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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

Originally published in May 2011

Dr. Paul Resta

Dr. Paul Resta speaking at the Harvard Advanced Leadership Institute Think Tank on Educational Innovation and Technology, March 31 – April 2.

In December of 2009 a landmark national summit on redefining education for the digital age was held at The University of Texas at Austin, convened by Dr. Paul Resta and the College of Education’s Learning Technology Center. One hundred leaders from state legislatures, state certification boards, education professional associations, teacher unions, teacher education institutions, public schools, the business community and federal government attended the event.

During the three days of the invitational summit, education stakeholders held intensive discussions on the transformative policies and actions necessary to bring public education into the digital age. The aim was to address large issues and try to:

  • Identify the characteristics of a true 21st century educator
  • Define the critical elements of an educator preparation program that will produce this digital age educator
  • Identify the institutional, state, and national policy structures that support the creation of these programs
  • Develop a national coalition to reinvent teacher education for digital age learners to identify and resolve challenges to this transformation, and seize opportunities resulting from these challenges

The summit resulted in a major report that was delivered to Congress by Resta and National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future president Dr. Tom Carroll in the summer of 2010. It contained detailed recommendations for the transformation of teacher education programs.

New Hampshire Takes the Lead

To make revolutionary, far-reaching changes in public education, there has to be buy-in from most, if not all, major stakeholders – from teachers, school administrators, communities and parents to policy makers, educators’ professional organizations, and corporate supporters and partners. And from Washington, D.C., down to the local level.

Fewer than six months after the national summit hosted by The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, New Hampshire held a state summit modeled on the national event, replicating the brainstorming, discussion and recommendations process.

Fred Bramante, a member of the New Hampshire State Board of Education and former Board chair, attended the Austin summit and is a passionate advocate for the recommendations in the summit report – he’s one of the visionaries who’s kick-started the progress in his state.

“There are specific changes that need to be made and then there’s a general transformation of the whole concept of what education is, or should be,” said Bramante, who at one time was a middle school science teacher. “We’re addressing both. It’s 2011, but most schools around the nation are still using a 20th century model – considering educators to be ‘content deliverers,’ assuming that learning can only occur within the four walls of a particular classroom and using school calendars that have remained unchanged for roughly a century.”

Bramante has led a major effort to review and revise state K-12 education policies in New Hampshire, with the focus being on the documented academic, physical and social progress of each student.  One of the results of Bramante’s hard work has been New Hampshire’s Minimum Standards for Public School Approval, which call for:

  • the personalization of learning environments and strategies
  • harnessing of untapped local resources that can yield partnerships which, ultimately, increase students’ learning and career opportunities
  • more flexibility in developing a school calendar
  • extended learning opportunities for credit toward graduation
  • distance learning and technology to access new learning opportunities and support the learning process
  • moving from a Carnegie Units-based system to a competency-based one

The standards were distributed to and accepted by the major education organizations that must review and implement such regulations.

“We’ve scheduled another state summit, which is being held this month, and in which we’ll discuss additional reforms, like those needed in teacher education programs” said Bramante. “The language we use now to talk about education and learning reflects the direction in which we’re headed. In our draft of higher education teacher training regulations, we’ve replaced every instance of ‘classrooms’ with ‘learning environments,’ replaced ‘teacher’ with ‘educator’ and ‘instruction’ with ‘learning’ or ‘learning strategy.’ Little by little there is progress and we don’t want to stop until we’ve fulfilled our vision.”

Additional states have begun to implement recommendations from the University of Texas at Austin summit as well, with California working on a transformation of their teacher education programs and Wisconsin instituting reforms in one part of the state with plans to scale the changes to the rest of the state in time.

Success at the National Level

Of the numerous national education leaders to attend the Austin digital age learners summit, Dr. Tom Carroll has been one of the most enthusiastic and vocal advocates for radical change. As well as being president of the NCTAF, he co-chaired the University of Texas at Austin summit along with Resta.

“Post-summit recommendations are really gaining traction at the state level,” said Carroll, “and that’s excellent because both Congress and the U.S. Department of Education are putting leadership back at the state policy level. As far as our national recommendations, the most important thing is to establish national competency standards.  I see that as the area on which we should focus most of our energy and resources right now. Ideally, there eventually will be shared international standards – we need to keep the international context in mind as we establish ours.

“As Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we need to get them to directly address the need for education that creates a 21st century, digital age workforce. To teach students who know how to work with new media and social network tools, we obviously must have teachers who have the necessary technology skills and knowledge. It’s imperative that we help Congress understand that this must be part of the investment in education.”

