June 17, 2019

Episode #2: Too Small to Fail

In this episode, Chelsea Clinton sits down with Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, and Dr. Susan Neuman, New York University Professor of Childhood and Literacy Education, to share stories and strategies on how to help every child reach their full potential.

Nearly 60 percent of children in the United States show up to kindergarten unprepared to learn. This problematic truth results in a lifelong burden that no child should bear and can have broader consequences across society. The issue is especially acute for children in low-income families and at-risk communities, as they often start behind in kindergarten and are less likely to catch up. The good news is that strong relationships and simple actions like talking, reading, and singing with children from birth can make a big difference in a child’s future.

Chelsea, Ralph, and Susan, along with Patti Miller, CEO of Too Small to Fail, the Clinton Foundation’s early childhood initiative, also highlight the Foundation’s innovative approaches to providing families with language and learning opportunities in the laundromat, grocery store, and other places parents go with their children everyday.

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Transcript

Ralph Smith:
I would say the most important thing is for our community to come face-to-face with a truth that’s inconvenient, that’s uncomfortable, and that’s highly problematic. The truth is this, most of the children who are not prepared to enter kindergarten never catch up and saying ‘never’ is really strong because none of us ever want to say that about a 3-year-old, or a 4-year-old, or a 5-year-old, but that is the truth.

Susan Neuman:
I was working with fifth graders and I felt I was not a very good teacher. I went to a wonderful school, but I felt I went into that class and the children were fifth graders who were on the second-grade reading level. Despite everything I tried to do I could not improve their reading and their hope about their future, and so I said, “I need to go and work with younger children.” That’s when I became really interested in early childhood because I recognized those years if we don’t do it right we’re often suffering the consequences later on.

Chelsea Clinton:
Research shows that almost 60% of children show up for kindergarten unprepared. They are more likely to fall further behind in school every year after that. They’re less likely to go to college and they’re less likely to get the job of their dreams or earn an income that their work deserves. Not being prepared for kindergarten is a lifelong tax that no child should bear and it certainly isn’t a child’s fault or their parents’ fault.

Speaker 4:
Studies have shown children in lower income families often don’t get the same rich literary environment that higher income children do.

Speaker 5:
Look at the education of kids, even kids at preschool age, and you see an achievement gap.

Chelsea Clinton:
Right now we’re wasting a huge amount of potential in our country. Who knows what diseases we haven’t cured or discoveries we haven’t made because we’re not giving every child an equal chance at success in life, and so I’m so passionate about this issue because, particularly now, as a parent I know that every parent wants to do the best that we can for our kids every day of their lives. I want to do everything that I can to ensure that every parent, grandparent, caregiver, adult in the lives of young children have every possible opportunity to surround those kids both with love but also with words.

Chelsea Clinton:
Why am I telling you this? Because we owe it to our children to solve this.

Chelsea Clinton:
Hi, I’m Chelsea. Welcome to Why Am I Telling You This? A Clinton Foundation podcast. In each episode, we will share stories of the people, issues, and events that have shaped our work and our world.

Chelsea Clinton:
There are simple ways parents can strengthen their children’s early brain and language development by talking, reading, and singing during everyday moments and routines. That’s why I’m so proud of the work we’re doing at Too Small To Fail, our early childhood program at the Foundation.

Bill Clinton:
Let me say there are some public programs that bear directly on early childhood development. The Head Start program, which we’ve expanded by 43% over the last four years.

Hillary Clinton:
Every child deserves a chance, a fair chance at success in school, and that’s what Too Small To Fail is all about.

Chelsea Clinton:
Whether they are in Spanish-speaking homes, English-speaking homes, whether they’re privileged or not because I think that ultimately is the test of the Clinton Foundation. Are we helping as many people in as many places as we can?

Chelsea Clinton:
One way we do this is by transforming everyday informal spaces into language-rich environments for children and families, such as the pediatrician’s office, the playground, grocery stores, and laundromats. Today I’m joined by Dr. Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood and literacy education at New York University, and Ralph Smith, managing director of The Campaign For Grade-Level Reading. You’ll also hear from our Too Small To Fail chief executive officer Patti Miller, who is working with our partners to make sure that every child has the best possible chance at success in school and in life.

