Since Sam Meisels arrived in 2013 to head the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, he's become the academic-based advocate ally to the socially conscious philanthropist who hired him, Susan A. Buffett.
The dynastic wealth of the Buffetts has always had a progressive bent, Billionaire investor Warren Bufffett's first wife, the late Susan Thompson Buffett, gave generously to liberal causes.
The daughter has carried on this legacy by supporting quality education for children from low income families. Her Sherwood Foundation is a major player behind programs attempting to bridge achievement and opportunity gaps from birth through college. Her Buffett Early Childhood Fund backs Educare. The Fund created the Institute in partnership with the University of Nebraska.
The research, policy, outreach-armed Institute housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha emerged from her conversations with NU-system leaders about the need to improve early childhood outcomes for at-risk populations. She and Meisels say since learning begins at birth any early deficits can contribute to later academic-reading struggles. That's why enriching activities from infancy on are vital. As the Institute's tag lines read: "Start Early, Start Well" and "All children need the opportunity to develop, learn and succeed in life."
In Meisels, she tapped an early childhood guru as BECI's founding executive director and as Neb.'s new Pied Piper for the cause.
"Sam is the real deal. He's a world-class early childhood leader deeply committed to leveling the playing field for very young children growing up in families facing some very tough odds. Sam's vision of making Neb. the best place in the country to be a baby is a vision inspiring more and more people, and I'm convinced we'll get there," she says.
"Children are born learning. Their earliest experiences set the trajectory for how they will succeed in school and life. Sam has put together a team at the Institute to help him and, really, to help all of us across the state close the student achievement gap and develop an early childhood workforce to do the critical work of nurturing Neb.'s youngest learners."
Meisels came from Chicago, where he helped make Erikson Institute the nation’s leading graduate school in child development. Before joining Erikson in 2002, he held senior positions at prestigious schools.
The University of Rochester graduate with a master's and Ph.D. from Harvard Graduate School of Education has ample experience with children both as a parent and as a former pre-school, kindergarten and first grade teacher. As a leading authority on the assessment of young children he's spent much time observing early child ed programs.
Most of his time today is spent with stakeholders, including school district superintendents, education officials, legislators and philanthropists, as well as with fellow experts in devising strategies and policies for better assessment and training.
On September 11 the Buffett Institute and the Aspen Institute hosted a panel discussion featuring leading early childhood experts about the future of early childhood education and care.
Institute staff have traveled the state to meet with and speak to many constituencies. With the Buffett and NU names preceding them, Mesiels and Co. can get in any door and before any audience to advocate for quality, accessible early childhood programs that educate rather than warehouse, that have well-trained staff and that are accountable to state standards.
Meisels is impressed by the public-private support marshaled for early childhood efforts in Nebraska. Those initiatives are in part responses to societal failures. The state faces a crisis of young children living in poverty, a factor posing serious challenges for healthy development. The 2010 census showed 40 percent of all children birth through age 5 in the state meet the Nebraska Department of Education’s general at-risk criteria, including low income, English as a second language, having adolescent parents or being born prematurely. That percentage equates to 60,000 children statewide. The numbers keep growing.
These problems are magnified in families and communities lacking resources for quality out of home child ed and care. Meisels sees a need for more such programs wherever he visits.
"A lot of pre-schools I go into, not just in Neb. and certainly not just in Omaha, are places where kids spend time, but they don't learn very much. They meet in places where there's very little attention paid to something as simple as transitions, whether it's from home to school or within school from one activity to another activity. Most very young children have trouble making transitions – being able to change what they're doing into something else and do it in a way that makes sense in a group of 12 or 20 children.
"We're talking also about relying not at all on television but relying instead on what takes place interactively. We're talking about having art experiences, alphabet letters, displaying children's work on the walls, having goals in the areas of social problem solving, literacy, math. Even for 3 year-olds and 4 year-olds you should have appropriate goals in those areas."
Meisels doesn't often see those things in place. He also sees disturbing disconnects in the continuum of early childhood programs.
"Right now in this area we have a number of 4 year-old programs sponsored with public dollars but very, very few programs for 3 year- olds. It's like having sixth grade and fourth grade but no fifth grade. That doesn't work."
