Voices from the Field: Danielle Ewen

“We did succeed in the weave-in strategy [in ESSA] that NAEYC and others have been promulgating for years, and that gives us a huge opportunity to really grow understanding about what young children need in classrooms…”

Interview with
Danielle Ewen
Senior Policy Advisor
Education Counsel

Danielle Ewen

by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Danielle Ewen served in numerous leadership positions in child care and early education policy before coming to Education Counsel as a senior policy advisor. She previously served as the Director of the Office of Early Childhood Education in the District of Columbia Public Schools, where she oversaw the operations of programs serving three- and four-year old children in high quality, comprehensive classrooms. Early in her career, she worked as a Policy Analyst at the US Department of Education in the Office of Migrant Education.

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Danielle: Well, I’m hind of a policy wonk to my very heart, and my senior honors thesis in college was about child care policy, and I actually did lots of phone interviews from California to people in Washington, including Helen Blank, when she was still at CDF (Children’s Defense Fund). So I sort of was born into it in a way. That’s how I started. Then I went to policy school and was a Presidential Management intern at the Department of Education. And from there I went on to a number of policy organizations including CDF and CLASP (Center for Law and Social Policy) and always did policy about young kids.

Steven: What do you see as the role of policy makers and advocates, with whom you work now in your position, in improving access to quality early learning programs?

Danielle: That’s a big question. I think there are probably three things. I think we have an obligation to always talk, whether we are in the policy realm or advocates or both, about what’s best for kids and their families. So keeping that at the forefront of the conversations is our first obligation. Our second obligation is to really think about how the early childhood system and the K-12 system can come together to provide access to quality education for kids that need it and have never had that, or who are in communities that are underserved. The third thing is to really make sure that young kids are part of the conversation that we are having.  With the big changes that are going on with ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), it’s very easy, especially in the K-12 world, for early childhood programs – and even K-1-2-3 – to get left out of the big conversations about education reform. Our kids are in those systems, our kinds need access to the highest quality we can provide and good teachers and great programs. If we are not part of those conversations wherever policy conversations are happening, then we won’t get the best outcomes for our kids.

Steven: What opportunities for early learning do you see in the new education law and what do you see as some of the challenges?

Danielle: That’s a great question. I’m going to start with the challenges because I think there are two big challenges. The first challenge is that it is not an early childhood law and that we are at best a tertiary concern for many folks and folks that haven’t already been thinking about early childhood as part of their effort to implement it, won’t have this at the forefront of their mind. So I think the nature of the law is one big challenge for the early childhood world. The second challenge is big. There are these large buckets of reform built into the law — creating new accountability systems, reviewing assessments across states, thinking about school improvement, thinking about teacher effectiveness and evaluation systems, and continuous improvement of stakeholder engagement. And in none of those places in the law, is early childhood even mentioned. And yet, we need to be at the table. We need to be part of the conversation in every one of those areas so that whatever states come up with is appropriate for young kids from birth through third grade, depending on which part of the curriculum folks are willing to talk about in the K-12 frame. And there’s a real danger that folks representing early childhood and early elementary won’t be listened to in a real way, and we will either get policies that aren’t good for kids — push down, bad assessment, indicators that don’t really apply to our kids. Or we will miss opportunities to really think about how to include indicators of quality early childhood, like CLASS new disparity data into the kind of systems we want to build to make sure there are high-quality pathways to all kids and families. So those are the challenges.

And I think the opportunities are all the places where it’s an allowable use. I’m really excited where the definition of “professional development” in the bill includes early childhood providers, includes helping school leaders understand child development. I’m excited that we are not just an allowable use, but the language around understanding what the Head Start standards are, understanding what it means to provide a quality environment, is now embedded in state responsibilities. If LEAs are going to use the money that way, states have to explain and help them implement in a high quality way. I’m really excited that early childhood is included explicitly as an intervention for targeted populations, homeless children, and language minority kids. We did succeed in the weave-in strategy that NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) and others have been promulgating for years. And that gives us a huge opportunity to really grow understanding about what young children need in classrooms, what good teaching and learning looks like for young children and how to grow access to high-quality programs.


