What Does ‘Innovation’ Mean in Early Education? Here’s How Government Leaders Answer.

Jan 13, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It may have been the seventh time that the U.S. Department of Education hosted its annual ED Games Expo. But it was only the first that the event convened a room full of researchers, entrepreneurs and practitioners to showcase innovations in early childhood development and learning.

While the ED Games Expo features a range of learning games and technologies supported by the federal government, the early learning showcase provided a space for experts and advocates to share ideas, think critically and learn from one another, according to Melissa Brodowski, deputy director of the Office of Early Childhood Development at the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Administration for Children and Families and the event emcee.

Held on Thursday in the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, in a terrace-level room overlooking the Potomac River, more than 20 leaders from the Education Department, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and various states, startups, nonprofits and universities spoke about the importance of early education and the role of technology in it.

Ahead of a series of rapid-fire pitches by 11 individuals who are seeking to solve major problems in the field—including issues of literacy, early childhood assessment, learning disability detection and online teacher training—a panel of ACF leadership explored what “innovation” means in the context of early childhood development.

Deborah Bergeron, director of both the Office of Head Start and the Office of Early Childhood Development, answered first.

“It’s not just technology,” she said, echoing a point made by others throughout the day. “Innovation isn’t just about plugging something in. It’s about how you think.”

Bergeron noted that at the center of early education is the children and the instruction they receive. Therefore, she said, she and her colleagues in the field should be thinking about how technology can “deliver training and coaching to teachers and … free teachers up to spend more time with children.”

Some of the best examples of technology working in an early childhood setting come from systems working seamlessly with one another, Bergeron added. In Los Angeles County, “an innovative thinker” designed a system that connects the Department of Child and Family Services with the Office of Head Start, so that every new foster child entered into the system is automatically placed in Head Start “without a moment’s waste,” she said, ensuring that “there is no kiddo left out of that pipeline.”

Another system that is hugely important to Head Start, the federal program that provides early childhood education services to low-income families? Finding the quickest, most efficient bus route for drivers. “It sounds really simple, but those are the things that make such a big difference,” Bergeron said.

She rattled off a few other areas in need of an overhaul: Coordinated enrollment so parents aren’t filling out dozens of redundant forms to find out what they qualify for, data-sharing between early childhood and K-12 institutions, and shared professional development between early childhood and K-12 educators.

“This isn’t just about what lands in the child’s hand or in the classroom,” Bergeron noted, “but it’s also what’s going on in the backend to make things work better.”

Shannon Christian, director of the Office of Child Care, offered a broad interpretation of innovation. “Innovation is a practice that looks at a challenge in a new way and eventually presents a solution where we’re better off than before,” she said. She presented a handful of challenges in early education and asked the audience to think about how technology can address them.

First, Christian said, the most important resource for teachers working with young children is their time. “Any innovation that helps free up time is important,” she said, adding that it could be used to reduce the paperwork burden, licensing and regulation obligations, or note taking that educators do to share later with parents.

Second, she noted that the quality of interactions between a caregiver and a child is paramount, so tools that improve teacher training and development are “very welcome.” (Minutes later, during the pitching portion of the event, someone would suggest a solution to that very problem.)

Among other recommendations, Christian also said that anything that makes parents stronger partners in their children’s learning would be a boon, as that is a key indicator of children’s future success.

Near the end of the panel discussion, Katherine Chon, director of the ACF’s Office of Trafficking in Persons, shared an idea that she said draws on Native Americans’ Seventh Generation Principle.

“When I think of innovation … it’s being able to see not just current, present circumstances, but thinking way down the line in the future,” Chon said. “There’s this Native American saying that when you think of implementing some new change or some new policy or program, don’t think of the next year or five years. Seven generations from now, how will things be better off or worse off? That’s something I take to heart.”


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