Black History Month

February is Black History Month. As a late-stage boomer, I got almost none of this history in school, despite growing up in a majority Black city (Philadelphia) and a big academic focus on American History in my youth. I’ve tried to make up for this appalling lack of knowledge in the past few years by reading some excellent writing, and I’d like to pass some of these recommendations on to all of you. I did not read these all in one month or even a single year. All are incredibly valuable.

It’s our responsibility as human beings in the world to help heal the world. For us at DCYF, it’s a core part of our agency mission. Race has been used to divide us in America for hundreds of years. Understanding what happened is why we read history, and good history gets deep into the underlying causes of what happened. These are great history books.

Part of our expectations for all employees is that they do some personal work that makes sense to them to understand racial equity and social justice in America. Reading any of these would be a good start. I like paper books (late-stage boomer, remember), but there are videos and podcasts to learn from as well.

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee is the current RESJ book club book. It’s awesome. The author’s main thesis is that white communities have historically blocked investments that would benefit their own community members rather than share the resource. A particular example in the book reminded me of something from my childhood, and I had an amazing conversation with my mother about the O’Connor Pool, about two blocks from my house in Philadelphia. The pool was located inside an Irish community and close to the border of a Black community and a more mixed gentrifying center city neighborhood where we lived. The locals would throw broken glass into the pool if any members of the Black community (kids I went to school with, for example) showed up to swim. The pool had to be closed to everyone to clean the bottom. This wasn’t the deep South, it was South Philadelphia in the 1960s. Makes McGhee’s point.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is the epic story of America’s great migration when six million African Americans moved from the rural South to the North for both opportunity and to try to escape persecution. This book won a Pulitzer prize for the author, and she deserved it. An amazing book that weaves together the experience of actual people with historical statistics and, you know, history. I loved it. It made me understand why some things were the way they were in Philly during my childhood. The story is good too. It was a book I read in only a few sittings, even though it is quite thick. I got sucked in by the power of both the story and the language.

Some of the images of incredible degradation in Florida stick with me today, several years after I first read the book. Black people in the South faced daily humiliation, plus incredible danger from lynching and other extreme violence from angry white mobs. The George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery murders are the modern manifestation of lynching – extrajudicial killings without due process. The NAACP estimates that almost 4,800 people were lynched from 1882 to 1968.

Caste, Isabel Wilkerson’s second book, is a more detailed look at how race in America is much like a caste system, with strict hierarchical levels and the dysfunction associated with it. As with all good writing, there are stories about real people, but this book is a more challenging read, and is more structural and analytical than The Warmth of Other Suns. I found it more important to my thinking, and less like a walk through history I hadn’t known.

This book made me think. It has given me a framework to organize my thinking about why the powerful culture does what it does. It’s worth the work to read. Her use of language is exquisite, and that alone is enough pleasure to recommend the book for.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

DCYF is responsible for a small part of the youth incarceration system in Washington, and understanding how law enforcement works and why it is set up the way it is seemed like an important exercise to me when I took the job as DCYF Secretary. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is the hardest book to read on this short list. Hard to read, but it’s amazing. The core argument is that white populations in America created a series of alternatives to slavery once that was eliminated in the Civil War. Formalizing Jim Crow laws was one step, and using law enforcement to put a “felon” tag on Black people allowed the same kind of control of the body and economic exploitation that slavery had. Formal Jim Crow was replaced with the “war on drugs” and other criminalization of Black people to deny economic growth and particularly to deny political power over white people. Think about “legal financial obligations” as another – one reason we are working to eliminate the parent pay statute in JR this year. Labeling someone (vastly disproportionately Black men) as a felon allows the same discrimination that the civil rights experience in the 60s made illegal to do when based explicitly on race. Alexander makes the case.

She pummels you with relentless data and stories that are painful to read. It is impossible to argue against her with a straight face, though many people try. When you are done, you have a renewed commitment to our work preparing the young people we care for to succeed in the world, and more importantly, preventing many of the traumas that our young people suffer from. Alexander’s argument is that that’s not enough, and we have to change the world at an even deeper level. I agree with her. You will too, after you read this.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me is a short book written as a letter to his son. It’s a book I didn’t have to write to my son because he doesn’t have to experience the world the way young Black men do. I never had to have “the talk” with him about interacting with the police. You can’t read this one quickly; you have to savor the language. You have to think about what he is saying and how it would impact his child (and yours.) This is a deeply intellectual and very, very strong piece written by an expert. I remember being excited to get the book after reading many of his articles in The Atlantic Monthly. I wasn’t disappointed. Coates is also the author of many of the Black Panther comic books published by Marvel Comics. I admit that these are a guilty pleasure, as I’m sure it was for him to write them. Maybe in my next life I can be a writer as powerful as Coates and get to write comic books.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

