Blog: The Educated Reporter

Early Childhood Education 101: Reporting on the Littlest Learners

From President Barack Obama’s 2013 call to expand preschool in his State of the Union Address to a series of statewide pushes for better-funded early childhood education programs, all eyes are turning toward our nation’s youngest learners.

Journalists hoping to tap into the world of early childhood education reporting will have no shortage of angles and story ideas to tackle.

Researchers and policy analysts who specialize in early childhood education discussed best practices for preschools, along with other key issues on the early learning beat during EWA’s National Seminar at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

A panel at the May event featured Vanderbilt Education Professor Dale Farran, Sara Mead of Bellwether Education Partners, and Kris Perry of First Five Years Fund. The discussion was moderated by freelance education reporter Lillian Mongeau, previously with EdSource Today.

“Early education has gone from being one of the most ignored issues in education to the issue everyone is talking about,” said Mongeau, who has covered early education issues in California since 2012.

Here are three angles for journalists to consider when it comes to covering early childhood education:


Preschool and early education funded programs are funded in myriad ways. There are plenty of stories to be told on where the dollars are and aren’t coming from, and why, the researchers say.

Preschool programs are using local dollars, sin tax revenues, sales tax increments, federal Title I dollars, private money or some combination of all of the above to fund their programs. Some programs are fully funded, some are partially funded.

Look for potential funding challenges for private “mom and pop” early childhood education providers – ironically — as public funding increases. When school districts get involved, it means fewer 4-year-olds attend the small private operations.

“As public education expands and public money expands, the mom and pops are suffering because infant toddler care is their loss leader,” Farran said. “The small places make their money on the four-year-olds.”

Pedagogy, instruction and accountability

In the era of school accountability, many are starting to ask to best measure quality in preschools or early education programs. The panelists suggested journalists begin tackling this issue by talking with early education researchers.

The early education sector has struggled with the issue of assessment, Farran said, because you can’t assess 4-year-olds the same way you assess third-graders. One idea is to think about assessing the program versus the child.

Look at the Classroom Assessment Scoring System by Teachstone, used by Head Start programs, to get an idea of what makes up a quality program. Ask to spend full days observing a wide variety of programs since there is so much variation across the sector. Take notes and ask practitioners at the end of the day if you observe something you don’t understand.

To get started reporting on early education quality, consider a story aimed at parents. Find a local researcher who examines early education and ask them to point out local high-quality programs, as well as the hallmarks that designate it as such. The story could be called “10 ways to see whether your child is in a high-quality preschool program.”

The panelists said journalists should look for highly interactive — and safe — learning environments as signs of high-quality programs. Red flags include: if a room is too quiet; if there is a high student to teacher ratio; or if the teacher is frequently using limiting language.

“A somewhat chaotic, highly interactive (room) is facilitating interaction,” Perry said. “It doesn’t matter if the blocks are new if they’re being encouraged to talk, listen and interact.”

Access and affordability

Look for stories about access and affordability in early education by talking to a diverse set of stakeholders. It’s usually a myth, the panelists said, that people aren’t engaged in early education because they don’t value it. Often, there are language barriers, cultural barriers, cost barriers or some other reason why a specific group isn’t filling the seats.

Just because a child is eligible for an early education program does not mean they truly have access to it. Do parents know about the program? Is it cost-prohibitive? Is it nearby?

Find out why enrollment in early childhood learning programs is below expectations by having frank and open conversations with people who choose not to participate, and report on it.


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