Voices from the Field: Albert Wat

“More so than ever before, early childhood educators, program directors, and policy leaders should be able to see themselves in our nation’s most significant public education law, moving us closer to a P-12 system.”

Interview with
Albert Wat
Senior Policy Director
Alliance for Early Success

 Albert Wat

by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Albert Wat is a part of the Leadership Team at Alliance for Early Success, leading a portfolio of state and national partnerships and investments focused on pre-K and the education continuum birth through grade three. Previously, he served as a Senior Policy Analyst in the Education Division of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Research Manager at Pre-K Now. In 2014, Albert served on the committee of the Institute of Medicine’s study, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation.

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Albert: I have been working in education generally for a little bit more than twenty years actually. And in about only half of those years have I been in early learning. I did not intentionally seek out a career in early learning. I was interested in policy and research. So I was doing a master’s degree in education policy at George Washington University. At the end of the program, I was looking for opportunities where I could use that degree, and it was one of those, you know, being at the right time and the right place. I applied for a job at Pre-K Now. They liked me and I liked them, and you know, it worked out from there. So that’s how I got in there. I mean, I like to think that there were some foundational pieces laid. Before that I was doing more community-based work in schools and in the community. And I did a good amount of work around early literacy and family literacy. So those concepts are very familiar to me. I was also a psychology major. It helped me a lot in terms of understanding the science behind what a policy is trying to do.

Steven: How is the work that happens in the states and the efforts that the Alliance does, important to the national movements in early learning?

Albert: I think even though it is not the explicit mission of the Alliance, one of the things that the alliance does is to build capacity in the field to maintain, sustain and grow the movement in early learning. So let me give an overview of how the Alliance does this. You know, the Alliance raises funds from different foundations across the country. And we grant the money out to a variety of national, policy, advocacy, and research organizations that focus on early childhood issues. By doing so I think what we are trying to do is to increase the coherence with which foundations on what does and does not work, and create more coherence around the advocacy effort at the state and national levels. In additional to providing the grant money, we also cultivate a network of state and national organizations, so they can leverage each other’s efforts. We can help them connect to organizations and provide some clear, user friendly information to help their legislative officials. Also in the process, what we are doing in terms of supporting this network is also increasing everybody’s understanding of the research, practices, policies and advocacy of early childhood. We focus on three areas: early learning, health issues and family supports as they relate to young children from 0-8. All those activities I think help build and create the momentum in national level.

Steven: Can you talk a little bit about the opportunities and challenges you see in the new ESSA?

Albert: As I’ve said, I think the best thing about ESSA in terms of early learning is that, more than ever, early learning is reflected in our country’s primary education law. That’s a good thing because I think that reflects a lot of our understanding in the past 10 to 20 years of how kids learn, when the achievement gap appears, and what we need to do before kindergarten to move in onto achievement. There’s more explicit language in the law about the extent to which early childhood programs, educators and the kids in those programs can benefit from those various funding and titles within ESSA. Obviously, Title I is serving the low-income population. But also, the titles around teacher quality, professional development, English language learners, even charter schools, and of course through the literacy from birth to Grade 12 program, early childhood has a part of that. In the literacy program 15% of funds need to be spent on kids from 0-5. Other than that, it’s really up to the discretion of local and state leaders to take advantage of all those funds that can be used for young children. And I will come back to that in a little bit.

The other part of the law obviously is the Preschool Development Grants. I do think that’s important that it is in the law. It is a good foundation to build on. It focuses more on strategic planning, collaboration, coordination for 0-5 within the state, and maybe not as focused on expanding programs or even approving policies that states are working on. All I have to say is that both in terms of the preschool development grant portion of the law and the other titles I mentioned earlier, there’s a really big role for state level leadership, whether it’s inside or outside government to maximize the potential of the law to afford high-quality early learning opportunity. I think chiefs and governors are going to be the stakeholders to work with. And advocates, at the state and local level, are also very important –it is really up to those folks to bring up the profile of early learning as they are developing plans for ESSA at the local level. At the Alliance, we will be working with our state partners to do some of that work. We have a network of state advocacy organizations that we support and a lot of them I know are very interested in what the opportunities behind this law and what it can do for early childhood education.