Meisels not only finds it illuminating but rejuventating to visit pre-schools in order to get a handle on what's happening in settings where young children spend much of their time.
"When I go into a pre-school I actually feel transformed, honestly. I'm taken over by the environment. The first thing I do is look around and see how many adults are there and how many children are there. Then I just listen for a little bit to get the tone – how are children talking to each other, how are adults talking to children, how are children tailing to adults. I note the interactions and how problems are solved.
"Then I start to walk around and note what the materials are like – are children able to reach them, are they in good repair, is there a good variety. Do we just have a few books and counters for math or are there blocks, is there a dress-up corner for dramatic play. On and on and on. That gives me a pretty darn good idea."
He says while most out of home providers are motivated by the right reasons, some cut corners rather than put children first.
"If you're going to be very concerned about the bottom-line, you're going to try to have to hold costs down, most of which are for the personnel, and to that extent you're going to short change everybody."
He says most providers pay relatively poor salaries – on average $28,000 – to child care educators.
"That's a terrible salary given that who's more important to us in the world than our children. We're also paying it all out of our pocket. The amount of federal and state dollars that goes into early childhood is very, very small compared to what goes into K-12 education. So who pays for it? Parents pay for it.
"Salaries, work conditions and benefits are very, very bad and the status of that profession, my profession, is low as a result."
All of which serves as a disincentive to enter the field, leaving many inner city and rural communities wanting because there aren't enough early childhood educators to meet the need.
With providers charging a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars or more a month, parents must make hard decisions and sacrifices, perhaps going well out of their way in order to access child ed or care.
"These are generally young people and they can't be stretched very far," Meisels says.
Parents of limited means sometimes choose the more expedient rather than best option, including in-home providers operating off the radar and therefore outside the eyes of regulators.
"Many people are unlicensed and then they're totally unregulated," Meisels says.
Since not all children who receive out of home child care are in licensed-regulated settings, he says, "We have to find ways of reaching out to them through professional development, improving the quality of the programs as a general rule." He says, "For those programs that do enroll children who receive any kind of state subsidy the state now has a quality rating system and so those programs over the coming years will have to meet certain minimum requirements of quality, not just health and safety, and we will work with that and try to improve that."
The Institute has launched the Early Childhood Workforce Development Program in order to raise the standards and skill levels of early childhood staffers. It is hosting higher education faculty from across the state October 5-6 for the conference “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce in Nebraska."
Meisels says another challenge posed by the early childhood arena is variable quality in day cares and after school programs. "
Some of them have educational goals, some of them have more fun, play-based goals. It's a big issue all around. Actually United Way of the Midland here is focusing more of their attention now on trying to improve after school programs."
A formal approach to the issue is the Achievement Gap Challenge through the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan mandated by the Nebraska Legislature (LB 585). The plan will be funded for three years by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Created in collaboration with 11 metro area school districts, the plan aims to reduce achievement gaps for children birth through age 8. It emphasizes creating more quality pre-school for 3 and 4 year-olds and enhancing teaching and curriculum for pre-K through third grade.
Home visits will target at-risk kids up to age 3. The idea is to educate families about activities and resources that aid development in situations where children may not be getting the stimuli they need.
"For example, we know if children aren't exposed to a lot of words early in life that even as early as 18 months they're going to show a deficit in vocabulary that can persist all the way through third grade," Meisels says. "And we know there's a very tight correlation between vocabulary and learning to read.
"So we want to teach people to talk, to read and to sing to their kids. We want to help them learn how to help their children grow in terms of physical well-being, fine motor and gross motor skills, all aspects. We need to communicate to parents – what are our goals for learning. how well is your child doing in terms of what has he learned about this and about that. We particularly want the parent to have a strong relationship with the child. What takes place between the parent and child is the driving force in childhood development."
He says it's not only parents who can stand to be schooled about children's age appropriate behavior.
"We need to teach parents about why play is a valuable avenue of learning for young children, why there's always a surplus of activity level in children. We need to teach teachers that, too. Some kids getting expelled are not wanting to sit down all day long or for a few hours, which is what we would expect for a 4 or 5 year-old. Some people don't know that."
He says the Institute will monitor and support early elementary ed outcomes with schools, centers and families.
