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Focus Group Results Report: Communications Strategies for Advocates of Early Childhood Education

Prepared for the Human Services Policy Center at the University of Washington

And The Benton Foundation

Overview

Full Circle Associates conducted two focus groups for the "Communications Strategies for Advocates of Early Childhood Education" project directed by Richard Brandon from the University of Washington Human Services Policy Center in collaboration with Susan Bales of the Benton Foundation. The groups were run in March 1998. The African American group in Seattle was mixed age and socio-economic background and self identified predominantly as Democrats. The Caucasian South King County group was middle income, more conservative and older as a group with one younger couple expressing significantly more liberal views.

The goal of the two focus groups was to test participants’ reactions to a series of metaphors, frameworks and labels for early childhood education (0-6). The objective was to identify those labels that could be helpful in convincing people to support public policies for improved affordability and quality of early childhood care and education.

Full Circle project staff focused on close observation of the following:

    • Language that "not merely registers approval, but which excites audiences emotionally and could motivate them to act", or language that would "turn them inward, what will make them say, just leave it to families," and,
    • The FRAMING of the issue and the potential to bridge between the dual needs of a parent’s need to work and a child’s need for good early education.

 

Framing

Overall the strongest concept throughout both groups and in every topic of inquiry was that of parental responsibility. There was strong support for the role of early education for education’s sake, but not for moral development, which belonged firmly in the hands of parents. There was no consensus on how quality and cost would be addressed.

Parental Roles and Responsibility

The strongest response and agreement from both groups was the importance of parental responsibility for their child’s early education. This thread was woven through all the conversations of both groups. It was clearly the bottom line for many of the participants.

The participants endorsed the need for parent education on how to help their child’s education and development. Both groups seemed to agree that even if a parent has to work, they have an obligation to stay involved with their child’s care and education. The Caucasian group suggested that parents ought to form councils to help set standards and neighbors and communities should get together and talk about these issues. Both groups suggested that if a parent is at home, they also need to know how to help their child learn and grow.

There was support for the concept of parents and teachers as partners, but with ultimate responsibility with the parents. They did not want teachers infringing on parental rights or roles. They suggested parents need to take a proactive role in working with the teachers and to hold teachers accountable for quality care, with the caveat that not all parents know how to do this, or know how to recognize quality care. Both groups acknowledged the need to pay and train teachers better.

Within the Caucasian group there was a segment that showed a lack of willingness to make allowances for parents who didn’t stay involved – in plain terms they weren’t taking excuses. For parents who work, there was a level of expectation in that group about what would be an acceptable level of involvement There were some similar comments in the African-American group, but with a larger margin of allowance.

There was not strong support in either group for the concept of "the moral and social foundation of the child is the moral and social foundation for society." They expressed the idea that the moral and social foundations of the FAMILY are the moral and social foundations of society" –reinforcing the importance of the parental role.

 

Quality and Importance of Early Childhood Education

Both groups understood and valued quality early childhood education. This was indicated by their appreciation for "good teachers," activities beyond custodial care ("I don’t want my child in front of a TV"), their understanding of a child’s cognitive and social development needs, and the need for parents to shop around for quality care. They showed understanding of the importance of the availability of quality care in a community, even if their personal preference might be that a parent stays home with their child.

Both groups felt that early investment (in the broadest sense beyond just financial) in education, whether by parents or an early childhood education system, was important, and that it could influence or improve the longer-range school outcomes and contribute to a stronger community, including benefiting business.

Both groups believe that the full continuum of education is important for their children, K through post-secondary, and did not fear "too much" education. They liked the science approach for validating the importance of early childhood education if done lightly – not too much technical information, especially the African American group. Some members of the Caucasian group expressed distrust of some "science" and "research," yet also said they did not want to pay for any new program that was not "proven effective."

 

Quality Assurance and Financing

There was no strong consensus between the groups on a positive framework for addressing quality assurance and financing issues for early childhood education. While both groups felt that early development and learning were important, there was no single view on how and where a child should be afforded these opportunities – or who should be responsible for the quality assurance or financing. The African American group expressed a stronger desire for more community accountability than the Caucasian group.

There was a great deal of concern about how to finance early childhood care, and a skepticism that communities would agree to additional financial commitments. All felt childcare is an expensive proposition no matter who pays for it, and many expressed a degree of willingness to help share those costs. The older members of the Caucasian group were more likely to support individual financial responsibility –the "if there’s a will, there’s a way" approach to parents financing quality care.

The Caucasian group supported business investment in early childhood education and they were somewhat less supportive of public funds being used to fund early childhood education for everyone – even while acknowledging the importance of the services. The African American group did not get into as much discussion of funding, but expressed desire for better accountability for both an ECE system and the current K-12 system.

The Caucasian group addressed standards and regulation. They want quality care but want parents to specify what constitutes quality care (one suggestion was through parent councils and community conversations), not the government. Or have recommended guidelines and actual checklists for parents to use to that they so can determine what is best for their children. Both groups stressed the importance of the need for parents to really scrutinize care they select and parent education on how to find quality care.

Participants with younger children or who have experience in the education system, had more realistic views about the current state of early childhood education and responded accordingly. Those without children or with grown children had a less current or realistic view of the early childhood system’s strengths and weaknesses. They appeared to be drawing their conclusions on observations of society (some potentially driven by the media) and their personal political views.

Conclusions

The two focus groups give some preliminary indications useful in mobilizing advocates for early childhood issues, but it must be taken into consideration that they represent a very limited sample. With this in mind, the one consistent message across both groups was the importance of parental responsibility in the education process. The buck stops with the parent, so we need to educate and support parents on how to help their child’s early development.

Focusing on the parental role in early childhood education appears to offer the strongest frame for building support, both in home and in provider situations. From there one can build on ancillary aspects such as the teacher and parent as partner, especially when the importance of both roles is respected and the parent is placed as the one ultimately responsible.

Both groups appreciated and understood the role of early learning in a child’s development and the contribution towards later formal schooling and overall success in the community. Neither group expressed concern about "too much" learning. Quality was acknowledged by all. Both groups expressed concern that not all parents understood this, suggesting the need for more general awareness of the issue (complementary to parent education).

Developing consensus on quality assurance and financial support is less clear and may require targeting of messages to specific subgroups. The group differed on the degree that the community was responsible for or willing to contribute to that educational success, with a number of the Caucasian group putting the larger burden on parents. While some were clearly willing to share the costs, most were skeptical that society would take on this responsibility, and pessimistic that taxpayers would support new initiatives when current K-12 needs are not being met and bond issues repeatedly fail. The African American group was concerned about cost to individuals and the kids who might really need to be served.

Terminology was not a motivating factor for either group with somewhat negative feelings about the use of slogans such as "foundation learning" or "educare." Early learning had the broadest acceptance, while the other terms had enthusiasts and detractors. There was sufficient distrust about "fancy labels" that the project should consider NOT trying to coin a new phrase that diverges too far from the original "early childhood education" or "early learning." Stick to the basic information you want to provide and action you wish to stimulate.

It was interesting that after both sessions, members of the groups approached the facilitator and expressed that they had "learned a lot tonight," and suggest that it might be good if people had the chance to come together and discuss issues as a community or neighborhood. This might be an opportunity for future community mobilization efforts.