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Building Blocks for School Success

“Early education for children” has become a frequently discussed topic in education circles in recent years. Interested parties range from education experts to parents, from teachers to policymakers, all concerned with coming up with ways to educate all children, and to do it well. In fact, the vast majority of states and the District of Columbia have developed or are developing standards for what children in their preschool programs should be learning. The focus had previously been on literacy and language skills, but has widened to include broader cognitive development, physical growth, and social and emotional skills. But what does “early education for children” really mean? And how, exactly, are these experts setting out to improve the development of our young children? Four alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Education are doing this work in very different ways, all with one common goal in mind: preparing our children for school success later on. Their stories follow. Telling Their Stories: Jason Sachs By Lee Fuoco

Jason Sachs, Ed.D.'98 (Photo: Lisa Kessler)
Jason Sachs, Ed.D.’98, wiggles his Harvard class ring around on his finger. “I wear this ring because it says veritas,” he says. “And I think what I’m really driving at is the truth. I put the data out there and let intelligent people come to a logical conclusion.” Sachs has worked in the Massachusetts Department of Education’s Early Learning Services division for six years as a research and policy consultant. His position, as he often puts it, is to “worry about kids.” Specifically, his job is to collect and analyze data gathered within communities across Massachusetts. “At the Ed School, I did research in early care and education, and my dissertation was on quality,” he says. “I’m really driven by the fact that there [are] inequities in quality, especially for low-income children.” As he speaks, his eyes sparkle with excitement at the possibilities for change his work creates in these kids’ lives. It is obvious within five minutes of meeting Sachs that he is thrilled to do what he does, and his spirit is contagious. According to Sachs, if kids have access to high-quality early care and education, “they’ll do better in school, they’ll come to school much more prepared to learn, they’ll know how to interact with adults, they’ll have better language skills, they’ll know how to get along with kids better.” To widen the reach of such care, Sachs and his colleagues use data in creating options for aid and grants that will assist low-income families and under-funded schools. The Department of Education gives money to individuals or communities for child-care services based on five goals: affordability, quality, comprehensive services, collaboration (between parents and child-care providers, between preschools and public schools, etc.), and parent outreach.The grants include the Kindergarten Grant, which matches money to school districts for supplies or second teachers in overcrowded kindergarten classrooms; the Parent– Child Home Project, where volunteers go into families’ homes and teach parents to read to their children and engage them in stimulating play; and Mass. Family Networks, which gives money to local community councils who, in turn, provide everything from playgroups to training for area members. “They use every vehicle possible: public schools, family support, state money for child care, and pool it all together and say,‘We need local people to worry about children.’” People worrying on a local level is one of Sachs’ professional mantras, and the touchstone of one of his department’s most ambitious programs: Community Partnerships for Children.The department communicates with individual communities through Community Partnership Councils, of which there are 168 across Massachusetts. Each council is composed of family child-care providers, center-based care, Head Start programs, public schools, human-service agencies, and parents, what Sachs calls “council[s] of interested stakeholders.” Each has a coordinator who serves as a liaison to the Department of Education (Sachs, himself, works with Community Partnership Councils in Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge).

Sachs is adamant that the Community Partnership Councils serve a multifold purpose. Beyond acting as conduits through which the Department of Education can provide services, the councils give local communities the opportunity to be more involved.

