Town Hall Meetings Are Hard – But Politicians Should Do Them

In my 13 years in the Legislature I probably hosted over a hundred town hall meetings all over the 48th district. Sometimes they were cavernously empty. Sometimes they were like what former Rep. Israel describes below – raucous. Sometimes this was organic, like the time my Republican seatmate Rodney Tom and I hosted a joint appearance during the recounts of the hotly contested 2004 gubernatorial election. Sometimes they were more like AstroTurf, with organized groups of constituents (or non-constituents) trying to turn the meeting into a rally for whatever point they were trying to make.

An angry constituent at a town hall meeting held by Steve Israel in 2009. Credit Pablo Corradi/Newsday

New York Times: My Night in Town Hall Hell By STEVE ISRAEL

I loved them either way. You got to hear what people cared about, and they got to see if you were listening. They also got to see if you had done any of the actual work of representing the district. Did you understand the issue? Had you thought about it enough to have an opinion about what ought to happen? Could you talk cogently about both sides of an issue and explain how you got to your position?

Town Hall meetings are a staple of American democracy for just that reason. You represent people. They have a right to tell you what they think, even, or perhaps especially if you don’t agree with them. Sometimes they just want to yell at you. I never felt physically threatened.

My favorite was one I didn’t even attend. I watched Congressman Brian Baird (on TVW) stand on a stage in front of hundreds of angry constituents who were upset about his vote on one of our interminable wars in the middle east or Afghanistan. He had a position, and the people in the crowd didn’t like it. He took questions for hours until the crowd ran out of talk. It was hard. I didn’t agree with him either, but I respected the hell out of him for standing up for what he thought was the right decision.

Doing staged events like the telephone town halls isn’t the same. We did those sometime. They reach more people. We would get thousands listening in. After the first one we did I remember thinking how easy the questions had been and saying something to the staff who were handling the calls. The person running it looked at me like I was out of touch and told me she had screened out the “frequent flyers” with crazy questions. It’s easy to do – there are more questions than there is time and nobody can tell you’re doing it. We tried to be more balanced in the questions we took in later ones, but I’d be astounded if politicians do that in general.

Town hall meetings are important. Talking to, and with your representatives at all levels of government about what you want is the only way you’re going to get anything close to it.

Mama Yaya meets Governor Inslee and Results Washington

Amelia Cruz, the owner and operator of Mama Yaya’s Child Care in Lacey was our guest at the Results Washington meeting yesterday. Results Washington is responsible for implementing Governor Inslee’s focus on lean management and continuous improvement. We review progress on key indicators of progress in outcomes. In this specific case we were looking at indicator 1.1b – “1.1.b  Increase number of early learning providers who achieve level 3 or above in Early Achievers (quality rating and improvement system) from December 2013 baseline of 253 programs to 1,471 programs by December 2018.”

This kind of meeting can be like watching paint dry, but it’s way more fun when we have providers like Amelia Cruz. She talked about how Early Achievers has improved her practice with the kids, and how she’s doing so much more than just feeding and making sure they’re safe now.

Mama Yaya Child Care is rated at level 3, which shows that she’s achieved our base level of quality. It’s a great recognition of the work she’s put in to help prepare a generation of kids to succeed in Kindergarten.

The actual indicator we’re measuring is the number of providers who have reached a level 3 or higher by 2018. The (graphically terrible) chart above shows our progress on this front – we are will on our way to meeting the goal. You can see the real version on the Results Washington website.

Tranparency Provides Clarity

Sorry for the worst headline ever. Click here for the video above.

This article in the Huffington Post from Allan Golston, President of US Programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation touches on an important topic – the power of the right information at the right time to help people make life-changing decisions. In this case he’s writing about education, from preschool to college. I’m involved in both ends of this spectrum right now and totally agree.

The program he writes about that we manage is “Early Achievers” the Department of Early Learning’s quality rating and improvement system. “Think of Early Achievers the same way hotels and restaurants are rated. Providers must be licensed and complete training to make it past level 2. Then they can move up to a 3, 4, or 5 rating based on several measures of quality—and they receive extra training and support to improve their rating. The goal is to boost the quality of Washington’s early learning providers, while also giving parents an easy-to-understand rating system to help them make informed choices about what’s best for their children.” Huffington Post 12/19/2016

He also writes about the need for information to help college students, particularly those from the “New majority” of first generation college-goers, students from low-income families, folks who work and go to school at the same time, etc. figure their way thru a complicated system that can sidetrack them and leave them with too much debt. I serve as a trustee for Bellevue College and we’re struggling with the same issue. We have to help provide the right information at the right time so that students can chart a path to a better economic future more easily.

Censorship for Preschoolers?

I got a letter last week from an organization opposed to censorship. They were concerned about some language in one part of our “Early Achievers” rating system for childcare quality that has led some providers to believe that we will deduct points from their score if they have the “wrong” books on their shelves. The standard in question says “books that glorify violence in any way or show frightening images are not considered to be appropriate.” The letter raised concerns that “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak would be one of the “wrong” books.

