Recognizing the Experts

December 19, 2022
Early learning classroom
Photo courtesy of Cultivate Learning

A child care director when the pandemic hit, Denise Ellenwood got a call from her early learning coach about Early Achievers, Washington State's voluntary quality improvement program.

Her center wasn't signed up for the program. Even with the dollars that came with participation, money that could help families pay for child care and staff pay for continuing education, her board of directors had said no. As a faith-based organization, they feared it would make them too much like every other center. Still, Early Achievers was calling Ellenwood to check in.

"At a time when we didn't have anyone in our corner, the coach asked us what we needed and then provided sanitizer, masks and resources," she says. Over time and with continued interactions, Ellenwood learned about a transformation in progress, a reimagining that would replace the Early Achievers rating system with something entirely different: self-directed recognition and improvement.

"This strength-based approach, focused on the uniqueness of early learning providers, whether faith-based or multi-cultural or something else, excited me," says Ellenwood. She was so impressed that even though she loved her current position as director, she eventually decided to leave and become an early learning coach. Now she works to bring others the support and momentum for growth that she needed when she was in their position.

"I also love for parents to have more options to choose what environment they want for their children," she says. "For example, I'm Native American, and there's a Salish immersion school. That makes my heart so happy that in an urban setting, not on the reservation, Native American families that live in the city have access to this unique school."

Becoming One Team

"During the pandemic, we had the opportunity to adjust and adapt quickly in partnership, to shake the sheets," says Sandy Maldonado, director of Early Learning at Child Care Aware of Washington.

"The state opened up the opportunity to innovate and talked to us about options," says Juliet Taylor, deputy director at Cultivate Learning, a University of Washington organization advancing early childhood education by bridging theory and practice.

Child Care Aware of Washington and Cultivate Learning work under contract with the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF) to support providers in the Early Achievers program. In a coordinated way, Cultivate Learning collects data, supports professional development and training, maintains learning frameworks, and leads ongoing evaluation and research alongside Child Care Aware of Washington who oversees the relationship-based services (coaching, training, mental health consulting, and family services), and supports systems development and implementation.

We wanted to collaboratively hold the torch for high quality, especially at a time of great ambiguity due to the pandemic.

Child Care Aware and Cultivate Learning and their respective teams of coaches, researchers and data collectors had ideas on rethinking the program. They also saw an opportunity to review and rework what might be duplicative across teams. So, when the state invited them to individually present options, they instead decided to prepare one joint proposal. “We wanted to collaboratively hold the torch for high quality, especially at a time of great ambiguity due to the pandemic,” says Taylor.

Amid the social upheaval, racial reckoning and the pandemic's inequitable impact especially felt in early child care, the joint proposal included revising Early Achievers around a racial equity framework and theory of change that put providers in the driver's seat.

When the state approved their proposal, a new collaborative journey began. "When the crisis in child care staffing hit rock bottom, we rallied together: higher education, community-based organizations, and a state department,” says Maldonado. “We committed to an equity lens and also a lens of complexity as we began testing a liberatory design approach. It has been hard work and delightful to co-create conditions for inclusion, show up as our true selves — me, as a Latino leader — and find both a collective sense of belonging and inspiring ways forward."

Not only that, but the state expanded the program to include providers caring for children up to age 12, opening the way to support more children over a more extended period.

A New Process to Celebrate Strengths

DeEtta Simmons, senior director at Cultivate Learning, describes the context leading up to this moment. Washington state's Early Achievers had started ten years earlier as a small quality rating and improvement system. These systems were cropping up across the nation after Oklahoma created the first Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) in the late 1980s. Twenty years later, the new systems had evolved to be more comprehensive. They sought to increase wages and family choice under an overarching banner of quality. By the time the pandemic hit, many states had adopted and scaled quality systems with money from Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants.

"Before the pandemic, we had a diverse team of data collectors who would observe the early care and education being provided in every licensed care facility in the state,” says Gail Joseph, UW professor of Learning Sciences and Human Development and the founding executive director of Cultivate Learning. “Then we would use that information to catalyze policy and programmatic improvements such as increased access to professional development and resources for providers."

The program had many positive aspects, including learning and critical infrastructure that developed along the way. This included multi-lingual data collectors and a robust network of full-time coaches employed all over Washington state by Child Care Aware.

What is quality, and how do we define it?

