National CACFP Week!

ETL_FINAL_COVER-smIt is National CACFP Week, a time to raise awareness of how the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program works to combat hunger and bring healthy foods to underserved populations. Our work with CACFP has focused on early education settings, but the program also serves adults in care.

The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) is designed to help providers serve nutritious food to children and adults, reimbursing providers for qualified meals and snacks that they serve while offering training, technical assistance, and program oversight. While researching our 2015 “Eating to Learn” report, we discovered that this program is underutilized in Massachusetts. Statewide, approximately 220,000 children are enrolled in early childhood education and out-of-school programs, many of them spending over 8 hours per day in care. This program is a crucial source of nutrition because many children receive the majority of their daily meals and snacks while in care. For our report on CACFP in MA early education and care settings, click here.

The poster below was produced by the National CACFP Sponsors Organization, a national organization for sponsors who administer the USDA CACFP. Please feel free to download and share with those you know!


For more information on National CACFP Week, click here.

“Fade Out”: What is the real truth?

in October, Vanderbilt University released a study on outcomes from Tennessee’s voluntary Pre-K program, which serves mainly at-risk children from low-income households. The results caused quite a stir, as they seemed to suggest that gains made in Pre-K “fade out” by the end of 1st grade.Dan Walters’ article in the Sacramento Bee offered this interpretation:

“…the efforts devoted to raising the academic achievement of low-income children went for naught. Other factors, such as poverty and familial and peer influences, prevailed.”

But is that the real truth? There is a vast evidence base which suggests otherwise – that QUALITY early education, done right, can have a transformative effect on young learners, particularly those from non-English-speaking or low-income households. But what is “quality”? How is it measured? And how does it fit into the larger education pipeline?

Serve-ReturnSome researchers divide quality of an early education program into two segments: process quality (children’s immediate experiences) and structural quality (environmental factors, like teacher : student ratios). Both aspects speak to a warm, safe environment where “serve and return” features are evident. “Serve and return” is the back-and-forth conversational exchange of sounds, words, or ideas between a young child and a caregiver. These interactions are crucial to building brain circuitry from birth forward.

Central to these aspects of quality is a large factor to be considered – the preparedness of the educator. Studies show that educators perform better when they are 1) equitably paid and 2) given opportunities for professional development – not so different than any other industry. With in-classroom support, both teacher and student will thrive.

In a recent New York Times article, the Vanderbilt study’s co-author said:

“Tennessee doesn’t have a coherent vision. Left to their own devices, each teacher is inventing pre-K on her own.”

The article goes on to cite positive student-level outcomes from Boston and New Jersey’s public preschool classrooms, where experiential learning is emphasized and early educators receive mentoring and coaching. Results from Tennessee point less to the question of whether pre-k is beneficial for young children and more to the question of how to ensure quality education throughout the educational continuum so that benefits can be sustained.

“Eating to Learn” Report – Released!

BTWIC-CACFP-ReportWe were so pleased with the turnout at our “Eating to Learn” reception last night. The report examined participation in the Child and Adult Care Food Program in early education settings across the state. The event was attended by a wonderful group of supporters, along with Chef Barbara Lynch. She spoke with ease about her time growing up in Boston and her belief in the importance of “real food” for kids. We are honored that she took time out of her busy schedule to spend the evening with us.

Our presentation of findings highlighted key facts from the report, for example, that there are as many as 242 Center-Based early education and care programs in Gateway cities across Massachusetts that do NOT particpate in CACFP – this represents a total of 5,000 (or more) children that are not being served by the program.

For more on the report, read the Boston Globe article, or head straight over to our website
! We hope you find it informative, and we would appreciate your sharing it widely.

The High Cost of Early Education for Caregivers

Child Care Aware recently released a fact sheet that compares key metrics on early education and care in the state of Massachusetts as related to numbers for the nation as a whole. Some indicators seem positive. WAPO_State_Rental_CostFor example, the average yearly wage for an early educator in Massachusetts is approximately $25,890, several thousand dollars greater than the national average. However, as the Washington Post recently reported, a worker would need to earn more than twice that amount simply to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Massachusetts, as the cost of living is among the highest in the nation.

The majority of the early education and care workforce is comprised of women, a little more than a quarter of whom are unmarried with children of their own. For this demographic – single mothers – income spent on child care is an unfathomable 63%. Married couples pay about 15% of their income. In fact, you could buy a new car with what you pay for one year of full-time care for an infant, or, as the fact sheet indicates, pay for 1.7 years of college.

Indeed, the picture for early education and care in Massachusetts is not rosy. We must expand not only access to child care, but also quality and affordability – both for the workers and the children. Studies demonstrate that children benefit from having a consistent caregiver. If compensation remains so low, and child care so unaffordable, it will continue to become untenable for skilled workers to remain in the field. We heard one such story on Early Education and Care Day at the State House, back in April, when Kiara Barros shared her story with more than 500 supporters. How many more stories like hers are out there?