This standard is part of a national set of standards called the “Environmental Rating Scale” that is one of the two big parts of “Early Achievers,” Washington’s award-winning quality rating and improvement system. I’m not sure what the people at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (the authors of ERS) are thinking that language means, but it most certainly does not mean that any of Maurice Sendak’s books are broadly inappropriate for children. As with all literature, teachers should make sure that kids are ready for what they’re reading, but DEL is not in the business of censorship today, nor will it be in that business tomorrow. We can’t change the text in the ERS, but we are certainly not enforcing anything like this.

“Where the Wild Things Are” was my absolute favorite book as a child. My mother tells me that she thinks it was because I was something of wild thing myself, but that was a long time ago. I’ve included a link to the book at the King County Library so providers can check out a copy and read it to their kids. They have 132 copies, so it seems like it’s somewhat popular. 🙂

There may be confusion in the field about how to interpret the standard and the Department will make significant efforts to ensure that providers and teachers know that having only insipid books is mind-numbing for both children and adults. We’re thinking about a regular newsletter for providers with DEL staff favorite book picks. When I asked the Early Achievers staff about this they listed off their favorites, and there were certainly frightening images in most of them.

Home visiting in Chinese!

And Vietnamese…

Frank Ordway (DEL Assistant Director) and I met with a great group of home visitors last week at the Chinese Information and Service  Center (CISC) in Seattle. We are the tall guys at the back of the group. They run a program jointly funded by DEL and King County United Way called “Parent-Child Home Program” (PCHP.)

PCHP provides twice-weekly home visits for low-income families with kids 16 months to 3-years of age. They focus on early literacy skills, learning through play, and strengthening the parent-child relationship. At each visit they leave a book or a toy for the family to explore. The ladies in the photo are mostly graduates of the program, and all spoke enthusiastically about the impact it had on them – connecting them to other resources and helping them see what their kids needed to thrive.

Every single program you ever visit has enthusiastic workers. PCHP also has a ton of evidence that it works, based on years of randomized control trials with a variety of different populations.

The United Way of King County did the initial implementation of this, funding thousands of slots for families. As is the way of the world with expensive programs, charity can prove that the program works, that it can be implemented here, and that we get the same results as the national model. At some point (and that point is now) the program either has to become taxpayer-supported or it fades away. King County is picking up PCHP as part of the “Best Starts for Kids” levy, or at least I think that’s the plan right now.

PCHP in King County (and everywhere else for that matter) isn’t just visiting Chinese and Vietnamese families – we have programs working in many communities.

These visits are great. I find out all kinds of interesting things. It turns out to be expensive to get kids books in Asian languages. This may be a place DEL can help – buying in quantity should help all the groups doing similar work.

McCleary Resources

The League of Education Voters recently published a page of resources for understanding the McCleary decision and how it impacts school funding. It’s a reasonable collection of items.

In addition, I would recommend that you look at some of the posts I’ve done over the past few years on school funding and the Supreme Court. There are a number of candidates this year that are arguing that the court has overstepped its boundaries – getting “too big for it’s britches” might be a way of saying it in the vernacular. I totally disagree, and my argument is here.

Constitutional Crisis? Not so much.

My discussion of how the remaining part of the problem should be solved is on the front page of my website, or you can find it here.

McCleary Phase II

Great New Report on WA State Preschool Program

The Learning Policy Institute, run by Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, released a report yesterday that talks a lot about the quality of Washington’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), our state’s preschool program. The short summary:

  • The program is great.
  • It doesn’t serve enough kids, because being great is really, really expensive.

You never agree with everything in one of these reports, and I have some quibbles about parts of it. They are confused about what kids and parents need and draw a distinction between “childcare” and “preschool.” We offer ECEAP to 3 and 4 year old children. It’s a program that happens during the daytime. Mostly it’s a half-day program, which is very difficult for single parents to manage. (Half-day programs are crazy-making if you are employed or in school.)

Many (perhaps most) working parents need childcare that extends significantly beyond the hours offered by preschool programs. Some parents need care in evenings or on weekends. Almost all will need care in the summer when many preschool programs aren’t running. (More on summer learning loss in another post coming soon.) We spend hundreds of millions a year providing childcare subsidies to parents as a result of the welfare reform changes that happened in the mid-90s in the Clinton administration. We will need to do this regardless of our investment in preschool.

Washington thinks that improving the quality of this care is really important, and we’re investing in that as a state. The report is somewhat dismissive of childcare investments, and this won’t be adequate if we’re trying to improve Kindergarten readiness in any broad way.

There have been a number of news pieces covering this release:

NPR: What Good Preschool Looks Like: Snapshots From 4 States

Seattle Times: Washington’s preschool program praised as one of the best in national report

Education Week:  Here’s What High Quality Preschool Looks Like in Real Life New Learning Policy Institute Report Highlights Key Strategies for Achieving High-Quality Preschool (this is a weird source, but that’s the Internet for you.)