While they could build on existing strengths, the program also needed an overhaul. "The way the program evolved, people felt that raters were coming to find the things they were doing wrong," says Simmons. "That's never what we intended. We're here to honor and recognize people's great work."

"What is quality, and how do we define it?" asks Joseph. "The tools we were using to measure represented a narrow way of thinking of early childhood quality, and we had come to understand that they weren't reliably predictive of child outcomes." One of the consequences was the way that a single set of measures encouraged homes to be more like mini centers. "It was a process of standardizing family childcare, getting rid of what's special," says Joseph.

Alternatively, the new approach would begin by understanding and celebrating providers' existing and unique strengths. First, though, providers needed a lifeline during the COVID-19 global pandemic. Early Achievers coaches started by reaching out.

Designed by and for Providers

"Before the pandemic, we were so focused on the pedagogical piece that we forgot the business piece," says Maldonado. So, when in-person site visits and data collection paused in March 2020, coaches called over 3000 providers weekly for the next six months. They asked if sites were still open, how staffing was, what vacancies they had, and what they needed regarding health and safety support. Then they shared resources and available funding. That was one of the calls Ellenwood received that would change her career path.

"We're stepping into this next chapter with a better understanding of what early learning business owners need to feel like they are thriving in their business, connecting to resources around systems," says Maldonado.

We're stepping into this next chapter with a better understanding of what early learning business owners need to feel like they are thriving in their business, connecting to resources around systems.

After the first six months, Child Care Aware and Cultivate Learning gathered in working groups, including providers, coaches, partners and other agencies, to develop a new system. "Before, providers were put on a train and sent down the track," says Simmons. "Now, the provider is the conductor, and they decide when they want to do the components and what they want to be recognized for."

After two and a half years of deep collaboration, the program's components look entirely different. A provider-driven program profile and video portfolio have replaced the one-shot standardized assessments of the past. Providers receive data reports along the way that can be used to set goals and create action plans with their coach.

Growing Shared Confidence

As part of trusting the program, providers must trust their coaches. Having been a coach in the past, Maldonado understands the importance of the position. "Child Care Aware takes great pride in hiring coaches from within the community, serving the communities in which they live," she says. "Many are bilingual and bicultural and are professionals that step into the full-time role having lived experience as an early child care provider. As the heart of Early Achievers, coaches provide transformational relationship-based services.”

"We appreciate how now it's more provider focused instead of a third party telling us this is what to do and how to do it," says Kayley Billington, director of the Kirkland Children's School, who signed up and became an early adopter of the program in the spring of 2022. "If we need to enhance our diversity, communication with parents, or interaction at circle time, then we will film during those times, and our coach will work with us on what they see."

The use of videos in the process gives some providers pause, but Billington understands the benefits from recently having done the same thing as a student in the University of Washington's Early Care and Education program (ECE). "It's one of the most impactful ways of growing teachers in our field," she says. She describes the process of watching herself, reflecting on what opportunities she missed and how she can do better, and seeing comments from a coach and her peers. While she acknowledges that it was nerve-racking in the beginning, it quickly became familiar and a tremendous tool for development.

Ellenwood agrees. "I went through UW's coaching certificate," she says. "I didn't like being on camera at first, but it helped me reflect on my practice and improve." The coaching certificate, a credit-earning opportunity for coaches to learn best practices, is another way that Cultivate Learning supports Early Achievers. By offering opportunities for coaches to view and reflect on their practice via video review, they are better prepared to support providers.

"We can see a million different things about quality in these video clips," says Joseph. "It's a shift from 'gotcha' monitoring to providers engaging in their own quality improvement process and having it validated."

Not only that, but the program connects providers to resources they may not even know they need, like access to a mental health provider who can offer children, teachers and families additional resources and knowledge.

In addition to supporting provider growth, this effort also shines a light on the stress points of the early childhood field. Large sweeping changes are needed to ensure adequate compensation for a job that does no less than support the next generation during one of its most critical stages of development. Additionally, parents need equitable access to safe, affordable, culturally diverse programs for their developing children.

"It's larger than what we can do," says Ellenwood. "But we can be part of this change by amplifying the voices of providers and the needs of children and families. We are connected to a big support system, and we can be a big advocate for change."

"We're also excited to share this nationally," says Taylor. "Other systems have similar challenges and an interest in promoting equitable systems. There are endless opportunities for how we can learn from each other."


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