To read more about the unjust incarceration of Black men, you can read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Or, you can watch the movie, which is also terrific. I listened to it as a book on tape (actually, a book on phone, but that’s the modern world…) read by the author while I commuted to and from Olympia. It’s the story of how good lawyers can create justice in the world. It’s uplifting. The space for creating justice is large, as you will have learned from some of the earlier books on this list, with many, many Black men sitting unjustly on death row. The work Stevenson does is one of the core reasons many states have repealed their death sentence laws in recent years. My conviction against the death penalty is a little deeper than the argument here. As a lifelong Quaker, I have the simple belief that there is that of God in every person and that it is not for us to take the life of one of them. The unjustness of the criminal justice system is another reason, if you need one.

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

March, by the civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis is a set of three graphic novels exploring the civil rights era with a power that words alone can’t convey. A picture is worth a thousand words, and there are three books worth of them here. You could get a middle school kid interested in the civil rights era with this collection, it’s so powerful. If you know any middle school kids, you understand how powerful these must be. I was driving home from Olympia one day and heard on the radio that Rep. Lewis was speaking at the Bellevue Library, of all places. I screeched off the road and worked my way into a packed room where he was doing the book tour for these books. The ability to shake his hand and get an autographed set of these is an experience I will treasure my whole life.

You don’t understand the Edmund Pettis Bridge until you’ve experienced it in graphic form. It makes your heart hurt.

Any of these books are great. You’d enjoy reading any or all of them. More importantly, you will be a person who thinks more deeply about the world and your place in it.

Ross Hunter | Secretary
Department of Children, Youth, and Families

Office 360-407-7909 | Cell 360-515-8972
Pronouns: he/him/his

Great Seattle Times Article on Racial Disproportionality in Education

The Seattle Times has a great article in today’s paper on racial disproportionality in outcomes for kids in the Seattle School District. The article talks about efforts to change things and makes a point that well-meaning approaches if not carried out with rigor and consistency over time don’t have much impact. The data series in the article starts at 3rd grade. I totally agree that the district needs to have a substantial strategy focused on improving outcomes for children who start out behind. The Times should keep digging into the effectiveness of what the district does, and also into the effectiveness of all the districts in the area, all of whom have the same problem, albeit to greater or lesser degrees.

What the entire article misses is the most effective long-term way to approach the problem. The white kids in Seattle are much more likely to be more economically advantaged than children of color, and are consequently much more likely to have access to high quality preschool.  The chart to the left shows the scores in the Seattle School District on an assessment Washington State does for every entering Kindergartner broken down by race and ethnicity. These kids are 5 years old and you can see significant differences in their development.

You can play around with the data and look up your own district by clicking on the chart, or clicking here, which takes you to an OSPI website with the full data set for all the kids in the state. There are some weirdnesses with the data based on the rollout schedule of all-day kindergarten which tilts the data to underreport higher income kids. This will work itself out in the next few years.

Only about 28% of kids below 110% of the federal poverty level (about 20% of the three and four-year-olds in the state) will meet all six metrics on the WAKIDS assessment. If they have two years of ECEAP, Washington’s high-quality state-run preschool program, about 67% will meet that same metric. I’m using slightly different measures than the chart above from OSPI so the numbers are not directly comparable. This is because I’m writing this on a Sunday and don’t have access to all the data in the office to make them line up, but they’re similar.

In the chart to the right you still see racial disparities (that we are working on eliminating) but you can see that “Black 4-year-olds” do better than “All 4-year-olds.” This is black 4-year-olds who are below 110% of the federal poverty level and had ECEAP, compared to all income 4-year-olds who might or might not have had preschool. This is the power of high quality preschool. You can see the entire 2016-17 outcome report for ECEAP here.

What if low-income kids could have the same access to high-quality preschool that their higher-income friends do? Seattle is embarked on a journey to find out and I think it will make a tremendous difference. This is not a cheap strategy – but spending the money early can result in long-term savings in special education and other costs to the system presented by kids who are not ready. The anecdotal stories we hear from kindergarten teachers who all of a sudden get a wave of kids who are all ready to succeed are both uplifting and helpful. They say that they can teach to the entire class, without having some kids two or more years behind other kids. Everyone does better.

