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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

In a recent survey, Austin Independent School District teachers, reading coaches, and administrators reported that the Texas Literacy Initiative has significantly improved student literacy.

The Texas Literacy Initiative (TLI) is a professional development and technical assistance project launched by The Meadows Center at UT’s College of Education. The initiative works to improve school readiness and success in language and literacy of disadvantaged students, and it has benefited more than 20,000 Austin ISD students since it was implemented two years ago.

In November 2013, AISD’s Department of Research and Evaluation conducted a survey of 297 teachers, 51 literacy coaches and reading specialists, and 48 administrators.

Across the board, AISD educators reported being well supported in their efforts to improve students’ reading outcomes. In the survey, 93% of teachers and 94% of reading coaches said that their campus administrators supported their TLI work, and 83% of administrators reported that they received “the support I need” from district-level TLI staff.

An impressive 98% of administrators reported that TLI improves student literacy at their school. A substantial majority (81%) of teachers noted that TLI reading coaches are important to the academic success of their students.

TLI’s emphasis on data-informed decision-making is one of the factors driving improvement in student achievement. Data meetings helped 87% of teachers “drive my instruction to support the needs of my students.” One surveyed teacher explained that a benefit of meeting with reading coaches is “…being able to sit down and review the data showing student progress and being able to work together to collaborate on different activities that will help support our students’ learning.”

Teamwork and collaboration play key roles in TLI’s success. With a high number of AISD schools and educators involved, the implementation plan depends on consistent communication across the school sites and strong professional learning communities.

The Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts at The University of Texas at Austin works closely with the leadership at AISD to develop effective grant implementation teams and prepare literacy coaches to support teachers in meeting their instructional goals. As Marissa Campbell, the reading coach at Guerrero Thompson Elementary School, said, “Often, I feel my job enters uncharted territory—yet the [TLI] training and support help me find my path.”

To ensure that best practices for instruction, professional development, and community involvement are consistently employed, similar surveys and student data reporting will continue to track TLI’s progress in the district.

How much science do four-year-olds know? More than you’d think.

To find out if the youngest students bring science knowledge with them to kindergarten, and if they’re capable of learning more than previously assumed, College of Education program coordinator Mary Hobbs and her research team observed, mentored and gathered data alongside 24 Austin area pre-kindergarten teachers.

Mary E. Hobbs, Ph.D.

Mary E. Hobbs, Ph.D.

An additional 24 AISD comparison classrooms were observed and, in all, 2,500 children were involved in the landmark project.

“What we found was that all children have science experiences and knowledge by kindergarten,” said Hobbs, who is coordinator for science initiatives in the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching. “They may come from very different socioeconomic backgrounds and have parents with different levels of education attainment, but each child has absorbed some of what we’d define as science content by kindergarten.”

To assess children’s knowledge, teachers involved in the project gave them several tasks – like sorting and categorizing – that would reveal their grasp of basic, foundational science concepts.

Teachers and students also created raised bed gardens to give the children an outdoor lab in which to use their current science skills and learn even more about science.  Building the gardens, filling them with plants and nurturing the plants provided rich and varied opportunities for teaching life science, physical science and earth science.

According to Hobbs, the garden was an ideal resource to support student learning in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) topics because:

  • research has shown that preschool children normally are very drawn to the natural world and natural objects.
  • an onsite project like the garden gives all children, regardless of background and family financial resources, a common learning experience.
  • it’s a context in which children can learn everything from facts about plants, animals and the weather to concepts of force and motion.
James P . Barufaldi, Ph.D.

James P . Barufaldi, Ph.D.

“Learning tends to increase and problem-solving skills improve when children have opportunities to explore and they’re able to indulge their natural curiosity,” said Hobbs, “The garden allows children to learn through hands-on activities and inquiry-based instruction. It’s also a learning environment that can be adapted for any age group and in a variety of settings.”

The $2 million, four-year research project, called Building BLOCKS for Science, was the first of its kind to be funded by the National Science Foundation. Dr. James Barufaldi, director for the college’s Center for STEM Education, and Hobbs were co-principal investigators on the grant.

“What we found was that all children have science experiences and knowledge by kindergarten.” – Dr. Mary Hobbs

“The teachers were remarkably responsive and very excited about learning more science themselves as well as discussing with us the best ways to engage the children in science,” said Hobbs. “In working with the students, they started with what they thought was appropriate for that age group and as soon as they observed the students were capable of handling more, they adapted and began to add more varied and challenging activities.”

As part of the grant, the teachers were given intensive professional development training and mentoring support.

Hobbs and her team have shared their project findings with AISD, other Austin area school districts and many private day care facilities. The schools have implemented many of Hobbs’ recommendations, including building over 200 school gardens to use as teaching tools.