If I can talk a little bit more broadly, beyond ESSA, at the federal level—I think a lot of the people in the field would agree that the Office of Early Learning has been a great asset to the field at the national level and has really raised the profile of early childhood education. And beyond that, really integrated that issue into different policies and grant opportunities. However the election turns out, our hope is that there would still be a robust role in the Department of Education for early learning. Even if the Department is not going to be as prescriptive, as specific in how it supports early childhood, there’s still a lot the federal government could do to support early childhood. There’s a lot they can do to build on what they are already working on – maybe give more discretion about funding opportunities that can be used for early childhood education. I also think we can still do a lot to encourage and intensify action where more action needs to be taken. A good example of this is the infant toddler issue. I think a lot of state policy makers still struggle to figure out what the role of government is when it comes infant toddler care. I think the federal government can raise the need to invest in that age group and provide services to give all children a good foundation before kindergarten. Early childhood partnerships has been doing that and I think there’s more to be done around how to leverage health care law, resources and infant toddler issues.

Voices from the Field: Laura Bornfreund

“Children are learning from birth. And to make sure all kids have the opportunities they need and deserve when they enter kindergarten and later in life, there needs to be a greater investment in access to high-quality early education.”

Interview with
Director of Early & Elementary Education Policy
New America

Laura Bornfreund

by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Laura Bornfreund is Director of Early & Elementary Education Policy at New America. She examines state and federal policies related to learning and teaching birth through grade 3. She writes on a variety of topics including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, federal education grant programs, teacher preparation, retention, evaluation and support, kindergarten, and early childhood assessment.

Steven: How did you both begin your work in Early Learning?

Laura: I actually started out as a traditionally-trained fourth grade teacher and became interested in the earlier grades because at that fourth grade level, I had so many non-readers or nearly non-readers in my class. So I became really curious about what was happening in the younger grades and what needs to be done in the earlier years to prevent that. But it wasn’t until I left teaching and went to work for the city of Orlando that I got more directly involved in the birth to five years. I helped to implement the city’s Parramore Kidz Zone project, which was modeled after the Harlem’s Children’s Zone. And with that effort, I primarily worked to develop the initiative in that birth to five space. Some of what we did included working with the Orange County Early Learning Coalition to improve the quality of child care providers that were serving some of the kids in the neighborhood and working with families to help identify high-quality child care providers. For families that wanted to keep their children at home, we worked with Healthy Families Orange to do playgroups, parenting-support groups in the neighborhood, and then we also infused some additional city funds into child care subsidies to help more families gain access to the subsidies so they could work more or go back and get some training or schooling. I did that for four years and then moved up to here in DC and, after bouncing around a little bit, I joined New America’s early education initiative in 2010 and as you’ve probably seen, we’ve gone through a transition here and Lisa [Guernsey] has moved on to solely direct the Learning Technologies initiative and become deputy director of the Education Policy Program overall and now I’m doing the early ed work and we’ve changed our name to more reflect what we’re doing which our team is the Early Education and Policy Team. We wanted to be clear to both the birth to five community and the K-3 or K-12 community that we’re working across the continuum and that both those areas are important and need attention and focus.

Steven: What do you see as the role of think tanks like New America in improving quality and access to high quality early learning programs?