Is Early Childhood Education a Public Health Issue?

The Ounce Start Early report

There are four criteria to determine if a health problem or condition is a public health issue, according to the 2006 research article, Chronic Kidney Disease: A Public Health Problem That Needs a Public Health Action Plan. Those criteria include: the health condition must place a large burden on society, the burden is distributed unfairly, future preventive strategies could reduce the burden, and current preventive strategies are not currently in place.  According to these criteria, it can be argued that early childhood education is a public health issue. This is an issue that is distributed unfairly, future preventive strategies can reduce the burden, without investing in early childhood education the health of the general population worsens-making it a burden on society, and although there are some preventive strategies, more need to be implemented.

In a recent report by Brooke Fisher, Ann Hanson, and Tony Raden, Start Early to Build a Healthy Future: The research linking early learning and health,  they provide an overview of research that addresses what it takes for a child to have a healthy start in life. Their research supports the idea that investing in high-quality early childhood education does benefit one’s health. A summary of the findings from research linking comprehensive, high-quality early education to health is found below:

Child Health Outcomes
  • Improved physical health: lower rates of injury, lower rates of overweight/obesity and lower body mass index (BMI), increased access to age-appropriate immunizations
  • Improved oral health: increased access to oral health screenings and increased access to dental care
  • Improved social-emotional, mental and behavioral health: lower rates of delinquency, fewer behavior problems, better classroom and interpersonal conduct
  • Increase engagement in health-promoting behaviors: more likely to be physically active, more likely to consume nutritious meals, and lower rates of cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use at age 12
Long-Term Health Outcomes In Adulthood
  • Improved physical health: reduced risk of coronary heart disease, lower rates of hypertension, lower rates of abdominal obesity (among female participants)
  • Improved mental health: fewer depressive symptoms
  • Increased engagement in health-promoting behaviors: lower rates and delayed onset of marijuana use, lower rates of drug or alcohol treatment, more likely to eat nutritious food (among female participants)

These findings suggest that “high-quality early education programs have repeatedly proven to be sound investments with lasting health benefits” however “too few low-income children have access”. Therefore, without investing in this issue and making access equal for all, we are only increasing the burden of this issue on millions of Americans.

In order to address this public health issue, strategies should be implemented. This report lists recommendations that should be made to address this issue, which include:

  • Direct health resources to the youngest and most vulnerable children from the prenatal period to age five
  • Implement effective evidenced-based practices that meet young children’s comprehensive needs in both early education and health care settings
  • Invest in systems that support high-quality and effective services in early childhood and health care settings
  • Build cross-sector collaboration to support young children in achieving good health, broadly defined to include children’s interrelated health and developmental needs
  • Embark on research and evaluation that explore the link between early learning and health

Overall, this report has shown that investing in high-quality childhood education has positive benefits on one’s health, not only as a child, but as an adult. However, they suggest that it is also important to support a child holistically. This would advocate for future preventive strategies that do not just invest in early childhood programs, but also in family engagement and care provided by pediatrician offices. Additionally, it supports the idea that continuing not to invest in this issue will continue to be a burden on the public’s health.

This is a comprehensive study that provides an overview of research that supports the notion that early childhood education is a public health issue. This issue is a burden on society, is distributed unfairly, can be reduced by preventive strategies, and has only a few preventive strategies.  Therefore, more research should be conducted on “the full spectrum of health outcomes associated with early education program[s]”, because it is an investment that benefits the public’s health, and will lead to more successful preventive strategies.

Are We Missing 50% of the Children?

young girl with spoonWe know that high quality child care is critical to starting children down a path toward achievement. Key academic, social and cognitive skills are formed during the early years– skills that are crucial to success in school and in life.

So we understandably focus a lot on the quality and strengths of staff members in programs such as Head Start and public and private child care and pre-K settings. But did you know that this focus misses about 50% of the children between birth and school age?

In actuality, at least half of all children under the age of six are not in licensed, formal environments. They are in Informal Care, or Family, Friend and Neighbor (FFN) Care arrangements.

What is Informal Care?

It is home-based, offered at either the caregiver’s or child’s home. It is provided by grandparents, other family members, friends or neighbors. It is the dominant form of child care among working families with young children. It is also true that low-income children and children of immigrants are more likely to use informal care arrangements than higher-income children or children of native born parents.

In their 2011 review, “Quality in Family, Friend and Neighbor Child Care Settings”, authors Amy Susman-Stillman and Patti Banghart report that one of the strengths of FFN care is that the adult/child ratios are often lower than those found in licensed, formal settings. They also state that there is generally a strong level of warmth and support for children, and that parents and providers experience positive relationships and communication. These elements contribute to the high level of satisfaction families report about these arrangements.