Chelsea Clinton:
Susan one of the things that we’ve talked about is how every interaction with our children is a learning opportunity. Yet, one of the things that we’ve also talked about is how many parents still think, “Well, until my child can talk back to me, why am I going to talk to my child?” Not recognizing that the more that we talk to our children from the earliest days, the more able they’ll be to talk back and engage with us.

Susan Neuman:
Absolutely. One of the things that we do a lot at NYU is focus on the importance of oral language development. There’s nothing more precious, and all of us know, than the parent-child relationship and the parent engaging that child in talk. There’s a special kind of talk that is very important in term of children’s literacy development. When a parent responds to a child’s query and when the parent extends that query, we know children are really extending and learning language. The parent talk is so critically important to what children will do and how children think of themselves as literacy learners.

Chelsea Clinton:
We know how important those interactions are to helping foster healthy relationships, too, between kids and parents.

Ralph Smith:
Well, let me build on that a bit. There are Spanish-speaking parents who believe that speaking Spanish to their children at home will make it more difficult for them to succeed at school.

Chelsea Clinton:
Even though we know it’s the opposite.

Ralph Smith:
Even though we know it’s the opposite. The message of an English-first and sometimes English-only culture essentially incapacitates those parents in terms of helping their children. Sometimes inadvertently we send a message that you should read to your children for 15, 20, 30 minutes a day. Sometimes we don’t nuance that message enough so that parents who themselves are illiterate don’t feel left out. We don’t often say you can sing, you can talk–

Chelsea Clinton:
In any language.

Ralph Smith:
You can pray.

Chelsea Clinton:
In any language.

Ralph Smith:
In any language.

Chelsea Clinton:
And it helps build your child’s brain, and it helps build your child’s … Ultimately, their executive function and everything that we know is critical to success just in life.

Ralph Smith:
Absolutely.

Chelsea Clinton:
Ralph, tell us a little bit about The Campaign For Grade-Level Reading.

Ralph Smith:
The Campaign For Grade-Level Reading is really an effort to disrupt generational poverty, and what we hope to do is to make a dent in generational poverty by mobilizing communities to take on children not reading at grade level by the time they leave third grade.

Chelsea Clinton:
How did you get involved?

Ralph Smith:
That’s a much longer story, but I had an opportunity to work with a school district in Philadelphia about 30 years ago. In working with the school district, I got bitten by the bug because I kept asking the question, why were so many people working so hard knowing so much and accomplishing so little for so many kids? Once you begin asking that question you can’t step away from it, and little by little I was brought to this place where I understood that this has a lot to do with poverty. Had a lot to do with communities not really understanding what the issue was and that if we were going to change the outcomes we had to change what happened in and with communities mobilized around kids.

Ralph Smith:
We know a lot more about more brain development today than we knew two decades ago, three decades ago, but we really haven’t integrated what we know into much of the work and we still look at this issue as if there’s a system response in the sense that we’ve all sort of mobilized around pre-K. But the fact of the matter is, pre-K, while it helps, is still too little, too late. It’s not about moving a program down further to 3-year-olds, and then 2-year-olds, and then 1-year-olds. It’s really about mobilizing the best and strongest resources that any kid has and that is her or his parents. We’ve got to do a lot better than we’re doing today, so it’s really getting the message right, getting the tools right, getting the information and the knowledge so that parents can really step into and step up to the role they need to play.

Chelsea Clinton:
Well, I couldn’t echo that more strongly because I think we know intuitively and from data that parents want our children to succeed. Susan, can you just talk a little bit about what your work focuses on now?

Susan Neuman:
Well, one of the things that we do that’s so important, I think, is we’re focusing on informal literacy spaces. Many of our spaces, day-to-day places where people might go have opportunities for literacy and we haven’t recognized that before. We’ve often thought of these places as places where we bring children but they just sort of hang around and loiter while we do our work. One of the things that we’ve begun to do is transform those spaces.

Chelsea Clinton:
Clearly, Susan, that is so resonant with me because that’s part of what we focus on here at Too Small To Fail. It now seems so obvious that we should be using wherever kids are spending time as an opportunity to surround them with language and language prompts. Yet, that hasn’t been the case for so long. Why do you think it took us quite a while to kind of come to this realization that places where kids and families spend time should be language-rich environments?

Susan Neuman:
I think we think about literacy as school. Something we do in school.

Chelsea Clinton:
Or a library.

Susan Neuman:
Or a library. We need to create other spaces that really promote literacy naturally. One of the things that we know is that children talk when there’s something interesting to talk about, and so we have to ensure that–

Chelsea Clinton:
That there’s something interesting to talk about.

