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Jeffrey Miles of United Way for Southeastern Michigan: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System

An Interview With Penny Bauder

The “needs improvement” is on us: to recognize that child care is essential for all families and fund it as the public good, that is. We need to focus on wages as a number one issue to get people back into the profession so that we have care options to meet this growing need. We need better data infrastructure to understand if care is located where it’s needed, to fill funded seats that help families with child care costs, and to better connect to wrap-around services.

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview…Jeffrey Miles, senior director for early childhood excellence at United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

Jeffrey D. Miles is the Senior Director for Early Childhood at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. He has worked to design, build and test systems supporting families across the state for more than a decade. Jeff has a master’s of social work from Michigan State University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I started out studying International Relations until I realized there are enough problems on the home front that need fixing. I earned a master’s degree in macro social work. After grad school, I worked at the Michigan Public Health Institute, which felt like getting a second master’s degree. This experience taught me to value quality evaluation design and data and the importance of bridging clinical and social services to provide holistic supports to families and children. We take a “health in all things” approach to our work and understand that the earlier we can identify and mitigate issues the better the outcomes and more cost effective the programs — which means we can serve more people.

As the Senior Director of Early Childhood Excellence at United Way for Southeastern Michigan, I have the chance to reach a much younger audience. More than that, we often use a multi-generation approach and strategies that consider the needs of the whole family to ensure more parents have access to the resources that they need for themselves and their children. The habits we form early have a lasting impact. We have to start much earlier with our supports for families.

It’s also a personal experience. As the father of a 1- and a 3-year-old and someone who specializes in early childhood, I see firsthand how the shortcomings and disconnects in our system are harming families every day.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A visit to local schools in a northern Michigan town while I was at the Michigan Public Health Institute was a seminal moment for me. We were evaluating a federal program that worked with middle schoolers and their families to help address negative behaviors at school and at home. The town had been hit hard by several major employers closing and the very present methamphetamine epidemic. Families that could leave had left.

We met with teachers who were part of the program. These frontline staff had stayed in the community and were doing the hard work of educating and working with parents through many challenges. And it made a difference. They were seeing positive results. These teachers had one key takeaway though: start earlier. They knew working with children and families from a much younger age when habits were being formed — both for parents in their own parenting skills and in supporting their child’s development — would be more effective. We all know how hard it is to change bad habits or to overcome problems that have built-up over time.

Also, I had largely lived and worked in urban and suburban places until then. I was struck by the commonality of the issues that families faced. We often try to fit issues into buckets of rural or urban — and to be clear, there are important differences that must be acknowledged and addressed — but parents’ desires for their children to be cared for, to be healthy and to thrive are universal. Working with parents and caregivers early in multi-generational approaches sets the child and family on a positive path.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of our most exciting projects is a marriage of technical innovation and personal connections that support parents and caregivers in making informed decisions about their child care options through our new Connect4CareKids.org text and web platform. Our goal is to help families have the necessary information and agency to make decisions that will best prepare their children for a great start in school and life.

Connect4Care Kids is a one-stop shop for families trying to navigate the often fractured early childhood system. The platform helps parents understand their eligibility for programs that help with child care costs, start the application process online when it’s convenient for them and to get connected to other social service supports. The system automatically and securely sends families’ information directly to child care providers who then reach out directly to complete the enrollment process. We worked closely with families and providers from day one to design and test the system. Connect4Care Kids is available in English, Spanish and Arabic to better support our entire community. Families get actionable information and providers get qualified leads to help fill their seats — it’s a win-win.

We’ve already expanded Connect4Care Kids from serving just Detroit families to now covering all of Wayne County, Michigan. We’re in discussions to expand soon into a neighboring county and believe the system has potential to scale throughout the region, if not the state. It’s great to be able to pilot a solution where we saw gaps and to see it work and scale.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

I am not an educator by profession. Child care providers are, whether they are working in a home or a center. What makes me an authority in the field is the recognition that if a child’s needs outside the classroom are not met, even high-quality learning environments will fail that child. I bring the ability to build systems and integrate them so that parents and caregivers have resources, information and tangible tips to provide for their children’s care, education and well-being.