Sachs is adamant that the Community Partnership Councils serve a multifold purpose. Beyond acting as conduits through which the Department of Education can provide services, the councils give local communities the opportunity to be more involved. Sachs and his colleagues train members of the Community Partnership Councils to accurately administer surveys, so it is the members themselves (the working parents, the child-care employees, and teachers who are tending challenging populations of kids for little pay) who are actually collecting the data. This process gives formerly marginalized people a voice in how their children are cared for and educated. “It’s actually an empowerment project, too, because it gets them to think about their own planning.” Despite the emphasis on numbers and graphs, Sachs describes his job as storytelling, and credits HGSE with this creative view of statistics. “The Ed School’s big on telling stories.Almost all my data classes [encouraged us to] tell a story with your data. So I really work with communities to tell their story.” Using the knowledge he gained at the Ed School in an applied setting is key for Sachs, and was influential in his post-graduation career. “I had to make a personal choice to say, ‘Do I want an academic career?’ I was coming out of working with Fred Mosteller, a great statistician, and [Gale Professor of Education] Richard Light, a great evaluator. I could have gone on to academics, but my day job was doing child-care advocacy and saying, ‘Come on, let’s get this going.’ The more I did this, the more I realized that we need people who have research skills and data skills to help people use the data for the here and now, and that I really liked the applied work of this…. I’m pretty happy. It’s where I want to be.” Learning Culture: Joan Test By Sean Maher

Joan Test, Ed.D.'88 (Photo: Steve Buhman, Media and Communications Resources, SIUC
One thing Joan Test, Ed.D.’88, asks her students at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale—where she has taught courses in early childhood development since 1998—sounds like a simple question. “What is your culture?” From these four seemingly straightforward words an interesting and vital discussion can emerge. “I do this exercise at the end of a course,” Test says, “as a way to get students to explore their own culture and to start to understand what culture is and how it influences what everyone does.” As students begin to talk about themselves, they also listen to their peers’ experiences, and an awareness followed by an understanding of others often develops. Both are vital for any educator. But for Test, it is also a snapshot of her ongoing research. “[W]hat I study is not this process of making people more conscious of culture, but rather the everyday learning of [it], which is almost unconscious because it is so much a part of life. My students have already learned very well how to be members of their culture; I am trying to help them see how this has happened.” It is this idea of culture learned through social interactions that has been central to Test’s research. “From birth, through every interaction a child has with people around her, she is picking up ways of doing things from other people in her culture, ways of acting, ways of talking, ways of thinking, through all the tiny, everyday lessons of living.”

“From birth, through every interaction a child has with people around her, she is picking up ways of doing things from other people in her culture, ways of acting, ways of talking,ways of thinking, through all the tiny, everyday lessons of living.”

Test’s awareness of other cultures and interactions within them came early. When she was 12, her family moved from Rhode Island to Eindhoven, Holland, where she attended sixth grade. In high school, back in the United States, she participated in the Experiment in International Living program and spent a summer in Israel. Later, after graduating from Tufts University, she worked as a daycare teacher in Cambridge and saw young children involved in social interactions that were not in the research literature at the time. “I wanted the academic background and research skills to be able to study very young children’s social interactions,” Test explains. She came to HGSE with this goal in mind, but soon expanded her focus. In her first year, she was introduced to research conducted by Robert LeVine, the Larsen Professor of Education and Human Development, Emeritus. LeVine’s research, which addressed cultural aspects of parenthood and child development, inspired Test’s interest in the concept of culture as an integral part of child development. While studying at Harvard, she received a Fulbright grant, and in the mid-1980s moved to Sweden and began working on her thesis, titled “Communicative Interactions Between Infants and Adults at Day Care and at Home: A Comparison of Sweden and the United States.” While in Sweden, she also joined those two research strands on a more personal level; that is where she met her husband, Abdo Soliman, an Egyptian citizen then working toward a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Test recently completed a paper, titled “Infant and Toddler Teachers as Transmitters of Culture,” which compares and contrasts practices in American and Swedish child care, and examines the extent to which culture is learned through early social interaction. “The United States is a highly individualistic culture,” Test writes, “while Sweden has a particular mix of individualistic and group-oriented values. These differences can be seen in how teachers react when toddlers have disagreements over possession of a toy. In the United States, teachers emphasize a child’s right to possession if the child had the toy first, whereas in Sweden children are encouraged to feel solidarity with those who have less.” Test will also start collecting data in spring 2005 for an upcoming project, which will involve a longitudinal study of the development of social cognition in children from birth to age five. “I will be studying American children at first,” Test says, “but hope to expand [my research] to look at social cognition in the early years cross-culturally.” For Test’s Southern Illinois students, then, “What is your culture?” becomes not just an expansive discussion topic, but a hands-on introduction to Test’s life’s work and research. This, of course, is not by accident. “So many people can tell you theories,” Test says. “I try to give [my students] working knowledge [so that] when they get out into the real world they can use what they learn. I want my students to use theories to help them understand children they work with, so they need to understand theories in a way that they can use this knowledge, not just recite what a theorist says.” The Achievement Principal: Graciela Hopkins By Anand Vaishnav

