Leading early learning, one district at a time
Morton Sherman
February 12, 2020

Building a child’s education is similar to building a house -- you start with a strong foundation. To have a successful academic career, children need an educational foundation that has been laid early and intentionally. This idea is the basis of the AASA Early Learning cohort, one of 35 professional learning networking groups led by AASA, The School Superintendents Association. From this cohort’s point of view, if superintendents want to see successful outcomes for every student, then we must start before a child enters school. Our Early Learning cohort seeks to highlight what superintendents are doing at a systems level that prioritizes educating students aged three to eight years old. 

In my 30 years of school leadership, I have come to understand that there is a real need for collegial support as superintendents work to accelerate early learning in their districts.  It is very rare for superintendents to have a background in early education, so they may not be attuned to the challenges that start even before kids enter our schools. Here’s how the Early Learning cohort is shifting the focus for district leaders.

 How the AASA Cohort Works

The Early Learning cohort has members from 25 districts. The cohort meets three times each year—at the AASA national conference on education and onsite at two different school districts. Since its inception, the cohort has met in a number of districts, including Volusia County Schools, Hillsborough County Public Schools, Ann Arbor Public Schools, Shaker Heights Schools, and Dundee Community Schools.

Partnerships are key in the early learning realm, which is why AASA has formed partnerships with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the National Head Start Association, the University of Michigan, PBS, the Fred Rogers Center, and author and consultant John L. Brown.

We also partner with groups like Waterford.org. This nonprofit organization has done extensive research to find out what works best for early learners. With a focus on providing early education to students who may not otherwise have access, they provide a critical perspective on meeting the challenges families actually face.

Providing District Leaders with Necessary Tools

We want to make early learning a priority, but we understand there are barriers such as lack of funding allocation, options, and access. We want to be able to address those barriers no matter the district budget, which is one of the reasons why we’ve made sure both urban and rural areas are represented in this group.

A tool, drafted by Dundee Superintendent Edward Manuszak, co-chair of this cohort, aims to help in a better understanding of the critical approaches to early learning. Included in the tool are suggestions from colleagues who have implemented effective early learning programs. This document addresses early education best practices and examines questions such as: 

  • What are viable district policies? 

  • What kind of programs are effective?

  • What are helpful community partnerships? 

  • How can superintendents reallocate resources toward early learning?

Funding Sources for Early Learning

Superintendents may love the idea of early learning, but it always comes down to funding—or funding allocation. How will it be funded, and funded properly? Unfortunately, we haven’t discovered a magic formula, but we have come up with some ideas to make it a bit easier.

First, focus on the fact that successful early learning programs have a much greater return on investment than remediation programs. If you put your funds toward high-quality early learning, it’s more cost effective than going back later to help students catch up.

Second, groups like Head Start have federal funding that can help support children without dipping into district funds. They’re a really important piece that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Third, we’ve seen a slow but deliberate shift in community support for early learning. In Ohio, for example, PNC Bank committed to supporting early learning in the Shaker Heights School District. When I last touched base with them, they’d raised $12 million.

The Search for Standards

There are plenty of curriculum standards out there. The problem is there’s no consistency. Some states have their own standards, as do NAEYC and Head Start, and they don’t always align. Universities like North Carolina, Michigan, and Duke are taking a hard look at early learning curriculum, but in the coming years, our group would really like to see a commitment to national standards with local interpretation.

At AASA, we come to this burgeoning discussion as professional arbiters, not content experts. We can point to models that have passed muster, provide research and resources, then help get the information out to districts.

Through this Early Learning cohort, we hope to show school leaders why our children must begin their education early. Not only will it prepare them for years of success through their academic careers, it can be a cost-saving measure for districts nationwide. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what all school leaders want to do? Give our children the best shot at an education in the most cost-effective way possible? You ask any superintendent and the answer will almost always be a resounding yes.

Morton Sherman, Ed.D. is the associate executive director of the leadership network for AASA, The School Superintendents Association. Sherman has served in public education for more than 40 years, with over three decades in administration and 25 years of experience as a public-school superintendent. He can be reached at msherman@aasa.org.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Like this article? Sign up for ASCD SmartBrief to get news like this in your inbox, or check out all of SmartBrief’s education newsletters, covering career and technical education, educational leadership, math education and more.