By, Michelle Stover Wright, M.S., Evaluation and Research BUILD Initiative; Aisha Ray, Ph.D., Distinguished Fellow, BUILD Initiative; Sherri Killins Stewart Ed. D., Director of State Systems Alignment and Integration, Co-Director of State Services, BUILD Initiative
Originally published in the Summer 2021 Issue of Kansas Child Magazine.
High-quality early childhood education has lifelong impacts on achievement, health, and economic outcomes for individuals, as well as a return on investment for local communities, according to research done by James Heckman of the University of Chicago. However, these benefits do not reach every child, every family, or every community.
Research shows that there are current and long-standing racial disparities in access to and benefits from early care and education programs and supports, as well as in health coverage and outcomes, economic disparities among families with children, and other clear inequities in measures of child, family, and community well-being.
As leaders in early childhood programs and systems — including but not limited to early learning, health, housing, economic support, mental health, and family support — we need to ask ourselves important questions: Who is and who is not benefitting from our early childhood programs and systems? And what must we do to erase those differences?
Leaders recognize that racial inequities are a combination of intentional and unintentional actions that result in institutional practices (such as institutional arrangements, policies, regulations, rules, and work culture) that disproportionately disadvantage racially or ethnically marginalized children, families, and communities. While working to dismantle these institutional policies and practices, leaders must also understand and advocate for structural challenges to the uneven distribution of power and economic resources and in access to opportunities.
Leaders must work to create change in early childhood systems, reduce disparities, and support children, families, and communities marginalized by structural racialization.
We Cannot Change What We Do Not See
Data-driven decision-making is foundational to dismantling inequities. Leaders must understand the early childhood programs, policies, initiatives, and systems in their neighborhoods, communities, states, or nation, as well as their reach and impact. We should work to understand:
- Who is benefitting and who is not?
- Why there are differences?
- What causes these disparities?
- What we can do with our authority
and influence to change these systems and ensure that disparities due to race, class, and other forms of oppression are targeted and dismantled?
As we work to build equitable early childhood systems, data that offers insights into child well-being can be used to inform our decisions, such as where and how to invest resources, where to change or maintain policies or practices, how to develop eligibility criteria, and more.
No single data point or set of data points can begin to describe the complex experiences of children, families, or communities. That means leaders should search for multiple sources of data from multiple angles. Data is available from early childhood programs, state departments, and the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as within the reflections and experiences of families, early childhood workers, and communities.
Racial equity leaders must:
- Use a broad assortment of available data, such as state, county, population- level, program, or community data, related to:
- Child and family outcomes
- Child and family access to programs and systems (e.g., economic, health, child care, housing, family support, nutrition)
- Community conditions or opportunities
- Workforce data
- Continually monitor and analyze data to advance racial equity by identifying utilization, gaps, barriers, availability, and other key access-focused factors — including awareness, affordability, accessibility, and accommodation or acceptability — that may inﬂuence racial equity outcomes for children, families, and communities.
- Use disaggregated data to set benchmarks and drive assessments to ensure that programs, services, and initiatives lead to reductions in disparities due to race and place for children, families, and communities in early childhood systems.
Disaggregating the Data in Kansas
Data supports our understanding of how Kansas children are doing and what is needed to improve child well-being in the state. To that end, it is essential to disaggregate data and make inequities visible.
According to the 2017 Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Initiative, Kansas ranked 15th out of the 50 states in child well-being across four domains: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community indicators. This ranking placed Kansas well above the average rating for child well-being in the U.S. But that ranking is based on aggregated data, in which all Kansas children (regardless of race or ethnicity) are compared to the other 49 states.
That same year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation also released their Race for Results Index, which disaggregates data by race and ethnicity and offers more complete information about child and family well-being, including who has access to opportunity and who does not. These data points paint a far grimmer picture of how Kansas’ children of color are doing compared to their white peers.
- African American children ranked 23rd out of 44 ranked states.
