And some states are proving that it’s possible to give every child that chance. For 16 years, every child in Oklahoma has been guaranteed a preschool education. Georgia’s building on their successful pre-K program by launching something called “Talk With Me Baby” – which sounds like an Al Green song, but is actually a program to make sure language learning begins in the very first weeks of a child’s life. Oklahoma and Georgia are not places where I did particularly well politically – but that just goes to show you that this issue is bigger than politics. It’s not a red issue or a blue issue. It’s about doing what’s best for our kids, and for our country, and that’s an American issue.
-President Obama, White House Early Learning Summit, December 10, 2014
This week, President Obama hosted the White House Summit on Early Childhood Education, where he highlighted new efforts to ensure that every child in America has access to high-quality preschool and rich early learning opportunities. The Summit brought together state and local policymakers, mayors, school superintendents, corporate and community leaders, and advocates, who together committed to $1 billion of support for the President’s Early Learning Agenda.
Back in September, the White House hosted a workshop in which we heard about exciting Federal, State, and Local efforts to “bridge the word gap” that develops between poor children and their more affluent peers during the first few years of life. For example, Too Small to Fail, in partnership with the George Kaiser Family Foundation, has launched a community-wide Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing campaign in Tulsa, Oklahoma with the help of their local faith-based, medical, and childcare communities. Working through trusted messengers such as pastors, home visitors, pediatricians, nurses, obstetricians and gynecologists, information and resources are being distributed to help Tulsa parents talk, read and sing to their young children to boost early brain and vocabulary development. Moreover, the State of Georgia has launched the Talk With Me Baby Initiative, which aims to provide language nutrition to every child in Georgia through the public health care system and has continued to grow in response to the President’s call-to-action to bridge the word gap.
I recently sat down with Arianne Weldon, Director of the Get Georgia Reading Campaign and member of the team guiding Talk With Me Baby, to hear more about her team’s work, new developments and future plans.
Maya Shankar: What is Talk With Me Baby and what has inspired your work?
Arianne Weldon: Georgia’s Talk With Me Baby (TWMB) is a powerful cross-sector coalition that is bridging the word gap by bringing language nutrition to each and every child in Georgia. TWMB aims to transform parents and caregivers into conversational partners, providing early language exposure to babies in order to nourish critical brain development required for higher learning. It integrates language nutrition coaching as a core competency across large-scale workforces of nurses, WIC nutritionists, and early education professionals, thus systematically training nurses to educate parents about the importance of early language exposure.
We were inspired by a presentation by Dr. Dana Suskind of the University of Chicago at the White House’s Federal, State, and Local Efforts to Bridge the Word Gap event, in which Dr. Suskind stressed the importance of combining population-, community- and individual-level efforts that can achieve a population-level result.
Maya: What advice would you give to other states and localities that are interested in setting up similar programs?
Arianne: The best advice we can give to others is identify stakeholders, get all of them involved from the onset, and empower them to think outside their agency or discipline. Our stakeholders include public health officials, clinicians, educators, policy makers, and parents. TWMB is designed to change the conversation about the word gap and would not be possible without the collective vision of the Atlanta Speech School, the Emory Schools of Nursing and Medicine, the Georgia Department of Education and Department of Public Health, the Get Georgia Reading Campaign, the Marcus Autism Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the United Way of Greater Atlanta.
Collective impact is very difficult to sustain in a world in which we are more accustomed to working within our silos or sectors. Bringing together the respective needs of public and private partners can be challenging. To do this successfully, we’ve been sticking closely to the model of collective impact. We have a common agenda with a shared expectation that every child born in Georgia should receive essential language nourishment as a strong foundation for cognitive ability, social-emotional competency, school readiness, third grade reading proficiency and high school graduation, and ultimately lifelong success.
Maya: What does success look like for Talk With Me Baby and what are your goals for the future?
Arianne: Measuring the efficacy of TWMB is a multi-step process that is in the early stages. We are planning to measure the impact of nurse- and WIC-led maternal “language nutrition” training for caregivers on child language development by running randomized controlled trials (RCTs), the gold standard of evidence. While we believe that TWMB will positively improve the linguistic trajectory of children, we need strong scientific evidence of the extent of such improvement.
Federal, State and local efforts to bridge the word gap play a critical role in broader efforts to improve the quality of early learning for young children across the nation. Send us your ideas and let us know about your interest in joining this growing coalition by emailing us at email@example.com!
Maya Shankar is Senior Advisor for the Social and Behavioral Sciences at OSTP.