Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2022 National League of Cities’ City Congressional Conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
As President & CEO of the Smarter Learning Group, Ron Fairchild works directly with communities nationwide. He works with foundations, nonprofits and school districts across the country, all to expand educational opportunities for low-income kids and families. As Fairchild describes, getting to continual strong results takes work. But the ability to get there—and the responsibility to try to improve the next generation of outcomes—exists in every community.
Chris Riback: Ron, great to see you. Thank you for joining us at the studio.
Ron Fairchild: Thanks for having me, Chris.
Chris Riback: So, what is the Smarter Learning Group? Who do you work with, and what do you do?
Ron Fairchild: Yes, so the Smarter Learning Group is our consulting practice. We started about 11 years ago. We work with foundations, nonprofits, school districts across the country, all trying to expand educational opportunities for low-income kids and families.
Chris Riback: COVID helped really shine a light on the myriad gaps that exist. I mean, yes, childhood learning, but all also there are issues in access to health care, safe employment, child care, and more. How do you help communities think about prioritizing early childhood learning when there’s so much else going on?
Ron Fairchild: There is a lot going on. I’ve dedicated my career to educational equity. I’ve been a teacher. I’ve worked in the nonprofit field. Prior to starting a consulting practice, I founded the National Summer Learning Association. So, my whole career has been about really expanding opportunities for kids and families who haven’t had them. What I have learned over the years is that local communities really have the power and the ideas and the innovation that it takes to close opportunity gaps and to really expand learning opportunities for young people.
I think what it takes is some kind of organizing framework. We’ve done a lot of work with The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading over the last 10 years. What we’ve learned from local communities, if you have a milestone that really matters, that’s consequential in the lives of young people, you can really rally and mobilize an entire community around a metric and around data to improve something like grade-level reading proficiency, when it tends to be an issue that really can galvanize a lot of public support that otherwise might not exist.
Chris Riback: So, give me an example of that. Maybe a community, if you can name it, great, but if you can’t, just give me the example, of how you help them think about really navigate through all of those challenges. It feels to me, as an outsider, that it’s this combination of navigating a bunch of different challenges and then finding a way to connect the opportunities and the outcomes. But give me an example of something that you guys have done.
Ron Fairchild: Well, I think the starting point is really critical. So, one of the things that we did very early on with The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading-
Chris Riback: Yes.
Ron Fairchild: … I’m going to say, this really is a strategy about disrupting generational poverty, which is a way to bring people together to say, “If you really want to disrupt generational poverty, one of the earliest and best measures we have is whether or not kids are reading proficiently by the end of third grade.”
And what we know is far too many kids are missing that milestone. Far too many kids are not hitting the mark on that. And what we can do, I think, when we agree on a milestone like that, as a community, you can bring a lot of partners to the table and really say, “Hey, wait a minute. The birthright promise of this country is the notion that where you started should not determine where you end up.”
And what we know is for far too many kids and families, without hitting that milestone, they’re not going to succeed. And, so, that has been a formula that has helped mobilize and energize communities to take action. And I don’t think anything motivates people to take action more than knowing that when they actually do take action, that that adds up to real progress. It can make a real difference in the lives of kids and families.
And we know that if you want to move something like third-grade reading, makes no sense to start in third grade. You’ve got to start prenatal, all the way to third grade. And so many of our challenges, so many of our problems, feel so big and intractable-
Chris Riback: Yes. Yep.
Ron Fairchild: … and so fractious, that I think sometimes what we need is a framework, something we can agree on, a set of data that we can all look at and say, “You know, we really have a problem here. We’ve got to do something. Who do we need to bring to the table to really make progress, to do something about that?”
Chris Riback: So, what’s your guidance for local officials, maybe it’s school boards, but maybe it’s mayors or city councils, who say to you, “I would love to do that, but have you been to one of my school board meetings lately? I can’t get parents to agree on anything.”
What tips do you have? How do you get them to come together, at a time when it feels like getting communities together on even the simplest issues can be challenging?
Ron Fairchild: Yes. I think what we need is common sense consensus. And I think the key to that, often, is leading by listening, by really hearing what people have to say, understanding what the underlying concerns are. I have yet to meet a parent or a community leader who thinks helping kids learn to read is a bad idea.
So, I think things like that, hard to get folks to argue with the idea that kids should be engaged in productive, constructive learning activities-
Chris Riback: Yes.
Ron Fairchild: … in every setting or every context, summer or after-school learning. These are all things throughout my career that I’ve really dedicated my life to, really, because I’ve seen, not just the power and the impact of those programs and opportunities, but the ability to really galvanize people around things that really most folks agree with. I mean, I look for an 80-20 kinds of issues, where you get [crosstalk] 80% of people agree that this is a good idea, then surely, starting with the kids and families that need those opportunities the most, makes good sense.
Chris Riback: Do any of the parents, I don’t know if you end up engaging with the parents, do any of the parents talk to you about, “I was skeptical that I could find something that I agreed with, with this school board, with this city council, but this program really helped me understand what the opportunities can be.”
Do you get any of the feedback from the parents, or is that not where your feedback comes from? Do you hear more from the public officials?
Ron Fairchild: Well, I think talking to parents is absolutely critical and essential, both parents that are struggling and that are encountering challenges and barriers, but also the parents who’ve succeeded, perhaps even succeeded against the odds. I think we need to take the time to understand their journeys, what it took for them and their kids to succeed. I think that’s absolutely critical and important.
And one of the major problems sometimes, I think, for many public officials and folks who do work like we do, is we get too far away from community and get too far away from the real needs that parents and families have. And I don’t think anything has reinforced that more than the experience we’ve been through over the last two years with COVID.
Chris Riback: And what’s your outlook? I mean, you get to talk with officials all over the country, see programs all over the country. What’s your outlook for us?
Ron Fairchild: I’m energized, and I’m excited, and I’m hopeful about what I see as an opportunity to recover in ways that are a lot better than where we were prior to COVID. I don’t think-
Chris Riback: You see that energy?
Ron Fairchild: I see that. I see that energy. I mean, it’s hard not to feel that when you’re with more than 2000 elected leaders in an event like this.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Ron Fairchild: And to really start to see the creativity and the resources, really, to back that up. I think we’re at an unprecedented opportunity. I know that word is used all the time now, but I really don’t think that is … that’s overstating it.
I mean, we are in a situation now, where I don’t hear too often from folks that say, “Oh, we don’t have the money to do that anymore.” They do. And it’s just how the resources get deployed and prioritized. And the communities that have really spent the last 10, 15 years building infrastructure around child care, around early learning, they’re so much better poised to take advantage of this opportunity and to meet the moment than places that haven’t.
Chris Riback: Well, it’s excellent to hear. We will take your energy, and we will try to help spread it. Ron, thank you for joining us in the studio.
Ron Fairchild: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.