What characteristics are found among Informal Care providers? These individuals:

  • Are less likely to have a high school diploma than licensed providers
  • Typically have little training or education in early childhood development and education
  • Tend to have education levels similar to that of the parents served
  • Often are the same race/ethnicity and speak the same language as the parents
  • Are most often grandmothers.

Informal Care providers are typically more isolated and less connected to early childhood training and resources than those working in formal settings. Susman-Stillman and Benghart report that these individuals are very interested in being able to support children’s development. Others have noted, however, that they often face unique challenges to accessing technical and resource support.

Forty-six per cent of children from birth to three years of age are in FFN environments. The role that FFN caregivers play in supporting healthy development and school readiness, particularly among low-income children, is just as critical as the one played by providers in formal settings. Support to these individuals to improve the quality of their caregiving is vital to strengthening early education for children in low-income settings.


[cta id=”3313″ align=”none”]

Think Tank Issues Detailed Recipe for Fixing Early Education

“All policies should stem from the overarching goal of improving the interactions between teachers and children, which research identifies as critically important to children’s future success in school and in life.”

-Laura Bornfreund, deputy director, New America’s Early Education Initiative

Six months after they released a report that identified serious problems with America’s K-3 educational system, its authors have offered a comprehensive – if utopian – set of solutions.  The report, Beyond Subprime Learning: Accelerating Progress in Early Educationfocuses on two key proposals: unless we commit to “streamlining today’s public programs and pushing for predictable, sustainable funding — we are never going to be able to accelerate access to quality education, birth through third grade,” states Laura Bornfreund, deputy director of the Early Education Initiative of the New America Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan, public policy institute. She and her colleagues, Clare McCann, Conor Williams, and Lisa Guernsey present suggestions in eight related areas:

  • Streamline systemsacross the birth-through-third-grade years. Throughout K-3, the curriculum should include: language development, math, science, social studies, social-emotional development, approaches to learning, and creative expression. The authors point out that as students enter primary school, less attention is paid to domains of learning other than math and language. Instead, they propose a comprehensive approach that goes through third grade and beyond. They also recommend that pre-K teachers be compensated at the same level as their K-12 peers.
  • Improve professional development, use video and digital tools, and increase the requirements for early educators, center directors, and home-based child providers. Create two tiers of teaching licenses that reflect current understanding of child development, one from birth or pre-K to 3rdgrade and a second from 3rd or 4thgrade through middle school. The authors emphasize the importance of high-level interactions between teachers and students: training should “put a premium on the quality of interactions between adults and children and the learning that results.”
  • Emphasize familiesto ensure that they are stable enough economically to support their children’s education. The authors suggest standardizing eligibility for program subsidies and a Pell Grant-model that would provide a sliding scale for funding early education and care.

This would avoid a funding cut-off point that acts as a disincentive to finding higher-paying work.

  • Standardize assessment and coordinate with both the Common Core and Head Start programs so that states can share resources.  States already have very similar standards and curricula, the authors note, and it is counterproductive to have 50 different sets.
  • Improve accountability systems and ensure they are appropriate for children preK-3 and are based on thoughtfully designed student learning objectives. Include observation of teacher/student interactions.
  • Collect and use data responsibly to ensure that students’ educational needs are met, and train teachers to use data effectively. The report recommends expanding multiple-measure formative assessments that are taken while teaching is in process.
  • Apply research findings to practice and make the research readily available to the public.


In conclusion, the report’s authors insist that “policymakers must be open to adopting both bold ideas and sensible plans” in order to ensure that all young children have an opportunity to succeed in school and in life.

Massachusetts Scores High on National Survey of Child Well-Being

kids count 2014 cover

Massachusetts fares very well in the just-published State Trends in Well-Being: Kids Count Data Book 2014, placing first in education, second in healthcare, and first overall. Published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the report considers four indices: economic well-being; education; health; and family and community.

But even for a state at the head of the pack, there’s a long way to go. Despite its high standing, the Massachusetts numbers reveal substantial deficits:

  • 213,000 children (15%) live in poverty
  • the parents of 414,000 children (30%) lack secure employment
  • 62,000 children (42%) don’t attend pre-school
  • 435,000 children (32%) live in single-parent families

Although only about half of its students are performing well, Massachusetts rates first in 4th grade reading and 8thgrade mathematics scores relative to the other states:  53 percent are not proficient in reading, 45% are not proficient in math.  The rates nationally are 66% for both reading and math.

In an overview of current demographics and performance criteria, the report notes that although there are substantial differences among ethnic and racial groups, the achievement gap increasingly reflects socioeconomic differences rather than racial or ethnic variation. Twenty-three percent of children in the United States live in poverty (in 2012 this meant $23,283 or less for a family of two adults and two children).

