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They're All Her Children

Lynn Kagan is helping the world's poorest countries set standards for early childhood learning
The Green Revolution had Norman Borlaug. Clean drinking water had Abel Wolman. Polio vaccination had Albert Sabin. And some day, when historians look back at how developing nations in the early 21st century created systems for educating their very young children, the name that will likely join those ranks is that of Sharon Lynn Kagan.
For nearly a decade, Kagan—TC’s Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood and Family Policy, and co-director of the National Center for Children and Families—has traveled the world from Brazil to Tajikistan as the lead exponent of a UNICEF-sponsored program, helping more than 40 of the world’s poorest countries write, implement and monitor standards for early childhood development and learning. Together with her Yale University colleague and former TC student Pia Rebello Britto, she is helping these nations “specify what young children should know and be able to do,” from birth to age nine, and “articulate expectations for children’s growth, development and well-being.”
Kagan’s experiences are as varied as the countries she visits, but in two respects, she always follows the same basic script. First, she and Britto meet with children on their own turf—preschools, playgrounds, parks or even at home—to ground her work in the everyday activities and needs of her ultimate clients. And, second, they meet with the highest-level government and United Nations officials, as well as educators, social workers, teachers, child and health care workers and parents, because only buy-in from these stakeholders ensures that the pair’s efforts will translate into official policies resulting in sustainable, systemic change.
“The standards do not walk alone,” said Kagan, who goes by “Lynn,” one afternoon this past summer between trips to South America and Australia. Her third-floor office in Grace Dodge Hall was sunny and cheerful, crammed with flags, artifacts and gifts from children around the world. “If you believe in the value of setting common, countrywide expectations for children, and you do so using both a values-driven and research-based approach, you really provide the platform for everything else that goes on for early childhood in those countries.”
“Everything else,” in Kagan’s model—developed over 30 years of working with children and the policy issues that affect their lives—is a broader, fully integrated system that encompasses curriculum, teacher preparation and certification, parenting education and national monitoring. In her ideal scenario, standards form the base for a nation’s holistic approach to serving young children and their families.
Kagan is a research scholar who focuses on the application of that research to policy. Her expertise lies in knowing the data cold and in understanding policy—its levers, players and pathways. A former Head Start teacher and elementary school principal who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at TC, Kagan co-chaired the National Education Goals Panel (convened by the first President Bush in 1989) on Goal One, which focused on young children’s readiness to learn upon arriving in the school system—the research she now draws on in her UNICEF role. She is a frequent consultant to the White House, Congress, the National Governor’s Association, and the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, and has headed a score of major organizations, including the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Most recently, Kagan chaired the National Task Force on Early Childhood Accountability, contributed to a report by the National Center on Education that argued for reallocation of some $60 billion a year toward pre-K schooling, and helped produce “Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity,” a report released by the National Research Council this past July.
In short, Kagan is uniquely experienced and skilled in making policy happen, and that makes her ideal for the UNICEF assignment, even though she speaks only English fluently. She has worked in countless countries, and Britto, who grew up in New Delhi, India, brings to their partnership a deep understanding of the role of culture in moving policy. After all, something so profoundly embedded in the fabric of a society as the development of children can’t simply be legislated from the outside. It has to be culled from within and made local—or “values-driven”—and that’s what Kagan has done her entire career.
Both Kagan and Britto emphasize that UNICEF played a critical role in conceiving, developing and expanding the program. It was UNICEF, they say, which, because of its deep and broad history in the developing world, was able to reach into the countries and make sure that local governments in each case were in control. “This project could not have found a better partner than UNICEF,” Britto says. “As a UN agency interested in children, there is none better. We would not be in 40 countries if they were not in those countries.”
Abhiyan Rana, who joined UNICEF at its New York headquarters in 2009 as education specialist for early learning globally, said Kagan’s and Britto’s work is “unique in that it doesn’t give a global standard for all governments. We ask the countries to develop their own standards.” But as unique as Kagan and Britto are, they have taken on a less direct role as they have added programs in Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and South America. “We started moving toward developing resource groups in regions, and, with Lynn and Pia’s assistance, the training of trainers,” Rana said. Kagan and Britto have also developed an interactive resource package which countries could use on their own.
In sum, Kagan’s role with UNICEF has been that of a consultant. Her stated aim is to present client nations with a body of information that each can then adapt to its specific cultural, geographic and sociological contexts. Mongolia, wedged for many years between the giant powers China and the former Soviet Union, prizes its national identity, and that is reflected in the early learning standards Kagan helped develop there. Jordan’s plan emphasizes spirituality, a highly valued dimension in that country; Ghana’s, creativity and initiative-taking.
“I developed some option templates for the different ways countries could go, and if they invest in ‘x’, I show what the likely gains are going to be, as opposed to if they invest in ‘y’,” Kagan says. “That work puts me in touch at the ministry level, usually with ministers and deputy ministers, which is very focused with direct implications for practice. But I also often end up testifying before legislatures in a number of different countries, and often they are far more at a policy level and a big-think level. And obviously I try to link the two.”
Still, the core of the information Kagan and Britto bring to each country reflects the research of about 400 early childhood experts. They believe children need to hit certain benchmarks along five domains—physical and motor, social and emotional, language, cognitive skills, and processing—before they are ready to go to school. “Are they task-persistent, resilient, [do they] manifest creativity, curiosity, engage well?” Kagan says. “I would say that there’s a 75 percent overlap in the standards that all the countries create, and that’s the fundamental scientific stuff. The rest is unique to each country.”
