Voices from the Field: Sharon Lynn Kagan

“I think we’re very seated in pedagogies from the 40’s if not before, and these are different children. They’re living in a different world and living in different kinds of families, and the field needs to abreast itself on this much more robustly.”

Interview with
Sharon Lynn Kagan
Co-Director, National Center for Children and Families
Teachers College, Columbia University and
Professor Adjunct at Yale University’s Child Study Center

Sharon Kagan

by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Sharon Lynn Kagan has served as Director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Early Childhood Education, as well as President of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Co-Chair of the National Education Goals Panel on Foal One, Chair of the Family Support America’s Board of Directors, a member of President Clinton’s education transition team, and National Commissions on Head Start and Chapter 1 in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Dr. Kagan is co-author of A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity Matters in Early Education.

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Lynn: I began as a Head Start teacher, became a Head Start director, and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, then when back and got my doctorate in Early Childhood Education at Columbia University. There’s a little bit of a preamble. My parents were very strong civil rights activists, and so when I went into Head Start I had no education training, so it was much more from the background of civil rights and social action. Early childhood came as a by-product of my Head Start experience, and was actually secondary to my civil rights background.

Steven: What do you see as the role of teacher education programs in improving access to high-quality early learning programs?

Lynn: Necessary, but not sufficient. Necessary, in that obviously they are major training grounds for people who will be occupying lead positions in early childhood, and increasingly as we move toward bachelor’s degrees, these will become more the case. Having said that, I also think that to get quality, there are a lot of other factors in addition to teacher education that have to be in place, so I don’t want to put the burden of quality solely on the backs of teachers or teacher preparation institutions. We need much more streamlined governance, we need much, much, much more focus on our monitoring systems, and we need much more focus on financing. To me, the bigger picture quality rests on many factors, with teacher education and teacher competence being one of the key factors, but certainly not the only one.

Steven: Why do you think the President’s proposal to provide high quality early learning programs is important to our country, what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities with what he has proposed, particularly as it relates to equity?

Lynn: Historically, early childhood in America has been a market-driven service, and as a result, the market responds to those who can and who elect to purchase in. Inherently, it breeds inequity. The President’s efforts are in my mind, a major contributor to alleviating the gross inequities that exist in our country in terms of access to services. Indeed, that inequity and imbalance is characteristic of all countries where there is a reliance on the market totally. So if you look at the countries where you’ve got the greatest equity provisions in early childhood, they are those where government sponsorship is strongest. To me, it is a corollary that if we want equity we are going to need government provisions much like when we want equity in access to K-12 education and the government takes it on as their responsibility. Some parents opt out, but essentially the government is responsible. So I do feel that the President’s efforts to achieve greater equity in access are critically important in the big scheme of things.

For challenges, I would say that that there is too little attention paid to all of the infrastructure, and by that I mean all of the things, including teacher preparation and teacher quality that we discussed in my response to the second question. I think there are some important ideological issues that need to be addressed, and I think there are obviously important financial issues in terms of salaries and the compensation of individuals who are working in the field. But, the point that I will make is that I do see this as an iterative process—social change never happens overnight. I think that ties into the first question. For me, engagement in early childhood is all about social change and social action, so I see that we’re on a very long road. Not just we in the United States, but countries all over the world are moving in the direction of greater governmental provision. My concern is that they don’t focus so much on access, and that they forget the critical quality ingredients, because without quality, access means very little if we’re looking for learning outcomes.

Steven: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Lynn: Yes, I would add two comments. One point is that I think we have been, as a nation, far too parochial in our work to understand what other countries are doing. I think there are some amazing lessons to be learned from much more of a global approach to early childhood, and it really saddens me that we don’t see this as a part of our intellectual repertoire. Point two is that I do feel that the field is not fully in-tuned with where 21st Century children are, not only in terms of their use of technology, but the whole nature: the entire multiculturalism of the country, the entire mobility, the entire nature of different kinds of relationships among adults, and different patterns of families.  I feel that if you said to me what are the two trends you would prognosticate for the next 20 years, I think that internationalization would be one, and I would call that the contemporization of early childhood. I think we’re very seated in pedagogies from the 40’s if not before, and these are different children. They’re living in a different world and living in different kinds of families, and the field needs to abreast itself on this much more robustly.

I think that when you take a look at the world, you can look at countries where provision is universal, and that’s who we routinely compare ourselves with—the Finlands and the Swedens. That’s not our reality, but there are better things going on in market economies. There are really interesting policy things to be learned, and there are interesting pedagogical things to be learned. So it feels like there’s a reset button on those two major issues – internationalization and contemporization – that we really need to be cognizant of going forward.