Susan Neuman:
That’s right. Exactly. It comes from books, but it also comes from experiences, right? Going to the grocery store, believe it or not, is very exciting for a young child.

Chelsea Clinton:
My kids love the grocery store, Susan, so yes.

Susan Neuman:
Right.

Chelsea Clinton:
We know that while interactions like at the grocery store are hugely important, books still matter, too, and are really profound tools of not only learning but self-discovery and agency for kids. Could you talk a little bit about the gross inequity and inequality that exists in book access in our country for kids and explain what a book desert is?

Susan Neuman:
Well, Chelsea, one of the saddest things, to me, is that across our country we still have what we’ve defined as a book desert. These are virtual communities, communities that do not have access to books. This is particularly important during the summer months, which we’re all coming toward. During those months schools close. Very often Head Starts and childcare centers close, and so how can we possibly get children to read and have parents read to their children if there are no books?

Susan Neuman:
For example, in one community I went to just recently 833 children would have to share one book. Across this country, we see that children do not have access to books. This has a profound effect on their literacy and vocabulary.

Chelsea Clinton:
Susan, where do you think we need to go from here? What do we need to be doing next? Not only here at the Foundation, but really across our partner network around the country.

Susan Neuman:
I think if I had my dream–

Chelsea Clinton:
If you had your dream. If you had a magic wand.

Susan Neuman:
Yeah, if I had my dream, what I think we need to do is support literacy communities. In other words, begin to see our work as not just working with individual parents, but what I think is so brilliant about this laundromat activity and other informal spaces is it begins to create a literacy culture. In other words, an assumption that literacy is part of our lives.

Chelsea Clinton:
We want to know what we can do to help make that possible. Ralph, tell us a little bit about what you have found across the communities that have been really successful efforts? Are there some places that you can say, “Yes, that community mobilized”? Parents and grandparents, caregivers, older siblings, I mean, kind of everybody who’s around young children are engaged in this effort or are we still working to get it right everywhere?

Ralph Smith:
Yes and yes. We’ve seen some communities do remarkable things with parents. We’re seeing in places like the Too Small To Fail effort around laundromats become the basis of a community mobilization. These informal places and spaces create the context for conversation that is not required, that’s not demanded by anybody. Nobody’s being evaluated. It’s creating, I think, what Professor Neuman proposes, and that’s a culture of literacy in these communities. Across the country, we are seeing really good examples of that and those examples are multiplying every day.

Chelsea Clinton:
During our conversation, we reference the many ways Too Small To Fail is working to meet parents where they are by activating informal spaces. To explain what these projects look like in action, let’s turn to Patti Miller.

Patti Miller:
Hi, I’m Patti Miller, CEO of Too Small To Fail at the Clinton Foundation. We started looking at laundromats because we realized that the average family spends two and a half hours a time at the laundromat and there’s a lot of downtime at the laundromat. Families go there together, so we partnered with the Coin Laundry Association, which has a network of 5,000 laundromats, and we started with tip sheets and posters in laundromats. Then we thought, “Wow. Wait a minute. What if we transformed the laundromat into a language-rich environment with a play space?”

Patti Miller:
Last Summer we partnered with the Coin Laundry Association and we actually piloted a new initiative in three laundromats. One laundromat in the Bronx, one in Queens, and one in Brooklyn with a bookcase filled with children’s books, and an alphabet rug, and a table so kids could sit there and read books and color and draw, and a comfy couch and puppets.

Speaker 9:
My favorite part about this space, your child is not just going to be in here running around. Your baby will be in here reading, so she going to be learning stuff.

Speaker 10:
When you’re normally doing laundry, for people who have children, your laundry time is always longer because you’re always chasing after your daughter or she wants to go play with cars.

Speaker 11:
We have a laundromat around the corner of our house and we travel six blocks just to get to this particular one because of the space.

Patti Miller:
Then we actually hired NYU to evaluate what happened and they started observing families coming into the laundromat and saw incredible increase in child-directed literacy activity. Actually, at 30 times the amount of literacy activities took place in these laundromats compared to control laundromats that didn’t have these playful learning spaces there. Then we actually thought, “Okay. What happens if you bring a librarian into these spaces?” And found, again, a tremendous increase in child-directed literacy activities. That kids were engaging with librarians for an average of 47 minutes a time, which is a huge amount of time, particularly for a very young child.