Being at United Way provides a unique opportunity to work throughout the region and across sectors — to work directly with child care providers and with parents — and to leverage public and private funding. With those insights, we test innovative approaches with the goal of scaling them to help more families.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

I would mark the early childhood field with a “needs improvement” rating.

First and foremost, I would give child care providers an A+ for their ability to keep their doors open and safely provide care to children before and throughout the pandemic. None of the challenges that we see now with child care and early childhood care and learning are new, but the pandemic has highlighted and stressed those fissures. Child care providers — small business owners who are often women of color — have earned abysmally low wages and have operated at razor thin margins for far too long.

The “needs improvement” is on us: to recognize that child care is essential for all families and fund it as the public good, that is. We need to focus on wages as a number one issue to get people back into the profession so that we have care options to meet this growing need. We need better data infrastructure to understand if care is located where it’s needed, to fill funded seats that help families with child care costs, and to better connect to wrap-around services.

Ninety percent of a child’s brain develops by age 3, so the early years are critical. Quality early childhood educators know this and support a child’s healthy development — physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally; something a lot of us are thinking about after our children may have been isolated more than we would have liked over the pandemic. So, why value a free education for kindergarteners on up, but not for infants, toddlers and preschoolers? Policy has not kept up with the times and we need to invest in early childhood learning and care for all families… and in a way that is sustainable for those who work in the field.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

First, there is a renewed focus on the importance of early childhood learning and care from all sectors. The pandemic has underscored that affordable, quality and reliable care is essential for working parents, employers and our overall economy. With that has come historic — although largely short-term — investments in child care.

Second, there seems to be a deeper understanding of the importance of a strong start in long-term outcomes. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman found a 13:1 return for every dollar spent in early childhood. It sets a child on the trajectory to enter kindergarten ready to learn, to hit the third grade reading proficiency and to ultimately, graduate college and/or matriculate into a career. Yet, we stop short of offering free, universal child care.

Third, seeing the economic benefits and long-term outcomes, more people are starting to push for universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, which is included in President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. It would be a great start, and hopefully we can move toward full universal child care, from infants to age 5.

Fourth, education is critical. However, learning also takes place outside of the classroom and other determinants impact a child and family’s well-being. Recognizing this, many communities are piloting schools that also serve as centers for wrap-around support for the whole family. United Way manages and funds five Community Schools in Detroit. These schools serve as a hub for the community, offering extra academic support, social and emotional learning and health and wellness resources.

Fifth, we’ve seen a rise in technology to empower parents and caregivers with information and to support at-home learning. I can share two examples.

Parents and caregivers are their children’s first teachers. We have a program that helps parents use the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, known commonly as the ASQ, to understand where their child is with typical development — physical, cognitive, social and emotional — and make informed decisions about their child’s care.

We also have Ready4K, a text messaging service that sends helpful information and activities around education, health and development to parents with a child age 8 or younger, and has been proven to boost the development and literacy of children by nearly three months. This is a multi-generational approach that supports learning outside the classroom. I say this as a parent, not all parenting skills and information is inherent. Resources like the ASQ and Ready4K give all parents and caregivers information, tangible tips and resources to advocate for their children’s care, education and well-being.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

Instead of identifying five areas for improvement, I recommend adding five ages to the U.S. education system: infant to age 5. One of the biggest things we could do to help our education system is to help more kids get the quality education that we know will impact their K-12 experience. Little learners develop foundational skills in quality early learning environments: a love of learning, reading skills, basic math principles and critical thinking. Those are just the cognitive skills.

Again, I’ll point to Heckman’s data that shows a 13:1 return for every dollar spent in early childhood. It sets a child on the trajectory to enter kindergarten ready to learn, to hit the third grade reading proficiency and to ultimately, graduate college and/or matriculate into a career. Further, Heckman’s research proves that the “skills developed through quality early childhood education last a lifetime.” Specifically, social emotional skills developed in young children carry benefits throughout their life.

United Way’s ALICE Project recently released a report showing the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on Michigan families with children who are struggling to get by financially. In “The Pandemic Divide: An ALICE Analysis of National COVID Surveys” we can see that 3 percent of those households making enough to make ends meet had to quit their jobs due to lack of child care. For lower income families, 17 percent were forced to quit to care for their children. We need long-term public investment in a more stable child care system that works for all families and workers in a way that increases wages, invests in fiscal stability and improves care — without placing more financial strain on families.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

More children having access to quality early learning environments, whether at home or at school, will prepare children for their K-12 experience, including starting them early in developing skills needed in STEM classes and (potentially) careers. Early childhood educators use their trusted relationships with infants and toddlers to introduce STEM. It comes down to what is in the environment and how the adult interacts with the child.