"We've got to think in terms of families rather than parents because a lot of children are raised by other family members. We have to think about the family with the child all the time. There's no such thing as an isolated child because as humans cannot survive alone. That's not just our physical needs but our emotional needs, our intellectual needs. We need to be supported, scaffolded all the way, for a long time."
He says education intervention is generally well-received.
"Because you're very alone when you're the parent of a very young child and a new-born especially, you want someone to talk about it with. How you do it is very important. Finding someone from the community who understands what you've been through is very important."
He says the early childhood field's come a long way.
"We have learned what to do with kids, we've learned how to do it better. We've learned that children can learn a great deal. We've learned the first five years of life is when the greatest amount of brain growth occurs. All of that is supportive of what we're doing. We can teach very young children about letters, about numbers, about shapes, about space, about all kinds of things like that.
"A more recent revolution is we've learned we need to teach them about non-cognitive things, too, like taking responsibility for their actions, relating to others, being cooperative. It's these non-cognitive factors that have a lot to do with how well they succeed then in life. Much of the evidence behind that has grown out of what we've learned from early childhood programs as we follow kids longitudinally through their early adult years."
He says early childhood has more visibility "than at any time" and "the research is pretty clear that if we can be persistent in our effort we will experience the persistence of effect."
When it comes to assessment, Meisels says No Child Left Behind initiated "more testing than we've ever seen and most of it has not been useful." He adds, "A lot of it has been punitive in nature. I think something that is punitive is not educational."
"The assessment work I do," he says, "is based upon teachers observing, recording and comparing to standards in order to differentiate what they do with individual children. You have to have evidence-based data. We learn how to observe so that we have some reliability and repeatability. Based on that I can see this is a child who learns in this way but not so well in that way and I can use that to help the child develop and have success.
"It is more resource-intensive for a teacher but teaching's a tough job and this actually improves your teaching."
Another punitive thing that happens in pre-schools, he says, is children being suspended or expelled for behavioral issues.
"It is a national problem. Boys are more frequently expelled than girls."
Some reports suggest boys of color are disproportionately impacted.
Meisels isn't surprised it happens given that the overwhelming early childhood workforce is white females.
"There are problems of identification with an authority figure who looks so different and is so different. Children from minority backgrounds may not have encountered a white authority figure before."
He says the kinds of behaviors that can lead to disciplinary action are preventable and solvable.
"Often a teacher doesn't know how to structure a physical space for pre-schoolers. Some kids will respond to your saying 'no running,' others won't, they like to challenge, they like to test limits. which is a very natural healthy thing to do.
"It's our job as adults to help the child cross that divide and we have to understand where the child is so we can be successful at that. It's a huge responsibility for the teacher to bring a child into a learning world and to expel a child at that age is a failure on the part of the teacher."
Meisels sees a largely health early child landscape here.
"Some factors that led to the establishment of this Institute help Neb. stand out in a very positive way. That doesn't mean we don't have a lot of work to do, but it means there are points of excellence here. We have combined public-private programs focusing on the first three years of life that very few states have. We have four Educare schools. We have three colleges of education in the NU system.
"There are things that need to improve, too. We are a rural, low population state, so as you get into greater Neb. there are fewer people prepared at a high level. Our standards of qualification for taking care of children are not high. Some say if we made them too high we'd have nobody to serve the kids in need. We want to find ways of improving that situation. We have very few birth to 3 programs and very few programs for 3 year-olds."
Overall, he says, "there's room for a lot of improvement and there's a lot of strength to build from."
He says the investment made to support the Institute's work sends a message that "the lives of young children at risk and their families are important enough that they would rise to be a priority of the university," adding, "Most universities don't do that and this is one saying that it's important enough for us to do it."
The Institute's interdisciplinary-collaborative work spans across all four University of Nebraska campuses in Lincoln, Kearney and Omaha.
"What I say to the deans around these campuses is that we can identify where most of the children at risk are coming from and we want every single one of those children 18 years after they're born to be eligible to apply and to be qualified to be accepted at the university.
"So in a way it's a jobs program – that these kids should grow up and hold jobs and be real contributors here in this state. Early childhood I always say is not an inoculation, it's an investment."
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.