Katharine Stevens

This is the first in our three part interview series with American Enterprise Institute education scholars. This week, we focus on early childhood education.

Katharine Stevens leads the early-childhood program at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on the research, policy, and politics of early care and education. She also studies the role of early learning in increasing opportunity for low-income Americans and the challenges of implementing rapidly expanding early-childhood initiatives, especially ensuring caregiver and teacher quality.

Before joining AEI, Dr. Stevens founded and led Teachers for Tomorrow, one of the first teacher-apprenticeship programs in the United States, which recruited and trained teachers for New York City’s lowest-performing schools. She began her career in public education as a preschool teacher in New Haven, Connecticut, and St. Louis, Missouri.

Her analyses and commentary have been published in Education Week, The Hill, HuffPost, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, New York Post, US News & World Report, and The Wall Street Journal. Dr. Stevens has a Ph.D. in Education Policy from Columbia University, a M.Ed. from Teachers College, an MBA from Columbia Business School, and a B.A. in US History from the University of Chicago.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics. 

Morgan Lewis: I’m Morgan Lewis and I’m here with Katharine Stevens: resident scholar in early childhood education at the American Enterprise Institute. Katharine, thanks so much for talking with me today!

Katharine Stevens: Thanks Morgan.

ML: You have worked in the field of education for over twenty years, founding a teacher residency program and working as a preschool teacher before beginning at AEI. How do these past roles shape the way you approach education policy today? And, what sparked your particular interest in early childhood education?

KS: Well, Morgan, thanks so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here talking with you. Yes, my very first job, not just in education but in my life, was in early childhood. I worked as a volunteer in a childcare center when I was in high school, ended up working as a paid assistant teacher summers and after school, and then took a year off from college (after my freshman year at University of Chicago) and taught for seven months at a Head Start center in St. Louis, Missouri.

My goal, at that time, was in fact to go into early childhood [education], but when I got out of college, one thing led to another, and I found myself in K-12 education. I founded and ran a teacher residency program based in New York City that recruited and trained teachers for low-performing schools in New York. I did that for ten years, then realized that in order to have the bigger impact I wanted to have, I needed to get graduate degrees. So, I went back to graduate school and got an MBA, which was actually a wonderful degree for someone like me. I was interested in the not-for-profit sector and I was interested in government. My MBA was not only a wonderful experience, but also a very useful degree in terms of thinking about management issues in those other sectors. Then, I did my PhD in education policy at Columbia. After all that, I actually had been intending to go back into K-12. It was just one of those things.

At a dinner for recent PhD students, I happened to be sitting next to Rick Hess, who is head of education policy here at AEI. This was a little over four years ago. In the middle of dinner, he asked me if I was interested in pre-k. At that time, I had finished my dissertation and was talking with people in New York City trying to figure out what my next step was going to be, assuming it would be in K-12. As he asked me that question, all of a sudden, I realized that my original career goal had been to go into early childhood and that I had just forgotten for decades. So, I left that dinner and actually called my parents and said, “Wow! I hadn’t thought about working in a think tank. I hadn’t thought about living in D.C. I hadn’t intended to work in early childhood.” But the more I thought about it, the more exciting it all seemed. So, I came in the next day and talked to Rick and some others at AEI. They suggested that I apply for the position. So, I did, and moved to D.C. in September of 2014 to start in early childhood.

ML: So, when you and others talk about early childhood education, to what specifically are you referring?

KS: When I first got here, I was thinking of myself as the pre-k scholar. And, that was how my colleagues at first referred to me because I, like a lot of people, when thinking about early childhood education, was thinking pre-k. I naturally assumed that I was working in pre-k.

Several months into my time at AEI, an advocacy group called “Zero to Three” emailed me to ask if they could come talk to me about their work. Of course, I was happy to meet with them and hear about what they were doing, but I remember looking at my calendar and thinking, “Actually, what a waste of my time. Why are they wasting their time? I don’t do birth-three. I don’t do infants and toddlers. I’m focused on early childhood education, which is pre-k.”

Of course, there are a lot of questions about pre-k. Should it be entirely free for everybody? Should wealthier parents have to pay? Should it be in the public schools? Should it be in a range of settings? There are a lot of interesting questions, and that had been what I was mostly focused on. So, they came to meet with me and left some information about the crucial nature of that earliest period for children’s development. I was new to a lot of this, so I read what they left and started doing research. That led to the way I now understand early childhood education, which is what the brain science is telling us very clearly.

It’s telling us that education does not start at age five or age four. It starts at birth. The first couple of years of children’s lives are by far the most influential in shaping their future capacities than any other period. There’s also a growing body of research showing that, even in the prenatal period, the emotional and physical conditions of the mother have a long-term impact on kids. We think of early childhood as helping kids get ready for kindergarten, and what I’ve realized is that there is a lot that comes before then to get kids ready for pre-k.

ML: So, your definition of early childhood has really changed?

KS: Yes. That first, most crucial period of life, which is often referred to as “birth – five,” but really “birth – three” is the period we need to be focused on getting right most urgently.