Chelsea Clinton:
[crosstalk 00:16:12] is peek-a-boo.

Patti Miller:
Chelsea Clinton, she’s been championing this effort. She was so enthusiastic and excited to come here to see the work in action.

Patti Miller:
Now we’re going to be able to observe a story time with our special guest reader, Chelsea.

Chelsea Clinton:
Oh, what a busy day we’ve had my busy family, reading, talking, singing too. We love to do all three. The end.

Patti Miller:
Just observing these spaces and to see a child’s eyes light up when they see the space and them to go running into that space and sit down is just so rewarding when they realize, “Wow, this space is for me.” That’s pretty powerful.

Ralph Smith:
It feels to me that one of the most important resources is time, and time is a non-renewable resource. For low-income parents who work multiple jobs and have a lot of demands, we’ve got to figure out how to help them use the time they have to do more and better for the kids. There’s a time, there’s a respite time, a time where every parent says, “I’m going to do something for myself.” What do you do? Watch TV and listen to the radio.

Ralph Smith:
Too Small To Fail, in this amazing partnership with Univision, has figured out how to take the respite time and make it productive time in terms of parenting. That, it feels to me, is something quite special and I think that the communities across the country are going to resonate with the opportunities of Too Small To Fail their self. I’m excited. I’m intrigued and excited by that.

Chelsea Clinton:
It sounds like you’re optimistic, even if we have a lot of work to do.

Ralph Smith:
I’m optimistic. Let me say, what you’re figuring out how to do, and do well, and do with the rest of us is how to take that parent care and love, that’s sort of an inexhaustible resource, and marry it to the non-replenishable, non-renewable resource that’s time. It’s that combination that over the long run will make a really big difference for these kids who are now falling off the charts and about whom we find it really hard to admit that if we don’t do something dramatically different from what we’re doing now, we’re going to lose these kids for good.

Chelsea Clinton:
That’s just unacceptable.

Ralph Smith:
Unacceptable.

Chelsea Clinton:
Well, because it’s uncomfortable… because it’s just unconscionable to me that we will have ever permitted that to happen in our country. The more that I think we can do at Too Small To Fail to help ensure that it is easy for parents to know how to help their kids succeed and then easy to be able to activate that knowledge, that’s good for those children and that’s good for our future.

Susan Neuman:
I think a lot of the things that we do, a little bit means a lot. What I mean by that is we might think that the laundromat is just one environment, but we need to go beyond that. We need to go into hair salons, nail salons. We need to go into libraries, bus stops, grocery stores, WIC centers. Everywhere children may go they should have access to a book, to a loving parent and a loving adult who wants to read to them, who wants to engage them in talk and play. They need to see this as an all-encompassing, 360-degree surround.

Susan Neuman:
I mean, your mother said it a long time ago when she said, “It takes a village.” I really believe that. I believe that strongly, that every single person in this community must work together to ensure that child has no opportunity to fail. I am committed to that notion that too many of our children are not thriving, and it’s a tragedy that is so natural and so unnatural in the way in which we educate children today.

Chelsea Clinton:
So, we all then need to do a better job of encouraging language and curiosity and ensuring that those two are twinned together for every child.

Susan Neuman:
Absolutely.

Chelsea Clinton:
Ralph, thank you so much. I’m really grateful for your time, and even more for all the work ahead.

Ralph Smith:
Well, I’m looking forward to it. Keep it up.

Chelsea Clinton:
Susan, thank you, and thank you for helping ensure that those of us who are parents, or grandparents, or caregivers are ever learning more about what we need to do to be the best possible influences in our children’s lives at every stage. Thank you so much.

Susan Neuman:
Great. Thanks.

Chelsea Clinton:
Thanks for listening. Tune in every other week for a new episode. For more, subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts. To learn more about our work to improve lives across the country and around the world, visit clintonfoundation.org. Next on, Why Am I Telling You This?

Chelsea Clinton:
We’re here today, Kurt, on this pretty extraordinary moment together. What was your reaction when you heard that finally after 50 years the NYPD was going to actually apologize?

Kurt:
Wow. I don’t know how … I don’t even know how to put it into words. Fifty years ago they were arresting us and fighting us, and they blocked themselves in our bar, and now a formal apology 50 years later? I think it’s amazing that this is happening and where we’ve come. We’re now together.