Letter from Sterling K. Speirn, president and CEO

Sterling K. SpeirnThe W.K. Kellogg Foundation is among a small but growing number of foundations that have embraced a pre-birth to third grade framework, sometimes called a Zero to Eight early childhood strategy. We use this to target – across two generations of parents and their very young children – all of our philanthropic investments, spanning our program areas of Education & Learning; Food, Health & Well-Being; and Family Economic Security. Since we adopted this perspective seven years ago, we are encouraged by the increasing numbers of public sector leaders – from federal agencies and cabinet secretaries to governors across blue and red states – who are beginning to call for more integration and alignment of the systems that support families with very young children.

This is encouraging news, for while so much of the discussion concerning “education reform” tends to focus on what we call the K-12 system, we believe that the re-imagination of education will ultimately move us to another place. The wellspring of lifelong success lies in the world we shape that is inhabited by infants, toddlers and preschoolers in their first five years.

We know now as Ron Lally at West Ed and many others have discovered that much of what gets in the way of learning in elementary, middle and high schools has to do with lessons missed, skills undeveloped and experiences in the world that have shaped the early development of too many children under less than optimal conditions.

There is unquestionably a “common core curriculum” for infants and toddlers, where experiences profoundly shape expectations and those expectations in turn shape perceptions.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff at Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, Professor Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington and many others have helped take us deeper into what is actually going on in the infant brain. Scientifically it is fascinating. But it is even more than that. There is a Mind in the Making, as Ellen Gallinsky in her book has described it. And, as David Brooks has helped explain in his book, The Social Animal, beyond the conscious cognitive mind, there is the even more important development of the unconscious mind, with its innate gregariousness that explains why the development of very young children is driven by their never-ending need to connect to the adults around them. For very young children, it’s not only about the brain and the mind, it’s about their hearts and souls.

At WKKF, we have a unique advantage to engage with practitioners and communities around early childhood development precisely because we are able to do this in a truly whole child and whole family approach. Before pregnancy we focus on a woman’s overall life course. We are promoting healthier birth outcomes and attacking racial disparities in infant mortality. We are working to make hospitals and communities “Baby-Friendly” so that mothers can connect with and nourish their infants exclusively with mother’s milk for at least the first six months of their children’s lives. For the first time in decades, the rates of new moms successfully breastfeeding are rising.

WKKF has been a leader in increasing awareness of the social determinants of health, and it is very encouraging to see policymakers and communities embracing this framework. Take nutrition. After decades of programs and investments in food systems, our work to build a good food movement in the United States is transforming school food and hospital food, building community food systems to increase locally and regionally sourced food, spawning an urban agriculture movement and raising awareness of what a fair food system would mean for health, social equity and environmental sustainability. All this increases the likelihood that
a toddler, once weaned, will enjoy fresh, affordable and healthy food at home and at his child care center.

Successful early childhood development means also addressing what we might call the social determinants of education. WKKF has been a leader in promoting a dual generation approach that informs what it means to have a whole family approach. A parent’s education, her aspirations for herself and her child and how the whole community supports and encourages her increased economic security are critical components of vibrant early childhood experiences.

No entrepreneur in the business world would hesitate for a minute to enter a market where the research and development has been conducted, the proof of concept has been more than amply verified and Nobel Laureate economists like James Heckman have calculated that the return on investment is virtually guaranteed to have positive and ever increasing cash flows in just five years.

We stand today at a similar threshold in terms of an early childhood strategy.

Given the insights scientists, economists, educators and physicians have given us, it is disturbing to see what gets lost in translation when new approaches are being considered. Few would argue with the goal of providing universal access to high quality preschool for 4-year-olds whose parents work out of the home, but this ignores what happens to infants and toddlers in their earliest, most formative years. It is like putting a child who can’t swim in a leaky boat without a life vest and telling her she must paddle to the other side of a mile-wide river. To shorten this hazardous journey, we have built a dock on the other side of the river. But what the child most needs is a safe boat and swimming lessons and then someone waiting on
the dock across the river.

Bill Gates once said that “Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.” There are millions and millions of children in this country who are waiting for us to apply all that we have discovered about the power and immense consequences of positive and robust early childhood development. Not only would we reduce inequity and increase racial equity, we would unleash a tsunami of talent and achievement that would give our next generation, and with it our country, a path to a better future.

I do not believe in silver bullets, and certainly not as a curative for the skein of issues that come under the heading of “vulnerable children.” But I have long been convinced that a focus on early childhood development in all its dimensions has the potential to address vulnerability across multiple generations in a way that few other strategies possess.

When I came to the Kellogg Foundation in 2006, I had just spent more than a decade working on a Zero to Third Grade initiative in California known as the Peninsula Partnership for Children, Youth and Families. I was excited to find a long history of work in early childhood health and education dating back to our earliest days in the 1930s, and to the words of our founder, W.K. Kellogg, who said, “All my life, I have seen children – some very near and dear to me – who suffered misfortunes that could have been either cured or at least greatly helped by correct attention at the time it most counted. This should be the heritage of every child of the world.”

I am delighted to see this framework now guiding all of our philanthropic investments. And I am convinced that, as the foundation moves forward, it will demonstrate that by dramatically improving the social, emotional, physical and cognitive development of all our children between birth and their eighth year of life. I am also personally thrilled the board of trustees selected La June Montgomery Tabron as the foundation’s next president and CEO.

I am confident that under her leadership, WKKF will continue to build the essential stepping stones for children’s lifelong health, learning and success, and for those of future generations. We remain grateful to our partner foundations, our grantee practitioners, our public sector champions in government and all those who share this passion to transform our fundamental approach to the social determinants of education and health. Together we can – and must – foment an “Early Childhood Revolution.”