“Voices from the Field” Interview with Jack McCarthy, President and CEO of Apple Tree Institute for Education Innovation

Jack McCarthy, President and CEO of Apple Tree Institute for Education Innovation

Jack McCarthy, President and CEO of Apple Tree Institute for Education Innovation

Jack McCarthy is president and CEO of AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation and AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. AppleTree works to close achievement gaps by developing young children’s cognitive, social, and emotional skills through individualized teaching. They promote learning experiences that are evidence-based and use an approach that integrates what to teach, how to teach, and how to know it’s working. Jack has worked as a social entrepreneur at the intersection of education research, policy, and practice since 1993, combining his experiences in business and politics with a reformer’s sense of urgency about the importance of educating all children to high standards.

ED: How did you begin your career in Early Learning?

Jack: I was tricked into the field of early learning! A friend had brought me in as the treasurer for a non-profit organization with the hopes that I could help them find a building for a charter school they were starting. I had expertise in working with developers, structuring deals, and raising capital. We eventually pulled together financing and renovated a building in 4.5 months. It was a series of complex problems to solve, with unrealistic deadlines, but all for the purpose of providing high-quality programs for kids that needed them. Originally I had no idea how important this work was, but the more I learned and became involved, the more I became committed.

The first schools we opened were middle and high schools, yet most students were reading far below grade level, so it quickly became apparent to me that we were starting too late and we needed to get to kids earlier. This was 17 years ago, when the National Reading Panel had just released their report on the importance of early literacy. There was a growing emphasis on early learning.

We started a demonstration preschool in Washington, D.C. with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) child care subsidies and private foundation funds. We discussed with experts and other smart people how best to promote early literacy skills for preschoolers and began to build our model.

In 2005 we were awarded an Early Reading First (ERF) grant from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). That’s when we became much more structured with our approach. ERF gave us the opportunity to build an exemplary model and to be much more intentional with promoting early literacy. We had something that made sense. However, in order to also address early math and social, emotional and behavioral development we had to use two additional curricula.

We continued our research-to-practice approach, working with a growing number of preschool classrooms, looking at outcome data, and collecting lots of feedback from teachers and coaches to continuously improve our practices. At the suggestion of experts in 2010 we developed our own approach, Every Child Ready (ECR), to support literacy, math, and social, emotional, and behavioral development within one curriculum. With Investing in Innovation (i3) funding from ED, we were able to strengthen our ECR model. Over the years the funding from ED provided us with the network and ability to bring really smart people together. We established our vision and goals, and then created an environment where innovative problem solving could happen.

ED: What efforts has your organization been involved in to improve the quality of preschool?

Jack: Our biggest contribution has been to develop this comprehensive early learning instructional model Every Child Ready, which includes what to teach, how to teach, and how to know it is working. ECR is a research-to-practice model that uses children’s academic and social-emotional outcomes, teacher quality data, and educator feedback to drive ongoing refinement and development. In developing ECR we took the time to figure out how you really move the needle on improving child outcomes.

A critical piece is to know if what you are doing is working and figuring out if you are making progress. ECR includes progress-monitoring tools focused on language and literacy, math, and positive behavior. Through ongoing observation we can monitor whether and ensure that kids are making progress in all of these areas. The ongoing progress monitoring provides data that are useful to teachers, instructional leaders, administrators, and others. We believe this is a big contribution to the field.

We’ve talked to so many different people over the years that want to do what’s right for kids. People look for one silver bullet, a simple answer to the complex issue of creating high-quality programs. The thing that is so humbling is that there isn’t one solution, rather it is that the 100 one percent solutions need to be organized and executed effectively in a controlled environment that makes it easier for teachers to provide highly individualized instruction. That is what ECR does really well. We are excited to be working towards making this innovation practical by putting it on a technology platform.

The other important piece to our work is expanding high-quality preschool through the unique D.C. charter preschool space. By being creative and flexible, we’ve been able to expand the use of our model across the city. We’ve done this through three approaches.

The first is through the AppleTree Early Learning stand-alone preschools. Through these we currently serve 650 preschoolers at 6 sites across the city.

The second is through our Apple Tree@Partnerships, where we partner with several different charter schools that serve older children. In these charter schools, we operate their preschool program under a contract and serve 700 preschoolers.

The third is supporting (but not administering) the implementation of our preschool model in additional charter schools. This last approach is reaching another 2000 kids. We have been in conversation with a couple of big-city school districts interested in ECR, so we see potential to further the work but need to think carefully about our capacity and how best to scale.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work, and what strategies have you tried to overcome these? 

Jack: When we started working with schools that were focused on older children there was a tendency that they wanted to “push down” their curriculum to preschoolers. We had some critical conversations about why that wasn’t going to work, and why it was important for preschoolers that learning occurs through play and other fun activities. We continue to work on this challenge, this vertical integration piece—how does ECR align with what is happening with the older grades in a school?

Another challenge relates to capacity. This is hard work and in order to do it well you need to have resources to build capacity and to support what should be happening in classrooms. In the non-profit world, raising capital to build internal capacity to manage larger projects or evaluate outcomes can take years.

We’ve been lucky to be working in an environment in D.C. that is committed to preschool. We’ve been working where the operation funding is abundant. But growth capital and facilities funding are big challenges. We can’t do everything we want with the operation funding. For example, we’ve been challenged with finding funding for our technology platform, to make the ECR tools widely available and more practical to use. In early learning we all feel this sense of urgency to address all of the issues at once, but the reality is that the pace and type of funding don’t always line up. You are resource constrained in some ways and not in others. This is part of non-profit management.

It is exciting to be working at the intersection of policy, research, and practice and to be managing each of those pieces with integrity so that we are both altruistic and thoughtful. For example, we don’t want to bring things to scale that won’t have an impact.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in expanding access to high-quality preschool programs?

Jack: Reach out and engage experts and other smart people. I continue to find that people involved in policy, research, and practice in this sector are very willing to share their experiences with what works as well as what doesn’t.

Early on we did a lot of listening and learning and asking for feedback on our ideas. Get involved or learn from the broad early learning community, attend meetings, conferences, and have conversations about different ideas from various people that have been thinking hard and trying different things that support young learners.

The other important piece is to recognize that it is important to make your program vulnerable, and be open-minded and humble in the name of trying to improve in all areas. For example, when we first started we were pretty focused only on early literacy, but over time, through our experience, conversations, and feedback, it became clear that we needed to build in a focus on social-emotional development.

Our research-to-practice, continuous improvement approach helps us to be flexible in improving our work. Learning how to listen is critical and so is being on the lookout for new opportunities. For example, I’ve been on D.C.’s Early Childhood Development Coordinating Council and have met so many young child care center directors who don’t necessarily have specialized knowledge in early childhood, but they do have the entrepreneur’s vision and they want to provide high-quality care. We need to figure out how to use opportunities like this to increase access to quality early learning. By being open minded, flexible, and solution-focused we can solve these complex issues related to improving the quality of programs serving our youngest learners.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

1 Comment

  1. I work with early education in NJ as part of the Quality Rating and Improvement system. Everything addressed in this piece has been a resounding part of the issues we’ve seen in our community: push-down academics; trying to move from didactic style to individualized interactions while children engage with materials in a planned learning environment; effective social and emotional curriculum; and authentic family engagement. At times it feels overwhelming. It is refreshing to see others working so diligently towards change.

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