“We discovered that adults tend to consistently underestimate how much young children know and understand,” said Hobbs. “Seeing that they’re capable of much more, we can aim to adapt curriculum and do the necessary teacher training and mentoring to better prepare these students for the learning opportunities they’ll encounter later. Science is best taught by doing, and we are doing science in Austin!”

Photos by: Christina S. Murrey


  • Dr. James Barufaldi and Dr. Mary Hobbs were co-principal investigators on a grant to examine how much science pre-K children know and can learn.
  • $2 million, four-year project
  • First of its kind to be funded by the National Science Foundation
  • 2,500 Austin area pre-K students were involved in the study
  • 24 teachers received mentoring and helped the researchers gather data

Originally published in November 2011

In order to become better writing teachers, around 160 education students in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education recently gathered on a Saturday at Sanchez Elementary in Austin to walk the surrounding community and record thoughts and impressions that later could be incorporated in their writing.

The project, called “Writing Communities,” was designed to:

  • give future teachers an opportunity to be part of a community of fellow writers
  • help teacher education students as they work with Austin ISD students to complete writing projects focused on the people, places and history of Austin and determine how best to record and publish the children’s voices
  • emphasize the importance of writing in teacher education and showcase the outstanding work that UT is doing in Austin schools

Students at the Saturday event were introduced to the East Austin community they’d be visiting through brief narratives from three natives of the area – entrepreneur and philanthropist Juan Mesa, teacher and artist Raul Valdez and AISD parent support specialist Jennifer Riojas.

Writing Comm Books

The future teachers who participated in Writing Communities have been working with students in area school districts, helping them become better writers and produce works like the illustrated books that were on hand for viewing at the Saturday event.

“I grew up down the street from this school,” said Riojas, “and I have to say that the neighborhood has changed a great deal and is very different from the place I experienced when I was young. I remember getting up early in the morning when I was little, walking down the street to meet my friends and consistently encountering two distinct smells: the tortillas being made in each house and Pine-Sol.

“It was an extremely close-knit community, with everyone knowing everyone else. The adults watched out for all of the children, and we were all like one large family. My grandfather was not just a car mechanic – he was the person who fixed everyone’s cars in the community. It’s still a wonderful place, a place that you can return to and be greeted with open arms.”

Students also had the pleasure of hearing an inspirational talk by author, teacher and writing instruction expert Katherine Bomer. She encouraged attendees to think about the “power of place” and demonstrated to them how they could inspire their young students to draw upon their own lives to amass rich subject matter for writing.

Bomer urged the future teachers to contemplate their “heart places,” those sacred and special spots that they carry inside of them over a lifetime, and shared several excellent children’s books that address the importance of place. The students were urged to jot down thoughts about place as she made her presentation.
“I’m talking to you as writers today and also honoring you as future teachers of writers,” said Bomer. “I want to help you write about who you are and the things that you discover and for you to know how to help your students write about who they are, what they think and how they feel.

“As you walk these neighborhoods today you’ll be looking for what holds meaning, looking through the eyes of a writer. You’ll be describing the smells, sounds, sights, maybe even the foods, weather and the people who live here. What is the history of the place? How is it different from the way it used to be? Think about all of the lenses through which you can view a place – it might be through the lens of politics, language or cuisine. If you use this activity with your students, it’s also very powerful to help them generate memories by bringing in and showing photos or DVD’s, listening to music or telling family stories and singing songs.”

Following Bomer’s talk the large group broke up into smaller color-coded groups, and discussed what it means to use a writer’s notebook as a place to plant the seeds of ideas, as well as what it means to model “the writing life” for students.

“If you are a teacher asking your students to be writers, it’s very important for you to model that for them,” said Dr. Ramon Martinez, an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and leader of the “magic mint green” group. We shouldn’t ask our students to do anything that we haven’t even done once.

“As you do this activity, think about what you carry inside of you as far as past places you’ve been and lived, and what the relationship is among place, identity and writing.  You’ll plant these ideas in your writer’s notebook and then go back to revisit them and cultivate them. Doing this will help you be much more effective when you’re working with your students and they’re planting their own seeds in their own notebooks and then build them into poems or stories, for example.”

Mini groups of six or seven students were each given a map with one of three different routes to follow. Groups had an hour in which to make the mile-long trek, explore the neighborhood and stop at designated spots to write and reflect. After the walk, the students once again gathered in their color-coded groups at Sanchez Elementary. They shared ideas that they had jotted down on the walk, talked about how the writing had shaped their views of the community and how viewing the community with other group members influenced what they saw.

As a wrap-up activity, the entire group reconvened and Language and Literacy Program professor Bonnie Elliott, along with several of her students, shared some of the colorful, illustrated story books produced by elementary students who wrote with a focus on place. All of the UT students who attended the event currently are implementing community writing projects with students across several school districts, including AISD. The students’ work will be featured in an anthology and on a website this spring.