Laura: I think New America and similar organizations is to amplify the research on children’s learning birth through third grade; elevate promising state polices and state and local approaches ensuring high-quality learning during that span and help to put that research and our findings in front of policy influencers and policy makers. Just as one example, in November, we released a scan of all 50 states and DC’s birth through third grade policies with an emphasis on literacy. The goal of that project, which was called From Crawling to Walking, was to elevate the policies we think matter most when it comes to make sure children are on track to becoming good readers by the end of third grade, and then also to spotlight those states that have good policies in place. New America is well positioned to do this kind of work because we’re not partisan. We’re not a membership organization. We’re not advocating for funding for a specific program or stream.   The early and elementary education policy team looks across the continuum covering a variety of topics. I like to say that New America is a cross between policy and journalism. Many of the individuals who work here started as reporters, including Lisa Guernsey. It brings a different perspective and a way to translate complex policy or research to a wider audience it helps to have that journalist perspective. And then also we have individuals here representing diverse viewpoints across the political spectrum which allows for interesting debates and general conversations on a variety of issues.

Steven: Why is the President’s proposal to provide high-quality early learning and development programs for our children important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Laura: I think as I don’t have to tell a lot of readers of your newsletter – and this is becoming more increasingly known over the last decade: that children’s education does not begin when they enter kindergarten. Children are learning from birth. And to make sure all kids have the opportunities they need and deserve when they enter kindergarten and later in life, there needs to be a greater investment in access to high-quality early education. And to me it’s clear that the administration understands how important children’s earliest years are, and the President’s emphasis on high-quality early education has been really important to raising the profile of early learning across the country. That has led to increased federal efforts and encouraged states to be more active because of his use of the bully pulpit to talk about early learning. I think some of the real opportunities have been the collaborations between the departments that work on education. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education working together to help children and their families have high-quality birth to five and crossing that continuum into K-3 high-quality opportunities. It’s also great to see Congress reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant with more of a focus on increasing quality. It’s exciting to see the proposed Head Start regs, which I think will be a step in the right direction for the field, and of course, more recently, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes more emphasis on early education. I think the challenges are implementation. This is always a significant challenge –truly realizing policy and having it play out well on the ground. The work that the states and community have to do is really important and needs a lot of attention. I think another challenge is ensuring there’s a high-quality teacher and leader early ed workforce in place. The Transforming the Workforce report that was sponsored by HHS and ED and others is really important for giving some guidance to the field on what needs to happen. But there’re a lot of challenges to realizing the goals and recommendations the report lays out, and then just sustaining and continuing to expand the investment. It was good to see additional dollars in the latest budget, but you want to see growing investment for pre-K, home visiting and other birth to age 8 programs at the state and local level as well as the federal level. Finally I think a challenge is expanding the good work that is happening in birth to five – federal, state, and local levels—efforts that are is just beginning to expand into the overlooked K through third grade. It’s figuring out how to better connect those efforts to really allow for smooth and well-scaffolded transitions for families and their children between pre-k and the early grades.

Voices from the Field: Marcy Whitebook

“Right now, if you major in early childhood, the projections are you will have the lowest lifetime earnings of any college graduate. We have to flip that on its head.”


Interview with Marcy Whitebook
Director & Senior Researcher
Center for the Study of Child Care Employment
Institute for Research on Labor and Employment
by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Marcy Whitebook, Ph.D., joined the Institute and established the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment in 1999, as a researcher focusing on issues of employment in settings for young children, the relationship between good jobs and the quality of services available to children and families, and appropriate and accessible professional preparation for teachers. The Center recently published a brief, Early Childhood Higher Education: Taking Stock Across the States.

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Marcy: Well, I was a Head Start volunteer. The first two summers of Head Start I was still in high school, and I loved it. Then when I finished college, I had been thinking a lot about development and I didn’t major in development in college, but I was thinking a lot about poverty and development and the role of women and women going back to work. So I thought, well good childcare, which is what we called it then (the 1970s when I graduated from college), is sort of the key to a lot of this. We can help children get off to a good start – we didn’t have that language then. We can help women work and also be connected to their children and their families. It just seemed to me like this was a good place to put my energy. I decided I’m going to be a teacher – we called them nursery school teachers then – and I thought that’s what I’m going to do so that’s how I got started.

