Elliot’s Provocations: Avoiding the Implementation “Valley of Death” - Early Learning Nation

Elliot’s Provocations: Avoiding the Implementation “Valley of Death”

Elliot’s Provocations unpacks current events in the early learning world and explores how we can chart a path to a future where all children can flourish. Regarding the title, if you’re not steeped in early childhood education (ECE) lingo, a “provocation” is the field’s term—taken from the Reggio-Emilia philosophy of early education—for offering someone the opportunity to engage with an idea. 

We hope this monthly column does that: provocations are certainly not answers, but we hope Elliot’s Provocations helps you pause and consider concepts in a different way.

There is a concept, variously used in science and business, known as the “valley of death.” In essence, this is the dangerous period between research & development and on-the-ground adoption where many ideas and ventures fail. I once heard the concept applied to public policy in the sense that between a good policy and on-the-ground impact is a valley of death that can only be bridged by good implementation. Even as we strive for an effective, equitable, well-funded child care system, there are steps that can be taken to ensure any new policies can avoid the valley and maximize their intended impacts.

We have seen the valley phenomenon time and time again in different sectors. Right now, a textbook example is playing out in the higher education space: a well-intentioned effort to streamline the financial aid form known as FAFSA has turned into a complete disaster. In a vacuum, the idea was good: FAFSA was overly complicated and confusing, and simplifying the form would make it easier for students, especially those from historically disenfranchised populations, to apply for aid. In reality, the new system was not ready for prime time: glitchy, unable to handle many non-traditional family situations, sending 70,000 emails(!) to an inbox no one at the Department of Education knew existed. It has been, quite simply, a debacle, one that has caused real harm to students and their families.

So, what steps can be taken to lay the groundwork for effective policy implementation in U.S. child care, both now and in the future? It starts with increasing state administrative capacity. While “bureaucrat” has come to take a negative connotation, the fact is most individuals working in state agencies are dedicated civil servants doing important work in offices that are frequently understaffed and overwhelmed. (Fun fact: did you know that “good enough for government work” was originally a complimentary phrase meaning something that met the exacting standards of the U.S. military?) In recent decades there has been systematic neglect of these agencies, leading to what scholars have termed the “hollow state,” whereby governments are increasingly reliant on third parties like nonprofits and for-profit companies to deliver basic services. The pandemic caused further shrinkage in state and local government personnel. In child care, some of those third-party partners, like Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, also struggle with underfunding and capacity challenges.

We saw the consequence of this understaffing when many state agencies struggled to distribute pandemic relief funding for child care as well as other services like housing assistance. Some states have also been having trouble paying child care providers on time or processing licensing applications or background checks in a timely manner. And, it has long been the case that many states lack the staff to conduct regular quality inspections. On the flipside, when Congress surged money to help the IRS staff up, call wait times were slashed and the agency was able to start recovering funds from wealthy tax cheats.

Alongside state capacity is the need to upgrade data systems. Child care—and early childhood in general—is notorious for having fragmented data. As policy expert Elliot Regenstein, who authored a report on early childhood data modernization, has written: “there’s so much we don’t know about the early childhood system that we need to. And there’s so much information that, if we had it, we could use to improve our state and local systems. Which children are in which services? What are the long-term impacts of those experiences?” As those data systems are modernized—which requires some distinctly unflashy but important steps around modernizing government technology, as Jennifer Pahlka explores in Recoding America—we also need to be working to engage providers. States like Louisiana and Massachusetts have demonstrated in recent years how tethering data participation to public funding can offer far more transparency while enabling agencies to push out resources faster. The presence of intermediate layers of governance, like Louisiana’s Ready Start Networks, can help as well.

Finally, by reforming existing infrastructure systems, such as distribution of child care subsidy vouchers or program licensing and background checks, we will be establishing the building blocks for a more functional future. As researchers at Georgetown’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation have written, “State-level child care assistance systems face a number of complex and interconnected market, operational and policy challenges. In this reality, states and the CCR&Rs they rely on as delivery partners can merely react to issues; they struggle to engage in proactive, future-focused, strategic work to shift the status quo.” The researchers propose a federal-state partnership aimed at rapidly experimenting with different models that are grounded in the actual user (family) experience. Similarly, some states and cities are experimenting with ways to cut down on red tape: last year, Boise enacted changes that will reduce the licensing approval time for family child care providers from an average of 94 days to 25 days and eliminate a zoning approval requirement.

Most of these shifts require more funding, of course. But in this case, we are not talking about the tens and tens of billions of dollars required annually to create a workable universal child care system. We are talking about far smaller sums that will shore up implementation capacity and help avoid the valley of death when bold policies finally do get passed. Indeed, the Biden administration deserves praise for their work in this area: in the newly codified Child Care and Development Fund rule, states are now required to adopt on-time payment practices and streamline family enrollment. These requirements should hopefully spur states to action without breaking the bank.

A child care system that works well for all children, families, and providers does not lie on the other side of the valley of death. At the risk of overextending the metaphor, such a system lies on the top of a mountain that rises up from that valleyside. But whatever path we take up that mountain, and however long it takes to summit, we need to cross the valley on the way. That means investing time, energy and funds into building out the components needed for effective implementation, and, more importantly, on-the-ground impact.

Elliot Haspel is a nationally-recognized child & family policy expert and commentator, with a specialty in early childhood and education issues. He is the author ofCrawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It, and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita. Elliot has appeared on television as an analyst, including onThe PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, and his writings have appeared in a wide variety of top publications, including The New York Times,The Washington Post, andThe Atlantic. Elliot holds an B.A. in History from the University of Virginia and an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Elliot also writes a free semi-monthly newsletter, The Parents Aren't Alright.

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