Graciela Hopkins, Ed.D.'93 (Photo: Adrien Clark)
Wandering the lively halls of the Harriet A. Baldwin Early Learning Center in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood, it can be difficult to tell who is having more fun: the teachers or the students. In one classroom, three- and four-year-olds stomp in place and dance to a cheery song about days of the week, along with three adults.Yet it’s not all fun and games. The Boston Public Schools’ citywide learning standards are affixed to one classroom wall, and teachers such as Meg Hicks unearth a lesson in every activity. After running with her young charges, for example, Hicks says,“Feel your heart. Feel how fast it’s beating.Where’s your heart?” Little hands rise to little chests. This is the world that the Baldwin’s principal, Graciela Hopkins, Ed.D.’93, and her teachers have created for what may be the most crucial years of their students’ lives. From classroom teachers to members of Congress, people are developing an awareness that schools can avert substantial educational deficits by reaching children early—before kindergarten, ideally. Hopkins herself came to that conclusion in a roundabout way: through her career as a high school guidance counselor. At schools on Long Island and in Connecticut, Hopkins watched how students were “tracked” into academic paths despite their potential. She recalled being “distraught” over seeing the tracks neatly categorize students year after year, and yet no matter what she did, she felt powerless to change the system. So she concentrated on helping the roughly 400 students for whom she was responsible.Years later, the experience still stings. “I couldn’t do anything about the tracks,” she says. “It was a high school of 1,000 students, and it was too ingrained. I tried to do something with my kids.” She came to the Harvard Graduate School of Education determined to change that by becoming a principal. But gradually, she decided she would have to work with an even younger age to make a difference—a point of view reinforced during her doctoral research at a large Boston elementary school.

“You put money into early childhood education, and it will pay off all the way up until adulthood.That influenced me.”

“I was trying to go figure out where the problem began,” says Hopkins, whose office has colorful magnet letters on a file cabinet, children’s artwork, and a basket of wooden blocks. “You put money into early childhood education, and it will pay off all the way up until adulthood.That influenced me.” Another influence was her five years at HGSE, during which she lived as a single parent, worked as a campus security guard, and studied under professors she credits for her later accomplishments, particularly Catherine Snow, Shattuck Professor of Education. “I go back to my Harvard experience and say, ‘If I did that and it was so difficult and so complex, I’ll be able to do anything,’” says Hopkins, a native of Peru who became head of the Baldwin in 1998 when it was known as the Early Learning Center North. Before coming to the Baldwin, she worked at Brown University for three years as a coordinator for a desegregation assistance center, charged with helping New England school districts comply with desegregation plans. She also worked in the Boston Public Schools’ central office and completed a principal internship, clearing the way to lead her own school. Her job today at the Baldwin is complex for different reasons. Her students, aged three to seven, span the ethnic spectrum, with no racial group a majority (and a waiting list of 100). Three out of four are on the federal free- and reduced-lunch program, and half are not native English speakers. At least one out of 10 shows early signs of learning disabilities. So one of Hopkins’ key pursuits is boosting their literacy in a number of ways—the students read or have read to them at least five books a day. The classroom din is a welcome sound to Hopkins, who wants her teachers and children to talk, interact, and read together. Baldwin students are assessed three times a year, and teachers pore over the children’s work to spot strengths and weaknesses. Hopkins believes the time to catch such signs is now. “Somehow, as they go through elementary school, there is a difference in [achievement] in racial groups. When they leave here, they all need to achieve—all racial groups. My philosophy here is: Every child can do it, every child can achieve, and if you can’t, we’ll help you.” Digging in to Language: Diane Beals By Anand Vaishnav

