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November 3, 2014

Libby Doggett

Libby Doggett

On October 25, Dr. Libby Doggett visited the College of Education and spoke on the topic of “Early Education in the Spotlight,” explaining challenges and opportunities that policy makers and local governments encounter as they work to improve services for pre-K children. Doggett is Assistant Deputy Secretary for Early Childhood Education in the U.S. Department of Education and a three-time UT Austin alumna.

During the event, early childhood education faculty members Jennifer Adair and Christopher Brown also announced the winners of the first-ever Early Childhood Education Awards. Susana Guzman-Ortega, a pre-K bilingual teacher at AISD’s Pickle Elementary, was honored with the Mitchoff Family Teaching Excellence in Early Childhood Education Award and Manuel Martinez, a second grade teacher at AISD’s Houston Elementary, won the Zezula Family Teaching Excellence in Early Childhood Education Award.

What is your connection to UT Austin’s College of Education?
I received a Ph.D. in special education there, and I often draw on what I learned during those years: the values, focus on innovation, the incredibly smart thinking.

Did you spend any time teaching?
I did. In fact, I taught a first grade bilingual class at Ortega Elementary here in Austin. Teaching at Ortega gave me a passion I still retain for helping children.

Why is early childhood education (ECE) getting so much more attention these days?
It’s because of the amount of great research that’s being done in that area. For example, a fairly recent study showed that children from upper income families have heard 30 million more words than children from lower income backgrounds. To address this problem, the White House developed a program called Bridging the Word Gap, which works with low income families to increase the amount and quality of communication parents and other caretakers have with children from birth.

How do you sell the argument that putting more money into ECE is a good idea?
It’s all about that great scientific research. Studies show that in states where it’s a priority to offer quality care and education to the youngest children, more children grow up with better reading and math skills, graduate high school, get and keep jobs, and form stable families. There is a proven connection. And 75 percent of Americans who were surveyed want Congress to invest more in early childhood education this year or next year.

At the federal level, what’s the main focus when it comes to addressing ECE?
In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to expand access to high-quality preschool to every child in America, from birth to five years of age. As part of that effort, the President has proposed a series of new investments that will establish a continuum of high quality early learning for each child. The President wants to invest resources in an area where we know there will be a return on that investment: our preschool learners. The benefits include savings reflected in improved educational outcomes, increased job productivity, and lower crime rates.

What’s the biggest challenge the U.S. faces when it comes to improving early childhood education?
It’s definitely funding. There are so many competing interests. Finding funds for reform is always difficult and, as you know, children don’t have lobbyists. They can’t go to the White House and make their needs known. They have to rely on adults who can act on their behalf. There are some bright spots, though. Health and Human Services has offered $500 million in grants to the states, and they’ve received 600 applications. There will be an announcement of the winners in December. Also, the Department of Education has $250 million available for preschool development grants, and that money will fund services in 12-15 states.

How does the level of funding for K-12 compare to funding for ECE?
There’s a huge disparity, with much more put into K-12. Imagine what pre-K would look like if we put the same kind of money into it.

How are cities and states helping?
States and cities are stepping up, with more than 30 states increasing funding for preschools. North Carolina, Alabama and Oklahoma, for example, already are putting in extra money and operating some of the highest-quality preschool programs in the nation. As far as cities, San Antonio has done a wonderful job. They implemented a one-eighth of a cent sales tax and, with the extra money, were able to open four very beautiful new early childhood centers, which I recently visited.

How well is Texas serving its youngest learners?
Texas is offering services to 52 percent of our four-year-olds, which is actually very good compared to the rest of the nation. About a third of the states are serving only around 10 percent of their four-year-olds. In Texas, spending per child is low, however, and although there’s access to services, the quality of care often is quite poor.

What does high quality preschool care and education look like?
High quality standards include having a child-to-staff ratio of no more than 10:1 and a class size of no more than 20 students. A high quality program has early childhood teachers who are certified to teach, have training in ECE, and who are paid the same as K-12 certified teachers. Services include care for children with disabilities, and instruction is developmentally appropriate as well as culturally and linguistically relevant. Instruction is regularly evaluated, data are collected and assessed, and there’s continuous quality improvement. There is also a high level of family engagement, as well as intensive parenting skills education, home visits, and evidence-based health and safety standards.

-Photo by Christina S. Murrey