How to talk to your kids about the Orlando shooting

Time Magazine had a nice article today about how you might talk to your kids about the Orlando shooting. They suggest different messages for different age kids. The preschool one is pretty simple:

For pre-school kids: This is the only age which experts recommend trying to avoid the subject a little. Children younger than five tend to confuse facts with fears, says Harold Koplewicz of the Child Mind Institute, so limiting access to news and watching what you say is advisable. Answer questions, but carefully. “Remember, you don’t have to give them more details than they ask for.”

I’m personally struggling about how we as a society can have millions of weapons like this in the hands of people who are clearly unhinged. What are we thinking? almost a decade ago I sponsored a bill that allowed judges to take guns away from people who have been committed to mental institutions because they are a danger to themselves and all of the rest of us. This seems like a straightforward thing, but was surprisingly contentious. It turns out to have been one of the few gun safety bills passed in multiple decades. There is something wrong with us as a society that we cannot make balancing decisions about issues like this.

Home Visiting

The New York Times has a great article in the Magazine today by Paul Tough, the author of “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.” In it he talks about “Home Visiting,” one of the key strategies my agency and many others (including the United Way of King County) are employing to help get kids who start life pretty far from opportunity get on a better trajectory. These are pretty intensive programs that have to be done in very careful ways to work, but that are totally worth doing.

This job has got me focused on the pernicious effects of poverty much more than I thought it would. There are for sure painful management issues to deal with, there are the details of ensuring that kids are safe in thousands of child care facilities across the state and the need to focus on managing details of a budget that is almost 3/4 of a billion dollars a year, but the opportunity to make a difference in the trajectory of the life of a kid who would otherwise have been in deep trouble is pretty compelling.


At DEL we’re all about those results boss

We (the Department of Early Learning) published an outcomes report on the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (or ECEAP) last week. ECEAP is, despite its horribleness as an acronym, Washington’s pretty well-regarded preschool program. The Seattle Times analysis in the Education Lab part of the paper was pretty good. My favorite quote:

The percentage of children ready for kindergarten after attending Washington’s subsidized preschool program exceeded the state average.” – Seattle Times Education Lab

This is what you want to read in a story about the comprehensive preschool you run. Even better would be “low-income children who attend Washington’s subsidized preschool program are all ready for kindergarten!” We’re pretty close, but have some remaining work to do, and some significant work in some areas.

To be eligible for ECEAP a family has to have an income less than 110% of the federal poverty level (FPL,) be on a school district IEP , have risk-factors related to school success or be involved in the child welfare system. For a family with one parent and two kids, that’s a little more than $22,000 per year. Only about 12% of Washington’s total population is below the poverty line (we are 16th best in the country.) Kids are more likely than all adults to be in poor families though, and 17% of Washington’s kids are below FPL, again the 16th best in the country.

We only serve about a third of the kids that are eligible due to their family’s income, mostly because we don’t have enough slots to do so. The Legislature passed a law about 5 years ago saying that these children are “entitled” to an ECEAP slot by 2020 and started to phase in enough capacity to serve all these kids. In the 2014-15 school year we added 1350 slots. This seems like a lot, but we need to add somewhere between 1,800 and 3,000 slots a year for the next four years (depends on your assumptions about how many kids will sign up) to make the goal.

At DEL we’re all about those results boss, and the results are pretty good:
  • After one year of ECEAP a higher percentage of low-income kids meet the kindergarten readiness expectations than do a sample of all kids, including high income kids. This is remarkable, though we have room to go to meet my goal of 90% all kids completely ready for kindergarten.
  • After two years of ECEAP, almost all of our kids are ready for kindergarten except in math, and we get almost 80% to that bar.

There are some clear policy implications, but also some significant caveats you should have reading these results.

  • First, the kids going to ECEAP are not a perfect sample of low-income kids. This means that you can’t just assume you’ll get the same results if you expand the program to cover more kids. Like all programs that are hard to get in to (there are not enough slots and we usually have waiting lists) the kids with more effective parents are more likely to be in the program. These kids are also more likely to do well in preschool.
  • Second, and something I’m pretty concerned about, our current ECEAP attendees are twice as likely to come from a two-parent family than a typical low-income kid is.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but mostly we think it’s because most of ECEAP classrooms are half-day programs. If you’re a single parent trying to work a half-day program is crazy-making and you don’t even consider it. It’s wicked hard to organize a transition from one program to another at lunchtime if you are working in the service industry, or anywhere else where you don’t control your schedule.

Another pretty significant caveat is that the readiness scores of ECEAP kids are measured in the spring by their classroom teacher. Most kids have some regression during the summer if they are not in some kind of organized program, and only 567 of our 10,000 slots run through the summer. We have some analysis work to do to understand this effect.

Caveats aside, these are great results. They lead us to some obvious conclusions.

  1. We need to focus more on math. This is true in ECEAP as well as across the board for all kids. We have some fun ideas and you’ll hear more about these from us as the next couple of months unfold.
  2. Two years of preschool is better than one, and is probably necessary to get many of the kids we’re concerned about on a trajectory that will work for them.
  3. We’ll need to be mostly full-day and extended day if we want to be functional for a typical low-income family with working parents.

You’ll see more analysis of the assessment done on all entering kindergartners that will show comparable data, including the summer fade-out.