Big Ideas for Early Childhood Innovation and Education Partnerships

By Dr. Deborah Bergeron, Director, Office of Head Start and Early Childhood Development

On January 9, our Office of Early Childhood Development (ECD) partnered with ACF Offices and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) for the annual ED Games Expo 2020, now in its seventh year. Our partnership resulted in the first-ever Showcase on Early Childhood Development and Learning within the Expo. About 100 federal, national, state, and local leaders in early childhood, education, health and human services joined ACF leadership and 11 thought leaders and entrepreneurs who presented a series of Big Idea talks about innovation and how to scale-up good ideas. This Showcase was one part of a multi-day event sponsored by ED’s Institute of Education Science which focused on games and technology targeted at children, parents, educators, funders, and other stakeholders with more than 1000 people attending.

A big question for everyone was —how do you define innovation? We were excited to have leadership from ACF and ED kick off our conversation. ACF Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson talked about her vision to transform the agency by “changing our compliance culture to a customer service culture where staff is focused on helping customers to achieve meaningful outcomes.” Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Aimee Viana shared her experiences as a former teacher and principal and emphasized that continuous education, improvement and innovations are the focus of their Department’s efforts with a goal to improve the holistic needs of students to help them grow socially, emotionally and intellectually.

My ACF colleagues then had a chance to share their views. Shannon Christian, Director of the Office of Child Care, recognized the challenges facing the field and she wanted to find better ways to free-up teachers’ time so they could focus more improving relationships between teachers and children. Jerry Milner, Associate Commissioner of Children Bureau, explained that for him, innovation is all about prevention and said, “Innovation is having the guts to do the right thing by addressing poverty, social isolation and stress for families.” Katherine Chon, Director of Office of Human Trafficking shared Native American wisdom in her definition, “Innovation in the area of trafficking in persons means being able to take actions that will have impact, way into the future, and influence how and what will happen-- seven generations later.” As the Director of Head Start and Early Childhood Development, I see innovation is not just technology but more how we think. Since the ED Games Expo focuses on tech innovators, however, my question is “How can technology support play-based learning and help children to be comfortable with technology, including physical and social comfort?” I am also committed to strengthening the transition from early childhood to the K-12 education system, including coordinating systems, aligning curriculum and building parent and family engagement into the entire process.

Our Showcase featured Big Idea speakers who talked about a broad range of different topics. We asked our innovators to talk about the problem they were trying to solve, their proposed solution, and share insights on what they learned--- all in 5 minutes! The talks covered the landscape in early childhood including classroom assessment tools, early literacy assessments and working upstream, assessing parent/teacher and child interactions, integration of health and wellness and learning, parent engagement, early childhood professional development, and equity, accessibility and inclusion for children with disabilities. We also talked about broader systems issues for the field such as how do we now what is educational and how do we help parents choose? How can we be more strategic and work more intentionally in partnerships across sectors? Our panel of Big Idea Speakers pushed all of us to new ways of thinking about existing problems. Special shout-out to those innovators who joined us!

To illustrate how early education and ED can work better together, Laurie VanderPloeg, Director of the Office of Special Education Programs at ED shared closing remarks at our early childhood Showcase and I gave closing remarks at the OSEP Showcase. We also had the chance to network and engage at the rest of the ED Games Expo, which was open to the public that evening and we had the chance to hear even more innovators in the education sector working with the schools. ACF also hosted several exhibits – it was an exciting learning exchange.

I left the day invigorated and excited about the work ahead for ACF’s Office of Early Childhood Development. ECD’s mission is to act as a catalyst to create collective impact and support for the early learning and care of our nation’s children and families. Events like the ED Games Expo give ECD an opportunity to engage and catalyze action. I am excited to strengthen and deepen our partnerships with our federal colleagues at the Department of Education and beyond. ACF and ECD are committed to continuing this conversation and lifting up innovations going on across the country—we are eager to hear from the field about how we can better facilitate and bring cross-sector partners together in the year ahead!

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