The UNICEF project grew from a pilot project in six countries—Jordan, the Philippines, South Africa, Ghana, Paraguay and Brazil—to more than 40 by the time the project’s first phase, run by UNICEF’s central office, ended in 2007. Now Kagan and Britto are working with regional UNICEF offices and individual countries. They prepare for each visit by doing extensive research, not only about a country’s children but also about its geography, economy, history and culture. Kagan typically arrives a day early to get the feel of the place. Through their meetings with government ministers, teachers and children, the two also work with practitioners to identify a country’s most important values. In Ghana, for example, participants in the working group “ felt there was a tremendous amount of creativity that was latent,” Kagan recalls. “So their goals highlighted artistry and creativity.”
Kagan and Britto help country officials translate such values into domains of development (motor, social and emotional, language and cognitive), with each domain and value weighted for different emphasis. For each domain, a set of related standards is developed by those who work or study young children.
After countrywide standards are agreed upon, they are validated by teams of researchers and educators. Finally, the teams, with assistance from Kagan and Britto, agree on methods to monitor performance. In countries that have moved the farthest through all the phases, the standards are knit into a set of countrywide policies covering all aspects of early childhood development, including childcare, education, health care, nutrition and parenting.
All of this takes time, and the ultimate outcome is by no means assured. “We have to recognize that at the end of the day, this isn’t a process we can control,” Kagan says. Still, she and Britto often play a critical role in steering a project to a successful conclusion. Such was the case in the Philippines, which in 2002 passed legislation promulgating a comprehensive policy and a national system for early childhood care and development (ECCD). One of the components of the system is the ECCD Curriculum. The country’s leaders had been struggling for a year to agree on the standards that will guide the development of curriculum when UNICEF offered technical assistance to help them finish.
Lynn and Pia guided us in the scientific process, refining and validating the standards,” says Fe Nogra Abog, a Philippines Team Leader. With Kagan and Britto, Abog says, the Philippines developed a set of preschool curriculum standards for 0 to 5-year-olds that can stand up to any “scientific inquiry and criticism.” Abog said she and Kagan “are both especially pleased that the standards have been adapted for use in the largely Muslim-populated, southern regions of the country, where parents are wary of sending their children to school for fear of losing their cultural and religious identity.
“It is an early childhood curriculum that is responsive to Islamic cultures,” Abog says. “Lynn and Pia provided us with a roadmap,” in essence removing politics from the negotiations by serving as a neutral but expert presence with impeccable scientific credentials.
In Ghana, a West African nation that, despite decent economic growth over the past decade, still has significant poverty, Kagan and Britto were successful in bringing together the country’s health and economic bureaucracies to create, from scratch, a set of standards for the education and development of children from birth through eighth grade. Thanks to their efforts, “the process involved individuals who would otherwise not have felt the need to be associated with early childhood development,” says Madeez Adamu-Issah, Ghana Team Leader.
Elsewhere, Kagan and Britto have allayed local fears that standards might be used to negatively label
certain children.
“Both Pia and Lynn went to a lot of effort to explain that the approach really was to support families, educators and parents, and to enable their children to come up to their highest level of development,” says Deepa Grover, UNICEF’s regional adviser for early childhood development for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, recalling a meeting in Istanbul in 2002 that launched the standards project in the pilot countries.
So—obvious question—what about the United States, Kagan’s home country and the source of much of the research informing the standards work Kagan does in other nations? Will we ever have the kind of comprehensive, integrated early childhood education system Kagan is helping to create elsewhere?
The short answer is, Don’t hold your breath. As Kagan explains, putting standards in place can be easier in a place like Ghana, where there were only limited early childhood policies, than in countries like the United States, where so many complex and at times conflicting rules and policies already are on the books. And democracy, for all its benefits, can make the process even harder—particularly in the United States, where schools and school policies for young children are controlled by multiple statewide and local bureaucracies, and where standards for the very young are often vilified as threatening the dearly held American value of “the primacy of the family.”
As Kagan herself has written in books such as The Early Care and Education Teaching Workforce at the Fulcrum: An Agenda for Reform, while most states have early childhood standards, the standards typically aren’t consistent or aligned with teacher training, curricula or K-12 education. Except for Head Start, which doesn’t serve nearly the number of children who qualify for it by income, preschools for poor children are poorly funded and badly monitored, and often fail to adequately prepare children for kindergarten.
“In our country, teachers are developing standards, but we have people in Princeton who are developing assessments, and indeed often they don’t align at all,” Kagan says. There are no national standards for training and monitoring pre-K teachers, and no standards for teacher compensation, which in almost every situation is much too low.
The American tradition of local control of education may ultimately preclude the development of national early childhood learning standards. But Kagan believes the United States can still do much more to prepare young children for school and productive lives. She has seen developing countries with far fewer resources successfully take up the challenge.
“International work for me is both a lens through which to contribute to the international dialogue on early childhood policy and also put what’s going on domestically in context,” she says. “It’s difficult for me to divide the international from the domestic, because what I learn in one place fuels what I do in another.”

Published Friday, Dec. 4, 2009