ML: You released a report in June of 2017 entitled, “Workforce of Today, Workforce of Tomorrow.” In it you describe a workforce problem in America. Then you go on to propose a two-generation approach to solving this problem. What is America’s workforce problem, how does it relate to early childhood, and how can we solve the problem?

KS: There are a couple of different major developments in our society over the last several decades. The first is that, in 1940, fewer than 1 in 10 women with children under age 6 were working outside the home. Today, almost 7 in 10 are. For most of human history actually, our early childhood periods were in the home with full-time, usually maternal, care and often a lot of other family members around. That’s kind of the environment in which we’ve been hard-wired to develop. What’s happened today is that, in some cases, women want to work and, in a lot of cases, they have no choice. Women, as soon as their baby is born, have no choice but to be working, often full-time, just to support their family. About 2/3 of children under 6 are in childcare, which can be for as many as 40, 50, or even 60 hours a week of the most crucial period of their development. So, that’s the first thing.

The second thing is that the workplace has changed in another way as well, in that it requires a whole new set of skills so that employers can’t find enough workers of the sort that they need. So, employers need adults to be able to go back for training to gain the skills they need to be productive in the workplace. Families have to work to put food on the table. Employers need workers in order for our economy to thrive. And, you can see that the kids fall through the cracks.

In the case of low-income families, they have to be working in order to move themselves ahead. In many cases, they have to return to school or additional training to shore up their skills so they can support their families. Those parents, just like all other parents, want to know that their children’s development is being supported, that their children are thriving even though, for economic reasons, they are not able to be with their children for a lot of hours every day. We often call early learning opportunities for kids “childcare” and think of it as babysitting.

The problem with this is that the scientific research shows us very clearly that from the minute babies are born, they are learning constantly. They are forming in their brains about a million new brain cell connections every second. So, we can’t just tell them, “Oh we’re really sorry, but you have to be in childcare, which is basically just babysitting,” and press pause on their learning. They are learning all the time, whether it is in a good environment or a bad one. The question is not whether it is an educational environment for young children. The question is only whether it is of high or low quality. If we provide opportunities for children to be in high quality early learning environments while their parents are working, their parents can get the skills and income they need to move the family ahead while their child is developing to enter kindergarten ready to succeed.

ML: Have you seen some examples or types of these childhood programs that are simultaneously supporting both the children and the parents effectively?

KS: Yes. My favorite program was launched by the business community in Minnesota about twenty years ago. They were piloting what they called “Early Learning Scholarships.” So, they gave low-income families a scholarship to be able to place their child in high quality care that met the parents’ needs. That could have been in a Head Start center. It also could have been in a church preschool center. That program has been so successful in helping parents access the kind of high quality they need. The other thing the program has done is develop a rating system called “Parent Aware.” It rates the early childhood environments on a star level and provides information to parents to help them choose the places that are best for their kids (sort of like an Amazon star system). They’ve done a lot of promotion of the system so that parents know that it’s there and are using it.

Another place where some really exciting stuff is going on now is Mississippi. The governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, is very committed to ensuring that young children and their parents have the opportunity to move ahead together. They have actually integrated their state-level workforce development and early childhood systems in creating family centers that both help the child be in a high quality childcare environment and link the parents up with job training and job placement at the same time. Those two programs exist in all states, but Mississippi has taken a cutting-edge approach putting those two programs together. When you think of it, it actually makes perfect sense. So, those are two examples that I think are especially worth looking at.

ML: With those programs that you’re really excited about and others popping up, what are you most excited about for the future of early childhood education?

KS: What’s exciting is the feeling I have that our society is really getting to a place of understanding something we’ve forgotten for a while: how important babies and toddlers are and how important it is that we, as a society, take care of them as a priority above almost anything. I see that commitment shown in a lot of states in terms of their advocacy for pre-k programs, but what I’m also seeing is states starting to realize that sending children into school when they’re four instead of when they’re five is not going to be the game-changer for a lot of children that they, and frankly the future of the state, need. I think that the science is supporting that and helping people understand that pre-k is too little, too late for the most disadvantaged children and that to ensure a strong future for all our children, we need to be focusing starting when they’re born.

ML: Thank you Katharine. Now, let’s just close out with a “very difficult” question that I’m asking each scholar in our education series. If you could give your college self one piece of advice, what would it be?

KS: Can I do two?

ML: Two’s ok.

KS: Two’s ok! One: be more open to other points of view. That’s something that, when I was a college student and when I look back, I wish I had more actively sought out people that I didn’t agree with. I think that’s become only more important. As I’ve gone forward in my life, I have learned the very most from being exposed to people who see the world very differently than I do. That’s the first one.

The second one: I know that there is such a sense of pressure in this society – I think young people feel as if they have to plan just every single step and there’s no room for error. The fact is, a successful life happens when you follow your heart. When you find something you’re passionate about doing and you work really hard at it, everything else falls into place.

ML: Well, that’s encouraging for us college students to hear! Thanks again for joining me today. If you want to learn more about Katharine’s work, just visit her AEI scholar page. Thanks Katharine!

KS: Thank you Morgan.