For two UW College of Education researchers, a huge new federal Head Start grant means the creation of a new center and years of hard work ahead — but most of all, it means helping Americas youngest learners prepare for and succeed in school.
The UW will take the lead among seven institutions in a new five-year, $40 million national Head Start grant. The money will be used to create the new National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning, based at the UW. The centers five-year mission, starting January 2011, will be to discover and share best practices in teaching and learning for Head Start teachers and others.
“I think its monumental, and its very exciting, but its also daunting,” said Gail Joseph, assistant professor of educational psychology. She will head the project with Susan Sandall, associate professor of special education.
Sandall said the new center will seek to improve everyday teaching practices in Head Start “so that children when they go to school sustain the gains they made in Head Start programs.”
Head Start is a federal program serving needs of children from 3 to 5 years old, recognizing that the early years are crucial to childrens growth and development. Head Start programs promote school readiness by enhancing childrens social and cognitive development as well as parent and family engagement with literacy and learning.
“The evidence is clear that early learning can make a lifetime of difference,” said Tom Stritikus, dean of the UW College of Education. “The center will allow the college — together with our collaborators across the country — to bring to scale the best practices that we’ve collectively learned through years of research. It’s a big project for us, with a big payoff for the children.”
Sandall and Joseph are both former classroom teachers and teacher trainers with much experience in early childhood education issues. Sandall came to the UW in 1996 and researches instructional practices and communication for young children with disabilities and the implications for education personnel preparation. Joseph joined the UW in 2007, directs the College of Educations program in Early Childhood and Family Studies, and teaches and conducts research on early childhood topics.
The two say that the UW center and its team will ultimately comprise about three people. Their team of collaborators will include experts in early childhood care and education, special education and early intervention. Sandall and Joseph say they also plan to create a “Head Start University” concept to engage leaders in the field and develop research-based college courses for would-be Head Start instructors and staff.
Sandall said the existing system of mentoring has lacked “quality assurance, if you will, about the content thats being delivered. “We know, for example, some things about what works in classrooms with children, but we dont always bring those lessons forward with us.”
Curriculum decisions are important, Sandall said, but how teachers work with that curriculum is also crucial. “What is it a teacher needs to be doing? She needs to be talking with the children using rich vocabulary, she needs to have an organized learning environment, with materials and activities that challenge childrens thinking.”
She added, “Thats where we would hope to have a real impact — on the system that supports the teacher in the classroom.”
Joining the UW in the effort will be the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University, Iowa State University, University of Southern Florida, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
The UW has long practical experience in early childhood education with the Haring Center, begun in 1965, and its affiliated school, the Experimental Education Unit, which serves children with and without disabilities from birth through kindergarten.
Researchers at the new center will:
- Gather, review and catalog research-based practices in early childhood assessment, curriculum and instruction.
- Put practices that have been proven effective into daily use through professional development of Head Start staff and establish a system to sustain the use of these practices.
- Gather and review data to measure improved quality and student learning in Head Start classrooms.
- Build connections among parents, teachers, pre-K staff and kindergarten staff to help Head Start students make a smooth transition to elementary school.
The National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning is one of four new centers created by the Office of Head Start in September. Others are the National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement, the National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness and the National Center on Program Management and Fiscal Operations.
The centers are part of Head Starts redesigned Training and Technical Assistance system, which aims to provide its teachers and program staff with the knowledge and skill to use evidence-based practices through a system of training and technical assistance providers, early childhood specialists and consultants.
Though their work is just beginning, Sandall and Joseph recognize that this grant and the center it funds can improve classroom success for Americas youngest learners.
“This has all the resources to put teachers into every classroom who create an excitement about early learning — who take advantage of the childrens enthusiasm, who create environments where children are excited about new ideas and talk about them in different ways,” said Joseph.
“And theres no reason why every child cant have that opportunity.”