Posts by Aftan Baldwin

A Talk with Jane Ervin: CEO of One of the Most Successful Head Start Programs in the US


I recently sat down to talk with Jane Ervin, the current CEO of Lehigh Valley’s Community Services for Children. They currently host the Head Start program in the area, one of the top 40 in the country. When Jane started with the NGO in 2007, the poverty rate for children in the Lehigh Valley was 20%. It has risen to 26% in just a few short years, and contributed to the shrinking economy.

The program itself, as most other charitable programs and organizations, is under heavy scrutiny by the government. Each Head Start program is reviewed every three years. If it does not meet the standards, the NGO will be forced to recompete for the money allotted to the program in their area. Their money will be taken away and US$5 million will be given to the NGO that wants to start the Head Start program in that community. According to Jane, there are training centers throughout the US that can provide assistance to the faltering programs, focusing on Early Head Start, Program Management, Community Engagement, and other areas. Jane and I did not get into detail on the effectiveness of these centers. Perhaps that is a conversation to be had later.

Jane’s ideal path for the increased investment in early childhood education lies with businesses. She first discussed the history of Bethlehem, the transforming culture and increased need for specialized employees. When Bethlehem Steel was in operation, only a high school degree was needed to ensure a living wage and the ability to send children to college. The Steel plant closed and jobs have become much more technical. Now there is an adjustment period, a similar scenario to other areas across the US.


As noted in my previous blog on the Head Start Program, research tells of the tremendous value of early childhood education. Yet, we have to question why there is little investment in it. Businesses are focusing on the technical training required to fulfill their positions. Fewer and fewer are able to meet the requirements to begin this type of technical training and the jobs are either being sent to other countries or employees from overseas are coming to the US to do jobs we can’t. Jane proposes the more efficient solution of growing our own labor force. Her goal is to help businesses see the connection between early childhood education and the employees that will need to be hired in 15 or 20 years. She advocates for tailoring the education to meet the specific needs of a particular community and the businesses within that community.

While this may be beneficial for the businesses and the economy of that particular area, where is the choice for children and their families? Where is the equal playing field? If students are prepared for a specific job from a young age, what other choice will they have? What if they decide that isn’t where they want to be?

It’s an interesting debate I think, one we can look at cross-culturally. Universities within the US are filled with students studying in unpractical fields with no clue what to do after graduation. In a way, a great deal of our youth is lost because they are given too much freedom. In a country where you can “be whatever you want to be,” how do you decide? In China, social roles and college majors are chosen for the youth and futures are clearly defined. Are the Chinese finding more satisfaction out of life just because they feel they are fulfilling their predetermined niche in society?

As Head Start prides itself as a high quality childcare program, Jane is naturally an advocate for all children to have this available to them. In addition to suggesting the businesses invest long-term in their future employees, she also suggests these local businesses encourage their employees to seek out high-quality childcare for their children. Day cares and babysitters are not always enough. Parents are unable to identify and seek out high quality childcare and may be unaware of the long-term benefits. Perhaps she sees the connection between an understanding of the benefits of high-quality childcare and the willingness to invest in it. Her forerunner in the evaluation of a childcare program is Keystone S.T.A.R.S.. They rank the programs on a 1-4 star scale. As the S.T.A.R.S. scale has the potential to make a childcare program more marketable to families, there are no direct repercussions to the program for not being evaluated.

On the local level, Jane’s ideas have potential. For businesses to succeed, they need quality employees. What then is the role of the government? Should it not be ensuring children’s education reach the level needed to partake in the student’s choice of training, vocational or higher education programs? Is the goal of this nation to make money through the success of their businesses and economy is the goal for everyone to have the equal opportunity to find their own success?

The Current Debate on Universal Preschool in the U.S.

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It’s a common philosophy that, to fix the issues of the world, the world needs to invest in its youth, as they are the future. In President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address, he announced his plan to push for universal preschool across the US. He proposes $75 billion be spent on universal preschool in the next 10 years, through his 2014 budget that has yet to pass through congress. It calls for an almost 100% increase in cigarette tax to pay for the program.

This additional preschool funding would be in addition to the 50 year-old Head Start program. The Head Start program is a federally funded preschool program aimed at serving the children of low-income families. Its annual budget is around $8 billion; a majority spent directly on services and is primarily run through local nonprofit organizations. It was started in 1965 under the Johnson administration as part of the Great Society campaign, which was aimed at eliminating poverty and racial inequalities. Most of the children who are in Head Start range between the ages of three and five. Early Head Start is also offered for infants and toddlers.

The research done on the effectiveness of the Head Start program, and other high quality preschool programs, is very mixed. It’s often the private organizations that claim the effects of a quality preschool program wear off within a few years, while academics, on the other hand, believe there are many long-term effects that cannot be seen right away. James Heckmen, a Nobel Prize winner for economics, researches the disparities in achievement between children with low and high socioeconomic backgrounds. According to New York Times, his research “confirms that investment in the early education of disadvantaged children pays extremely high returns down the road. It improves not only their cognitive abilities but also crucial behavioral traits like sociability, motivation and self-esteem. Yet, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that the government spends three times the amount on higher education as it does on preschool. Recently, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart exposed some of the bias hidden behind the research “findings.”


