Voices of Youth: Examining early education challenges in Washtenaw County

In the latest installment of our Voices of Youth series, student journalist Ari Shtein considers the uphill battle of supporting Michigan's child care workforce.
This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate staff mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, student journalist Ari Shtein considers the uphill battle of supporting Michigan's child care workforce. 

This past September, COVID-19 pandemic-era funding expired and thousands of child care centers across the nation lost vital funding. These cuts affect a system already plagued by underfunding and "in crisis," says Erica Willard, executive director of the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children (MIAEYC).

Willard, whose organization has been supporting early childhood professionals and advocating for high-quality learning experiences for young children for 50 years, says this crisis is only worsening thanks to post-pandemic funding cuts. There's no replacement for the disappearing funding.

"Families can’t afford to pay any more, and programs can’t afford to take any less," she says.

Closures and cuts affect not only the children and families involved, but the economy as a whole. MIAEYC focuses advocacy on child care workers and instructors, emphasizing that it’s "supporting the workforce behind the workforce." The dedication of these workers allows parents to hold down jobs, participate in the state’s economy, and provide for their families.

However, supporting the child care workforce remains an uphill battle, says Kirsten Charnesky, chair of MIAEYC’s Advocacy Committee and director of Somerset Academy, an early education center in Troy. She shares that the average Michigan child care worker earns between $11 and $12 an hour, a rate she considers "just criminal." She emphasizes that more support from the state is needed to "ensure that all teachers are making a livable wage."

As the MIAEYC continues to fight for child care workers’ rights in Michigan, other organizations are trying to build a system that teaches children more effectively and comprehensively. Most notably, HighScope, the Ypsilanti-based organization behind the landmark Perry Preschool Project study, continues to be innovative.
Students and staff at HighScope.
In 1962, HighScope researchers split 123 students at Ypsilanti’s Perry Preschool into two groups. Over the next few years, one group would receive comprehensive, high-quality child care and education for two and a half hours a day, four days a week. The other did not. The study’s results were shocking: after following the students for a few years, researchers found that test scores and academic performance improved among the treatment group, and crime rates dropped.

HighScope has continued to follow the students for 60 years. Today, Dr. Jeff Beal, director of research, evaluation, and development at HighScope, recalls the study’s most monumental finding.

"The most important implication is the long-lasting, intergenerational impact," he says.

Beal notes that even the short amount of time the Perry Project students committed to high-quality education was enough not only to improve the lives of study participants, but those of their children and grandchildren as well. The results of the study would inform countless new policies supporting early childhood education across levels of government.

Thanks to these policies, today organizations across Washtenaw County, like Washtenaw Preschool, provide free early education to any low-income family in the area. Two key government services make this possible: the federal Head Start program and the state-funded Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP). These initiatives have made quality preschool available to many kids and families in need. Head Start has supported more than 38 million families since the '60s, and the GSRP grants more than $200 million each year.

These programs each cite the Perry Project as strong evidence for the benefits of implementing public preschool. However, program participants, despite earning significantly higher incomes than non-program participants, still fell, on average, into the range of "near-poverty." Their annual incomes were between 100-125% of the poverty line.

This analysis has been used to cast doubt on early education as a tool for social mobility. However, Beal has a different take. He believes a key element of early childhood development is often left out of the picture.

The transition between preschool and traditional schooling is "both traumatic and dramatic," he says. He adds that transitioning from a personable, small-class, child care environment to the traditional, 30-strong, overworked-teacher-led kindergarten classroom is an incredibly difficult change.

HighScope, while known for its early education research and curriculum design, has been emphasizing this deficit in our system in recent years, and developing new teacher toolkits and assessment standards to keep kids on the right path.
Students and staff at HighScope.
As with many public services, early education is underfunded, under-respected, and largely misunderstood. The workers and educators behind the system are overworked and underpaid, but organizations like MIAEYC continue to fight for them at the state and local level.

Meanwhile, HighScope and others are constantly conducting new research and creating new curricula to ensure comprehensive public early education for all kids, setting them up for more comfortable, fulfilling lives.

Charnesky is hopeful. She emphasizes, though, that the work isn’t done. Right now, she says, what’s needed is greater "awareness of the importance of the work that we do, and the compensation and recognition that early childhood professionals deserve."

Ari Shtein is an 11th grader at Washtenaw International High School with a passion for effective public policy. He lives in Ann Arbor.

Concentrate staffer Jaishree Drepaul served as Ari's mentor on this project.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click 

All photos courtesy of HighScope.
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