Here’s one example that an educator colleague shared with me: a 5-month-old child can play on the floor and begin to understand space and position by recognizing where a person or object is in relation to other people and objects. By playing with toys like blocks they start understanding concepts like “on top of” or “under,” and putting objects together in different ways. Caregivers are helping by observing what the child is doing and using the language that supports the math concepts. Phrases like, “The blocks are close to you” or “I see one under the blanket”, use and teach spatial awareness terminology. This type of play becomes more advanced as the child grows, but the same language will be used.

So, we need to invest in the educator — giving parents, caregivers and child care providers — this type of information to encourage a child’s learning. We also need to invest in providing educators with the resources they need — blocks, water tables, books — to make play a learning experience.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

Women are half the population. Why would we want a society that relies on only half of its resources to succeed? Engaging young women in STEM helps ensure a diverse workforce and across all fields and can drive innovative solutions to many intractable issues our world faces. Again, quality early learning environments build foundational skills in all learners, giving them the basic skills they need to succeed in life — potentially in STEM careers.

All children have a natural curiosity and ability to learn. We need practices that meet a child where they are at and encourage them to develop their skills and interests. The bias toward gender is introduced by adults, and has nothing to do with the individual’s potential.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

First, we have to change the way we triangulate academic fields and remove gender stereotypes about who can excel in particular fields. We set it up so that children at a very early age decide if they “are good” at certain subjects. What if all students were exposed to critical thinking as small children and we adults set the expectation that each of us is capable of learning? What if our approach was strength-based rather than deficit-focused? Through the ASQ and programs like Ready4K, early childhood educators as well as parents and caregivers try to meet the child where they are and build on their skills from there.

Also, I should stress the importance of social-emotional development from an early age. Learning to focus your attention, control your wiggles and get along with your peers are critical skills that will allow a learner to succeed in many fields. Empathy is another important factor for critical thinking. The ability to place yourself in another’s shoes can help drive innovative thinking and new ideas across a range of fields. We need to continue to focus on these skills throughout the early childhood and K-12 experience.

Lastly, we place a lot of emphasis on evaluation and testing and not everyone excels in traditional testing formats. We need to diversify the ways in which we both deliver curriculum and measure progress, and celebrate achievement at every step in the process. Celebrating female role models in these fields can also help inspire young women and girls to look further into these fields and help unlock their interests and potential.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

I don’t find this debate in the early learning sector, which strives to give all young learners the same basic skills to be lifelong learners and productive human beings, whatever the field. We need balance. Ideally, we are setting children up to succeed in a variety of fields.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I think you might know my answer. Child care is a long-term public good that is too often subsidized by those who can least afford it: the family and the providers. We need public investment in early childhood.

There are successful models for this throughout the world. It is not that we don’t know how to do it. A recent New York Times article highlighted how the United States is an outlier in the amount of public funding for toddlers among other developing countries. Most O.E.C.D countries invest an average of $14,000 per child on child care for toddlers, while in the U.S. it is $500. Despite the evidence on how critical and beneficial investments in early childhood are, we don’t do it. That should change.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.” I’ve also always liked Dr. Maria Montessori’s quote: “Play is the work of the child.”

Both of these highlight for me what my work and life experiences show me. Investing in children and their families in a variety of ways early yields lifelong benefits, develops productive individuals and has the power to break the cycle of poverty.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I don’t think it would be fair to have quoted him and relied on his work as much as I have throughout my career without saying Professor James Heckman. Our on-demand culture seeks immediate results at every turn and we don’t always get that in the early childhood field. His work and approach to the early childhood sector has given us the ability to look beyond the immediate — and there are many immediate and tangible benefits from a quality early education — to true long-term positive impact of these programs, helped us understand what quality entails and that it goes beyond the classroom, and what we can do as program directors, policy makers, providers and parents to address these issues.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on LinkedIn. You can follow @UnitedWaySEM on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to learn more about our work.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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