Jane Ervin is the current president and CEO of Community Services for Children, the nonprofit that runs the very successful Head Start program of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. In a recent conversation, she expressed her view of the public opinions on preschool and Obama’s plan. She believes that people are not interested in paying for children in poverty because it’s not their responsibility to help the teenage mothers or the illegal immigrants. What they do not understand is that these children will grow up and keep contributing to the culture of poverty rather than contributors to society. People are not brave enough to step up and fix the problems knowing the results will become visible in 15 or 20 years. Politicians won’t focus on it because there are so many other things that affect people’s lives. This has a negative impact on children and families who are out of sight, and therefore out of mind. It’s difficult to get people to care about children’s education when the economy is under attack. Jane believes everything will come down to the practicality of funding and ability to convince others of the importance of preschool education.

I think that Jane may be right. As we continue to compete with each other, we become only concerned with the things we have and the money we make. We are no longer concerned with those who fall behind and cannot pick themselves back up. And the gap is increasing. Jane reported that 26% of children are currently living in poverty in the Lehigh Valley. When she started at Community Services for Children six years ago, it was 20%. With the world’s population growing as rapidly as it is, we can no longer afford to not invest in our youth.

More to come in my next blog, on my talk with Jane Ervin!

Is the Gaokao Doing its Best to Help Education in China?

As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural, northwest China, I taught English at a university that was known for having low-level students. In my first writing class, I had the students warm up by free writing for five minutes about a given topic. One of the topics was “their biggest regret.” All but one of the students in my 30-student class revealed that not studying harder for the gaokao, the Chinese college entrance exam, and getting into such a terrible university was the thing they regretted most.

Was this really their fault though? Like most other countries, China struggles with some form of inequality. Ask your traveling Chinese friends where they are from. It’s probably somewhere you’ve heard of, Beijing or Shanghai. Most of my students have never left their province. They would never dream of asking their parents for that much money. And also like most other countries, this inequality can be heavily reflected in the education system.

In China, education is compulsory until the 9th grade. Then students can decide to test into senior high school to prepare for college. Starting around age 12, children in China begin to spend most of their time at school. They study from the early morning hours to very late in the evening with small breaks for lunch and dinner. Most of them spend this part of their life studying for the infamous gaokao. This exam is administered once a year and takes place over 2-3 days. Students are tested in Chinese, Mathematics and a foreign language. They also have to option of taking a science or an art section. If the student does not like his or her score, they have the option of repeating their senior year and then the exam. Before the gaokao students choose three universities, based on their anticipated results, to receive their scores. The last one or two are usually safety schools. The student will know which university they will attend once they receive their scores as each university has a cut-off score. In theory, it is the only thing a university looks at when considering a potential student and it will eliminate the inequality when they select students.

The results of this exam will dictate their future. Many of my students talked to me about their last year of senior high school, just before college. They spent the entire year studying only for the exam, in class and out, yet they still felt they did poorly. This article from the New York Times article tells the stories of a few individuals around their time of the exam, as does BBC’s video Gaokao Fever.

Close to 10 million students take the gaokao each year, and of those, around 75% are admitted into colleges. This is pretty high considering it is the only thing that will admit them to school. There is a huge drop-out after compulsory middle school. Some provinces estimate up to 40% of their students do not continue with their education after grade 9.

The gaokao not only determines the student’s school, but also their major, which depends on their scores in each section. Once a major has been given, it is very difficult to change and happened to only two or three of the 500+ English majors I taught. This may be changing though, and varied throughout the country. In a conversation with a college English teacher from another area of China, she said, “My school has given students more freedom to [change majors]. Nearly everyone can in the first college year, but only a small portion of students have done that. I don’t know if it is because it’s a common practice in universities now or just because we have a new school president who’s very liberal.” I think what’s most interesting about this is the students do not wish to change their major. This may indicate that the gaokao is doing what it is supposed to do, putting students in majors that fit them best, at least with this particular university.

It’s hard to say whether creative thinking or accumulation of facts is the better education philosophy when most of us have only grown up with one or the other, but even the policy makers in China are starting to change their idea as the economy grows and they face the challenge of keeping up with the rest of the world. Is that because the west has the money and power? Or do the Chinese really see a need for change?

You and Hu (2013) examine the recent policy changes that have been taking place. Where should the reforms start, in the national curriculum or within college admissions? The policy makers of China see the need to diversify their education system while the educators look to tradition for guidance. Like all other countries, China is struggling with the rapid developments of economy and preservation of its culture. A high school teacher recently revealed some of her struggles asking, “How teachers are supposed to integrate western teaching methods when they are busy preparing the students for the gaokao?”

If the universities do begin to diversify their selection process, guanxi, the very cultural relationship factor, may very well impede the harder working students. The gaokao is designed for equity. If the policy makers open the college application process up to resumes and interviews, it may be much easier for families with power and money to pull strings and get their children into top universities.

If a new “quality education” does make its way out of these policy reforms, what will the system look like? And how long will it take?


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