- Latino children ranked 25th out of 49 ranked states.
- Asian and Pacific Islander ranked 18th out of 43 ranked states.
- American Indian children ranked 2nd out of 26 ranked states.
- White children ranked 26th out of 50 ranked states.
If we use this information to guide decision- making, how might we change our policies or resource distribution? By disaggregating the data by race and ethnicity, a different story emerges about who is benefiting and who is not — and who has access to opportunity and who does not.
Data must be disaggregated with sufficient detail to understand varying groups’ circumstances. For example, if we collect and use data that does not only describe “Asian Americans” but disaggregates it further (i.e., Bangladeshi, Burmese, Cambodian, Hmong, Indonesian), access and outcomes can guide decisions that address the actual and differing needs and circumstances of children, families, and communities.
The Importance of Family and Community Voices
As James James Charlton said about individuals with disabilities: “Nothing about us without us.”
One of the main reasons federal and state policies fail to address systemic inequities is that they are designed and drafted without input from those they are supposed to support.
Family and community voices offer a necessary perspective — feedback that must be put front and center as leaders work to develop equitable programs, practices, and systems.
Numerical data on its own presents an incomplete picture. Perspectives from specific groups of people — especially from Latinx, Black, Native American, non-English speaking, and immigrant communities, as well as ability-diverse individuals and others who are historically or currently marginalized — need to be incorporated in data collection and analysis strategies.
Communities of color experience poverty and racial and economic injustice. They have historically fought and are currently fighting against structural and institutional barriers and oppression. Listening to their voices promotes an understanding of what state programs, services, or initiatives can do to encourage enduring positive outcomes for children, families, and communities. How might our strategies, perspectives, or policy decisions shift when family or community voices are central to the decision-making and assessment process?
For a variety of reasons, early childhood leaders may not be able to hear family and community voices or understand the value of listening to the perspectives and experiences of those they serve. But this work cannot be done without intentional and consistent actions to elevate the voices of communities of color and recognize the importance of listening to and learning from those individuals furthest from opportunity. Focus groups, interviews, site visits, ongoing feedback loops, and other strategies for listening to, interacting with, and responding to individuals who use our services and programs reinforces the importance of addressing inequities.
This is at least as important, if not more so, than the spreadsheets and numbers that provide only one way of understanding the impact of our early childhood systems. If we want to work toward equitable access and outcomes for all children and families in our state, we must center shared leadership with communities of color, underserved and underrepresented groups, and those impacted by poverty.
Racial equity leaders must seek to achieve the following four goals through site visits and engagement with families and communities:
- Listen, understand, and learn about families’ goals for their young children and providers’ goals for their work with young children. Learn where services do or do not work well, where service gaps exist, and where opportunities for service and program development opportunities may be present.
- Develop relationships with populations and groups that experience racial inequities and disparities, increasing the focus on institutional and structural barriers that need to be removed to achieve equitable outcomes for children and their families.
- Support the exploration of how individuals and communities have fought back, resisted, and organized for self-determination, inclusion, and fairness, both historically and in the present day.
- Apply lessons learned to the design, development, and implementation of programs, services, and initiatives that target the needs of children, families, and workforce members furthest from opportunity.
Adding Data to the Toolkit
Data is a tool for racial equity that helps leaders identify disparities, as well as opportunities to dismantle those disparities. Data also helps early childhood leaders understand the programs, initiatives, and services that make up a comprehensive early childhood system and determine whether the systems are supporting families or reproducing inequities.
Data includes numbers and population-level statistics. But data is also the voices of Kansas families and communities. As a tool for equity, data is necessary to the development of racially equitable early childhood systems, programs, and services so that race and place no longer determine child outcomes and family well-being.
Drs. Ray and Killins Stewart co-lead the Equity Leaders Action Network (ELAN), a national leadership program at BUILD supporting the racial equity work of state early childhood system leaders. Michelle Stover Wright oversees evaluation and research at the BUILD Initiative and is on the ELAN faculty.