Diane Beals, Ed.D.'91 (Photo: Denise Knorr)
What are the components of a balanced meal for your young child? Fresh fruits and vegetables? Protein, fat, and carbohydrates? How about narratives, explanatory talk, and extended discourse? According to Diane Beals, Ed.D.’91, associate professor and director of the School of Education at the University of Tulsa, all of the above are vital to a child’s ability to learn. A truly healthy mealtime for children ages three, four, and five, says Beals, is one that not only prepares a child nutritionally, but also “supports a child’s ability to speak, listen, read, and write in school later on.” In other words, if parents intersperse the “Will you please pass the corn” types of conversations with topics such as “Where does corn come from?” or “Do you remember when we bought the corn at the store?,” they will help to create a stronger vocabulary in the child. As these examples illustrate, the conversation develops from the “here and now” of what’s happening at the table to larger ideas away from the table. Family members start talking in paragraphs, creating narratives, and extending discourse.Along with this, a positive relationship is developed between a child’s vocabulary and listening comprehension, better preparing her for the demands of schooling to come. For Beals, these conclusions were a result of her examination of mealtime conversations in the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development, which she began researching in 1989 while pursuing her doctoral degree, working with the guidance of Catherine Snow, Shattuck Professor of Education and David Dickinson, Ed.D.’82. Since completing her dissertation, “‘I Know Who Makes Ice Cream’: Explanations in Mealtime Conversations of Low-Income Families of Preschoolers” in 1991, she has published numerous papers on language and mealtime. She also authored two chapters in the book Beginning Literacy with Language: Young Children Learning at Home and School, edited by Dickinson and Patton O.Tabors, Ed.D.’87 (Paul H. Brooks Publishing, 2001). In her chapter “Eating and Reading: Links between Family Conversations with Preschoolers and Later Language Literacy,” the mealtime data collection methods seem simple and succinct enough. The technique involved an audiotape recorder and a blank audiotape being left in homes with children ages three, four, and five. The families then recorded what they considered to be a typical mealtime conversation, without the researcher present. In total, 160 audiotapes of mealtime conversations were collected from 68 different families. At the time the data was first collected, Beals said, it was a painstaking process involving listening to hours and hours of tape— several times.The data was transcribed (through the work of “a lot of Harvard undergrads,” Beals says), then coded with analysis cues like “beginning of narrative” or “end of explanation.” During the 1990s, better transcription software was developed, making the analysis and practical use of the data more efficient.Now, hundreds of mealtime conversations can be sorted quickly, and Beals continues to use the data from the study in her work today.

“But what we see now is [the dinner table]’s also such a powerful place of language. There is so much linguistic information; it’s where a child learns how to think. And this is not how we originally thought of mealtime, but it can be where the power of everyday talk is given to kids.”

“There is so much untouched data, so much to be mined,” she says, that even 15 years later she is still finding new directions for her research. Now in her sixth year at the University of Tulsa, where she oversees six faculty members and teaches courses on language and literacy development in early education, Beals is currently focusing on the large Mexican community in Oklahoma. “I’m interested to see how vocabularies develop in two different languages,” she said in a recent interview, “to see if the two vocabularies coincide.” Because of cultural cues and cultural identities, for example, she expects more family members present at mealtimes in the Spanish-speaking families, with a higher rate of two parents found at the table than in the original study. And with “English-learning” families—as opposed to Englishspeaking families—Beals is interested to see how mealtime conversations differ (and how they remain the same) across cultures. “In general, in our country, we are so concerned with how rarely families eat together,” she continues, “because [the dinner table] is the place where it’s thought that values and traditions are passed on. But what we see now is it’s also such a powerful place of language. There is so much linguistic information; it’s where a child learns how to think. And this is not how we originally thought of mealtime, but it can be where the power of everyday talk is given to kids.” About the Article A version of this article originally appeared in the Winter 2004-2005 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.