Building a System for Educating the Very Young | Teachers College Columbia University

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Building a System for Educating the Very Young

During the past 30 years, no one has done more than Sharon Lynn Kagan to champion the first five years of life as a critically important window for learning essential skills, habits and information.
During the past 30 years, no one has done more than Sharon Lynn Kagan to champion the first five years of life as a critically important window for learning essential skills, habits and information.

Sponsored by UNICEF, Kagan —TC’s Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood and Family Policy, and co-director of its National Center for Children and Families—has traveled the world from Brazil to Tajikistan, helping more than 40 of the world’s poorest countries write, implement and monitor standards for early childhood development and learning.

In the United States, despite a decentralized education system and often polarized political landscape, Kagan has been building a powerful case for creating an early childhood education and care system that uses multiple federal, state and local funding streams as efficiently as possible and is aligned with kindergarten and elementary school programs.  She has advised legislators, governors and Presidents, and her fingerprints are on virtually every major report or panel on the subject in recent memory -- including the NCEE’s landmark 2009 report “Tough Choices or Tough Times ,“ which, at  her urging, called for the reallocation of some $60 billion per year toward pre-K schooling.  A former Head Start director and elementary school principal,  She co-chaired President George W. Bush’s National Education Goals Panel on Goal One (readiness to learn), which directly informed mandatory state standards on early childhood education, and led the Quality 2000 Initiative, through which the Carnegie Corporation of New York convened an international task force of 350 to blueprint an early childhood care and education system for the nation.  
Kagan has been widely honored for her work, becoming the only woman ever to capture the trifecta of top honors in American education: the Distinguished Service Award from the Council of Chief State School Officers, the 2005 James Bryant Conant Award for Lifetime Service to Education from the Education Commission of the States and the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education. But far from resting on her laurels, she has sought, through her teaching, to develop a savvier, more empowered corps of policymakers and researchers.  At TC, she developed and now leads the Federal Education Policy Institute,  an intensive five-day boot camp developed and run held annually during winter break to provide students with a series of lectures, panel discussions and briefings by an A-list of Washington players. There are also visits with Congressional staffers and the U.S. Department of Education.

“The Institute put it together for me,” says Dorothy Caldone, a master’s student in International Education Development and Policy. “It’s like the difference between reading about photosynthesis and doing it in a lab.”

Kagan’s students go on to do some pretty impressive stuff – including working with their mentor. In  Transitions for Young Children: Creating Connections Across Early Childhood Systems (Brookes, 2010), Kagan and her doctoral student Kate Tarrant advocated for a new, three-pronged approach to align educational goals and create continuous and quality experiences for young children.  Together with Kagan, Tarrant and another former student, Kristie Kauerz (then a pre-K advisor to Colorado’s lieutenant governor ), co-authored The Early Care and Education Teaching Workforce at the Fulcrum: An Agenda for Reform (Teachers College Press, 2008), which calls for increased compensation and benefits for early childhood teachers, as well as improved preparation and credentialing.  

 "I came to TC as a Head Start director and elementary school principal, wanting to improve my practice, and I walked out as an academic researcher and policymaker," Kagan says. "So each day, when I look at our students, I think,  ‘Here sits tomorrow's researcher, tomorrow's policy analyst, tomorrow's Congressperson or tomorrow's governor.  Who knows?’"

Published Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011