You can get buried in this data and lose perspective easily. If all you do is look at costs to the system you can forget the moral imperative we have to ensure that all kids have access to what they need educationally to be successful in the world. Fortunately the data wonks and the moral imperative people come to the same outcome – we should invest in more high-quality preschool for kids that need it.

Seattle (and all the other school districts in the state) should absolutely focus on what they can do to ensure that outcomes for kids are not pre-determined by the race and family income of kids entering the system. I particularly agree with the no-expulsion policy.


Children’s Alliance Hiring Early Learning Policy Staff

I just got the following mail from Jon Gould, the Deputy Director at the Children’s Alliance about positions there.

Children’s Alliance is hiring an Early Learning Policy Director and a Pre-K Policy Associate. Our early learning policy advocacy focuses on expanding access to high-quality, affordable, culturally responsive early learning and care for Washington’s youngest kids, as a key strategy to close the opportunity gap facing children in low-income families and children of color.

  • The Early Learning Policy Director leads the organization’s public policy advocacy related to early learning. The position reports to the Deputy Director.
  • The Pre-K Policy Associate will focus on growing and improving the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance program. This is a new position.

Both positions are full time at 37.5 hours a week.

Check out our jobs page for more information on both positions and how to apply. 

Hard to imagine…

In the Chronicle of Social Change Jerry Milner, Donald Trump’s appointment to the federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees federal child welfare funding and policy, speaks about his priorities in running the agency and improving outcomes for kids. The hard to imagine part is that I agree with almost all of his proposals, at least as they are described in this article..

He starts with an observation about how child welfare systems work today and how we have to get ahead of the game.

Right now, we typically respond only after families have lost much of their protective capacity and children have been harmed. We need to strive to create environments where they get the support they need before the harm occurs, which, in my mind, calls for a re-conceptualization of the mission and functioning of child welfare systems. Tweaking what we already have in place won’t solve the problems.

I totally agree, and the design of the new agency I head (The Department of Children, Youth, and Families) is structured around the same idea – that we should focus on preventing children and families from experiencing the kind of trauma that leads child welfare agencies to need to remove children for their own safety.

It’s worth reading the short interview. In his former life he ran Alabama’s foster care system and did interesting work in President Bush’s Children’s Bureau.

His level of oversight is narrower than I envision our agency embarking on – we are also responsible for the early learning system in Washington. This lets us invest in some of the key experiences in a young child’s life that build resilience and the ability to deal with some trauma, and in many cases actually reduces the trauma a family may experience by providing supports.

I’m also interested in his take on efforts at the federal level to re-structure the funding stream used for most child welfare work so that it more stable. Currently if we’re successful in reducing the number of children in foster care (say, by spending money on programs that provide support for them…) our level of funding goes down. This is super complicated to address, but something that needs to happen. I look forward to working with our federal delegation on this effort, and it’s good to know we have support from the administration.

Flexible funding, thoughtfully applied, will allow us to be a proactive rather than reactive system, which is key to preventing maltreatment, and key to strengthening families.

A new department to better serve children, youth, and families

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill Thursday to restructure how the state serves at-risk children and youth by creating the Department of Children, Youth and Families. The governor also appointed Ross Hunter, director of the state’s Department of Early Learning, to lead DCYF.

The new agency, after a yearlong transition period that begins this month, will oversee several services now offered through the state Department of Social and Health Services and the Department of Early Learning. These include all programs from the Children’s Administration in DSHS such as Child Protective Services, the Family Assessment Response program and adoption support, as well as all DEL services, including the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program for preschoolers and Working Connections Child Care.

Starting in July 2019, the new department also will administer programs offered by the Juvenile Rehabilitation office and the Office of Juvenile Justice in DSHS. Those programs include juvenile rehabilitation institutions, community facilities and parole services.

The creation of the new department follows the suggestions of the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on the Delivery of Services to Children and Families convened by the governor in February 2016 to recommend a state system that focuses more clearly on preventing harm to children and youth.

Washington’s Legislature expressed interest in restructuring during the 2016 legislative session, prompting the governor to issue the executive order creating the blue ribbon commission, of which Hunter was a member.

Read the rest of the story on the governor’s Medium page.

Dosage Matters for Washington’s Preschool Kids!

Our goal as an agency is to get 90% of Washington’s children to be “ready for kindergarten,”  and to have race and family income not be predictors of readiness.

About 20% of Washington’s children are in families at or below 110% of the federal poverty level (FPL,) or about $24,000 for a family of four.  These young people face many challenges in life and are a key part of any rational economic strategy for the state, as well as being part of the paramount duty enshrined in Washington’s constitution. The large gap seen in our kindergarten entry assessment between kids below 110% and their more advantaged peers persists through their entire experience in the K12 system, and the rest of their lives.

