that her dean, Rebecca Kantor, is herself an early childhood scholar—a rarity among education school top administrators.

“She sees the possibility for the national need for a degree program like this,” Kauerz. “She has been very much in this space of higher ed innovation in the early childhood workforce.”

About half a dozen people have already applied to the program, Kauerz says. She would like to attract between 15 to 20 applicants and enroll five to seven of them. Strong candidates might include early childhood educators or people with backgrounds in political science or public policy.

“They might really care that every 4-year-old has the opportunity to attend a preschool program,” Kauerz says. Or they may care about questions such as: “How do we make sure all families have access to preschool programs? How are we going to make sure teachers are licensed—and compensated the way K-12 teachers might be?”

The coursework students complete will mix early childhood work with policy leadership and organizational study, Kauerz says. Students will also do research and participate in a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet the key players and institutions making federal policy.

As for what the program prepares students to do after graduation, Kauerz foresees multiple professional possibilities, including jobs at government agencies, philanthropic organizations, think tanks or advocacy groups. She also hopes some students become faculty who pursue their own research in early childhood policy.

“The people in office make consequential decisions for our day-to-day lives,” she says. “To encourage students to start making connections between their passion for children and families in those policy-level decisions is what’s most exciting to me.”



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