Issued annually since 1992, the report emphasizes that health, family, and economic circumstances are more influential than education in improving individuals’ long-term prospects: “Schools can make a difference at the margins, but they cannot overcome the vast cognitive and social-emotional development differences between high- and low-income children that are already entrenched by the time kids enter kindergarten.”  On the other hand, early education can make a critical difference: “…the research is unequivocal that high-quality early childhood programs, along with other forms of early intervention, are essential for building a strong educational foundation for low-income children and narrowing the achievement gap.”


[cta id=”3313″ align=”none”]

Boston Foundation Grades MA Early Childhood Education: Improved but Incomplete

“Massachusetts now needs to move on more concrete plans to extend quality early childhood education to all 4-year-old children.”

– Healthy People/Health Economy Annual Report Card 2014, The Boston Foundation

Early childhood education gets special attention in the new Healthy People, Healthy Economy Annual Report Card just issued by the Boston Foundation in partnership with the Network in Health Innovation. Recognizing that “most recent studies suggest that early childhood is the single most profound influence on a person’s health, well-being and even lifelong earnings,” the Report Card for 2014 announces a new indicator that will track progress in establishing universal high-quality early child care in the state.

The Report Card expresses concern about the percentage of the Commonwealth’s budget that is consumed by health care−more per capita than any other state−and suggests that the only way to shift spending is to improve citizens’ health at both ends of the age spectrum. The report lauds the state’s recent efforts to create universal pre-K but gives it an ‘incomplete’ on outcomes. Access to quality preK is often inaccessible for at-risk and low-income families. In terms of state funding, the state spends less today than it did in 2001 and only one-third of 3- and 4-year olds receive some form of public support for early education. On the other hand, compared to other states, Massachusetts has maintained its investment in early childhood education.

 Other than the federally regulated Child and Adult Care Food Program, there is no accountability for nutrition in early childhood settings, according to the Report Card. Credit is given to Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children for our “Eating to Learn” project, committed to education, outreach, and advocacy in support of better early childhood nutrition. You can learn more about “Eating to Learn” here.

Some interesting statistics shared in the Report Card include:

  • Thirty percent of children entering first grade are overweight or obese
  • 14 percent of the state’s 5-year-olds do not have access to full-day kindergarten.
  • Only 32% of Boston students attend weekly physical education classes.

In addition to universal pre-K for all 4-year olds, it recommends establishing standards for nutrition, physical activity, and screen time. The Report Card evaluates twelve other indicators but stresses that “investment in childhood education and health may be the single most significant effective way to reduce health problems over the course of a lifetime.”


[cta id=”3269″ align=”none”]

Slowing Summer Slide

Summer break is one important reason that low income children fall behind, losing as much as two months of what they’ve learned during the school year.  That loss can be prevented, according to educators and civic leaders at a recent forum. Parents, librarians, and other summer caregivers can all defend against students’ summer slide.

stop summer slide blog graphic

stop summer slide source blog graphic

“When it comes to learning, time matters,” noted Robert J. Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Educational Policy, at the June 10th meeting, entitled Anytime, Anywhere Summer Learning: Connecting Young Children and Their Families to Early Literacy Options, and co-sponsored by the New America Foundation and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. “When we have that 30,000,000 word gap,” he continued, referring to the difference in the number of words heard by lower-income and upper-income children by age 3, “We know that summer learning is not just an option, it really is an imperative.”

New digital technologies can help in both providing opportunities for student review and giving adults – parents and librarians, in particular – ways to support young learners. At the meeting, PBS’ Michael Fragale recommended the PBS Parents Play and Learn app which offers games and activities in both English and Spanish with structure for parent participation. All speakers agreed that parents who are intentional about learning are vitally important to preventing out-of-school time skill loss.

With the emphasis on practical ways to obstruct the slippage, attendees learned about Arizona’s Read On program from Arizona Literacy Director Terry Clark. The digital myON library of 4,000 books is available to all of the state’s 360,000 students age three and older, online or offline, on computer, tablet, and other electronic devices. This summer’s goal is for each user to spend at least 20 minutes reading daily.

Digital libraries don’t entirely solve the problem for those who don’t have digital access, noted Professor Susan B. Neuman of New York University. When she compared users of two libraries in different neighborhoods of Philadelphia, she discovered “extraordinary differences”: ten books per child vs. one book per 300 children; one computer per child vs. one computer per 100 children. Further, that one computer – usually at a library –was in so much demand that several turns might be required to complete an assignment.

Agreeing that technology can help, Yolie Flores, Senior Fellow at the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, identified three critical components for erasing the learning gap: school readiness, school attendance, and summer learning. Those who are not at grade level by third grade, she added, are six times less likely to graduate from high school.

It’s important to keep children in the practice of learning, added Michael Fragale, and to understand that learning is not something that stops in June and starts up again in September.


[cta id=”3269″ align=”none”]