We’re looking at a number of ways to help these kids get ready for kindergarten. The most effective in national data and in Washington is high-quality preschool. Without that investment, we estimate that about 28% of this group will arrive in kindergarten meeting our benchmark for kindergarten readiness. 28% isn’t 90%.

Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Say – ice cream. When it comes to high-quality preschool experiences – not so much. Dosage matters. There are three major components of “dosage,” the amount of preschool a kid gets.  Length of day, number of years, and length of year.

ECEAP today is mostly a half-day program – about 2 ½ to 3 hours. Most national research suggests that a full-day program is much more successful in getting kids ready for kindergarten.[1] There are other reasons full-day makes a lot of sense, which I’ll cover later.

We also have strong data supporting high quality preschool for both three and four year olds.

  • After one year of ECEAP, about 55% are ready when we measure in June. When we measure in the fall the number falls to about 35%. We attribute this falloff to both to summer learning loss, a problem well explored in the literature[2]and some testing differences between ECEAP and
  • A small fraction of kids start when they are three, getting two years of ECEAP. 69% of those kids are ready for kindergarten. 69% is a lot closer to 90% than 55% is.

Only a very small fraction of kids in ECEAP have summer programming, and it’s too new for us to have enough data to evaluate the effect. We’re super-interested in figuring out how to prevent the large drop of scores over the summer, and this year’s budget includes funds for a reasonable experiment to measure the effect of providing the service all summer. This would inform future investment decisions.

One of my particular concerns about ECEAP is that we’re not getting to the kids at the highest risk. Over 60% of the families below 110% of the federal poverty level (FPL) are headed by single parents, but only 42% of ECEAP families are. There are lots of potential reasons for this, but the most likely is that a half-day program is crazymaking for single parents. What are you going to do in the middle of the day – tell your boss you need time off to switch your kid from one place to the other?

We don’t have another intervention that works this well for getting kids ready for kindergarten, and if we’re serious about ensuring that kids from low income families have the same chance to succeed in school as their friends that are born closer to opportunity then we have to design the preschool experience so that it actually works for Washington families. Governor Inslee’s ECEAP budget proposal in front of the Legislature right now:

  • Continues to expand ECEAP, but with almost all full and extended-day slots. Washington law says that all kids below 110% FPL will be entitled to a slot in the fall of 2020, and Governor Inslee’s budget calls for a significant expansion in the next two years so that we’re not scrambling to try to do it all at once in the next budget cycle.
  • Funds a substantive experiment in summer programming so we can determine which particular model works best to reach our kindergarten readiness goals.
  • Continues eligibility for both three and four year old children, because without this we are unlikely to make our 90% goal and will be living with an opportunity gap for the next generation of kids, something we think is morally repugnant.

In one of my favorite turns of phrase this year, it’s pretty clear from national data that kids really need to spend more time each day in the somatosensory bath[3] of the high-quality preschool and intervention services that ECEAP provides. Research is emerging that indicates more time in high quality preschool each day equals better results for the kids who need it most.[4]

So in short, dosage matters and more is better for ECEAP. Some questions we’re still exploring in order to best steward the public funds in our trust while getting the best outcomes for kids:

  • What is the best combination of length of day, number of years, and type of summer programming to get the most children ready for kindergarten?
  • Which children benefit the most from the three elements above?
  • ECEAP is more than just classroom time. The variety of family supports and health coordination the program provides are a critical part of its success. Not all families need every type of support available. What types and levels of services each family needs, and how to determine that efficiently, is a question we took up in our Family Support Pilot and will continue to examine.
  • What other factors are affecting kindergarten readiness: availability of dual-language instruction, family involvement in various parts of the child welfare system, seamless transitions from effective early intervention programs like Early Head Start, ESIT, and home visiting to high quality preschool programs like ECEAP?

We don’t have a perfect formula for dosage yet, but we have the tools to devise a good one. Most importantly, we need to support and expand ECEAP in a thoughtful and effective manner. I’ll be writing more about how DEL plans to implement ECEAP expansion in the coming weeks, so keep an eye out for that post.

[1] (Kenneth B. Robin, 2006)

[2] Wikipedia “Summer learning loss”

[3] Somatosensory “of or relating to sensations that involve parts of the body not associated with the primary sense organs.” James Heckman writes about the importance of the somatosensory bath of early childhood here:

[4] RAND 2016, “Informing Investments in Preschool Quality and Access in Cincinnati”,

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.