My first job was in a childcare center and basically I didn’t have to have any qualifications. They just were like whoa, you worked in Head Start. Great! Can you come work here? And it became obvious to me very quickly in that experience that I did not know what I was doing. I was like “Wow, this is hard.” I knew how to clean kids’ faces, but I thought this seems complicated. The kids seem similar but different. How do I really do this? And I had some good mentors, people who were trained. Then, I went to school. I thought “oh I’m going to take classes” because this is complicated and everybody thinks it’s easy. The more I got into it I realized the more complicated it was and the more I needed to understand about development, how children develop similarly and differently and then what was the right way to provide experiences for children that help them go to wherever the next place was. But very early on I went “Gee, we’re not getting any money for doing this.” My other friends were going to enter the medical profession or to do different things. And I’m thinking this is ridiculous how little we are paid, but I was also really upset by how we didn’t have time to plan, there was a lot of turnover, and all the things that became my career really. We weren’t being treated like teachers of older children, and that was problematic for doing the job well. I figured that out pretty early in the experience, and because I was a young person with a goal of making the world a better place, I thought okay we’re going to fix this.

Steven: Can you talk about how teacher preparation and support for that early childhood education workforce is important for early learning?

Marcy: I think the IOM report has done a really good job of saying that the different requirements we have for people doing this work masks the complexity and sort of makes people think that anybody can do it. But I think that throughout human history, people have taken care of children and we can all take care of children in some basic way. That’s why we still have the human species right? But when you’re with a group of children, you have to be making many judgments and assessments and decisions all day long in terms of are children developing normally and, if there’re not? Is development proceeding in a normal progression? Are they developing more slowly in this area or that area or is there something gone array here? So you have to have a basic understanding of development in order to be able to figure out what the children in your group need. But then just because you have a group of three year olds or a group of two year olds or you might have a mixed group of three and four year olds, even though they are in the same chronological age, in those early years of development, there is a wide range of normal in terms of some kids talk really early and some kids talk a little later. The language development will be okay even if they start putting together words at a different point and the same thing with some of the motor development. So it’s also figuring when you have a group of children, where are all the kids on the developmental trajectory and how do I make sure that the learning I’m trying to facilitate touches them where they are. How do you do that for a whole group of people? It’s really complicated right? And you’re also addressing issues around social-emotional development as well as cognitive development and motor development. So you have to be thinking on multiple levels at the same time and thinking about and thinking about how any one activity or learning experience addresses those multiple levels.

You know when I first started it was more theory than science right. A lot of the things we thought were true have turned out to be true, but how do you understand what’s the theory about what’s going on and what’s the science about what’s going on? And then pedagogically what are the ways to engage children that are age-appropriate and it’s different? What you do with a group of four year olds is not the same as what you do with a group of two year olds so I think that education does not necessarily make you good at all those things, but it lays a foundation of knowledge that helps you to guide the development of your skills and practice so you can get good at doing that. So it’s the same thing as a doctor or a lawyer. They have to master a lot of knowledge, but then how good they are at this when they are thinking on their feet when they see someone in front of them and can they weave that knowledge and take those skills they’ve practiced and apply them in the right moment. So to me education is not the only part of it but it’s absolutely the cornerstone of that.

I also think that these higher ed inventories – we’ve now done inventories in seven states – show that in our higher education programs, the opportunities for field-based practice and field-based experiences that really help people strengthen their skills and taking that knowledge and applying it, are really uneven. They are uneven by age and by child. We provide a lot more field-based learning in teacher preparation for teachers who are working with children in kindergarten and older than we do for those working with younger children. Even in terms of the content of our education, we tend to focus more on older children than on infants and toddlers. It does seem like its somewhat responsive to state certification; if you have a P-3 system, you’re more likely to include rigorous content for preschoolers, but our higher education programs have not caught up with what we’re saying we need and what IOM is saying in the zero to eight period. Yes, people can specialize by age group, but we need a base of knowledge and practice for everybody. So there’s work to do there to bring us into the 21st century on that.