Key national education leader Susan Patrick, who also participated in the Austin summit, concurs with Carroll regarding the urgent need for updated teacher training programs and teachers who are highly skilled in technology use. Patrick is president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, which promotes access to a world-class education for all students by promoting online learning opportunities.

“Currently, there are few teacher education programs in the U.S. that offer training and pre-service practice in online and blended learning,” said Patrick. “One of the most significant outcomes of the summit was to highlight the need for this kind of teacher training. We’re starting to see programs include instruction in online learning as part of their curricula.

“The summit recommendations also are having an impact Congress’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Obama’s plan includes standards on teacher preparation and professional development for 21st century skills and online instruction, so we’re beginning to see some very significant effects on state and national policy.”

In March of this year, Resta, who has been shepherding much of the progress and information dissemination following the Austin summit, was invited to Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative think tank to speak about redefining teacher education. The think tank drew education stakeholders like IBM Foundation president Stanley S. Litow, who is a former deputy chancellor for New York City schools, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller.

“This Harvard event included an international group – since it was a webinar, 1000’s of individuals worldwide were able to participate. Other countries are watching with great interest to see what we are going to do about issues such as the revamping of teacher education programs.

“During the three days of the summit, the clear and recurring theme was that we must change the ways that we’re preparing teachers so that they can prepare today’s students appropriately,” said Resta. “Most agreed that we need to build a ‘collaborative atmosphere’ around issues of reform so that there will be largescale buy-in at all levels and so that schools that are islands of excellence won’t be such a rarity and remain un-replicated.”

In April, Resta was in Washington, D.C., again, this time to update invited U.S. Department of Education leaders and Capitol staff on the impact that the Austin summit has had in the past year and a half and the reforms that are being adopted across the nation.

“It was very gratifying to be able to report that a great deal of progress has been made,” said Resta, “and share the message that the recommendations are gaining traction. Places like New Hampshire, Wisconsin and California are setting the stage for sweeping nationwide change.”

Originally published May 2013

A new report issued today by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), and developed by two University of Texas at Austin professors, says schools should play a key role in ensuring all students have the opportunity to engage in at least 60 minutes of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity each day.

Harold W. Kohl III, a research professor in the College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, was chair of the IOM committee that wrote the report, and Darla Castelli, an associate professor in kinesiology and health education, was a member of the committee.

Recent estimates suggest that only about half of school-age children meet this evidence-based guideline for promoting better health and development. The report recommends that most daily physical activity occur during regular school hours in physical education classes, recess or breaks, and classroom exercises, with additional opportunities available through active commutes to and from school, before- and after-school programs, and participation in intramural or varsity sports.

“Schools are critical for the education and health of our children,” said Kohl, who is also a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health. “They already provide key services such as health screenings, immunizations and nutritious meals. Daily physical activity is as important to children’s health and development as these other health-related services, and providing opportunities for physical activity should be a priority for all schools, both through physical education and other options.”

The report calls on the U.S. Department of Education to designate physical education as a core academic subject to draw attention and attract the resources necessary to enhance content, instruction and accountability. Although most states currently have laws addressing physical education requirements in schools, there are no consistent nationwide policies. The committee recommends that 30 minutes per day in elementary school and 45 minutes per day in middle and high schools be devoted to physical education, and students should spend at least half that time engaged in vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity. The report emphasizes that physical education cannot be the sole source of physical activity, and additional opportunities must exist throughout the school environment.

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, 44 percent of school administrators have reported cutting significant time from physical education and recess to devote more time to reading and mathematics in the classroom.

A growing body of evidence, including several studies by Castelli, suggests that increasing physical activity and fitness may improve academic performance — especially in mathematics and reading — and that the benefits of engaging in physical activity during the school day outweigh the benefits of exclusive use of classroom time for academic learning.

A variety of physical activities that include aerobic and resistance exercises, structured and unstructured activities, and both short and longer sessions will likely confer the greatest benefits, according to the report. For example, aerobic fitness is linked to brain structure and function related to working memory and problem solving, and single bursts of activity have been shown to increase time on task and improve focus. Recess provides students the chance to refine social skills and use their imaginations.

The report indicates that along with a minimum number of minutes spent in physical education classes, students should also receive frequent classroom breaks, and recess should not be taken away as punishment or replaced with additional academic instruction.

According to the report, ensuring equity in access to physical activity and physical education will require support from federal and state governments as well as state, district and local education administrators, the report says. School systems at every level, together with city planners and parent-teacher organizations, should consider physical activity in all policy decisions related to the school environment.

The study was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council make up the National Academies.