Steven: Can you talk a little bit about why the President’s proposal to provide high-quality early learning and development programs for all children is important for our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Marcy: I think that by elevating early learning at the national level the President has really helped to raise this as an issue that the country’s talking about, and I think that through that leadership there’s been a growing recognition on the part of Americans how important this is. Of course it’s been bolstered by a lot that was already going on in the states and then with the Early Learning Challenge Grants and Preschool Development Grants, there’s been a lot of action and emphasis at the state level. I think by shining a spotlight on the issue and giving resources, that’s really helped for us to see movement. Earlier this year, the President said no one should be daycare-poor. We still have a long way to go because the system we have is that most of the funding for early childhood is at the federal level in contrast to K-12, which is mostly state-funded. We still don’t have enough money in the system to make sure that even just all the children living in low-income families have access to affordable services. We’re a long way from that. We’re serving a fraction of the children and so we still have a system where the parent’s ability to pay has a lot to do with what kind of experience the children have and it’s not necessarily equitable. We have this system that’s been packed together with different intents over the years that in most states you have multiple sets of qualifications for people working with children in the same age group depending on the funding and the purpose of the program that the children end up being in. It’s a little bit the luck of the draw and not really equitable for people.

Although we’ve identified early childhood as a strategy for educational reform and for addressing the effects of poverty, the truth is that early childhood jobs for many people create poverty, and they really challenged the people doing them and their families. Because of the lack of resources that really impacts the quality of care. So I think that what the president’s effort has pointed out is that we need a new way of investing in a comprehensive way for early learning in the United States. It’s going to take time, but I think his administration set the stage hopefully for another administration moving us closer to having a system of early education and care that really provides and is equitable and affordable for families, high-quality, and becomes a really good 21st century job. I think the big challenge is that because the system doesn’t have enough resources in it, it’s almost like we can’t talk about these jobs. We’re telling people to get an education, but they don’t get much of a premium for that education. We can’t fix the jobs because we still have so many children to serve. And I think that we have to recognize that fixing the jobs and serving children well are the same problem. If we can make it more affordable for families and we can improve the jobs, we’re then creating a win-win-win for everybody. The families do better, kids will do better, and the people, who choose this work, will do better and will be able to meet their responsibilities. With more support, the people, who have invested in their education and training, will flock to these jobs.

These are not jobs that are going to be traded offshore. We’re not going to lose early childhood jobs, and it’s a win for their families. I think the challenge is really getting people to see that the work of caring for and educating young children should be a sought after 21st century job that it can be a middle-class job that can attract people who’ve invested in their education and training. Right now, if you major in early childhood, the projections are you will have the lowest lifetime earnings of any college graduate. We have to flip that on its head. We need a strategy for changing the jobs so we can really change the services and for realizing that this could be an incredibly attractive 21st century job.

Voices from the Field: Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner & Donna Norton

“In most states in the nation, early education costs more that college so we’re really showing how important this is to moms across the nation and educating leaders about how critical affordable early education is for families and for educating their kids.”

Interview with
Executive Director/CEO Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner and Deputy Director Donna Norton


by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner is the Executive Director/CEO of MomsRising.org. Donna Norton serves as the Deputy Director. Together, they co-founded MomsRising.org, an on-the-ground and online grassroots organization of more than a million people who are working to achieve economic security for all moms, women, and families in the United States.

Steven: How did you both begin your work in Early Learning?

Kristen: MomsRising was launched in May of 2006 with a handful of moms and it has turned into over a million moms with members in every state of the nation in the decade that followed. Early learning has been a priority for our members since the beginning. In particular, our members care deeply about access, affordability, and excellence in early learning and in childcare opportunities for all children. And so from the very beginning, the launch of MomsRising is when our interest in early learning and childcare was also launched.

Donna: Just to echo that it’s a huge issue for our members. It’s become such a struggle for moms to figure out how to find affordable, high quality early learning. In most states in the nation, early education costs more that college so we’re really showing how important this is to moms across the nation and really educating leaders about how critical affordable early education is for families and for educating their kids.

Steven: Can you both talk a little bit about your backgrounds and how you came to this work?

Kristen: Joan Blades and I co-wrote the Motherhood Manifesto and then after the book was published, it was turned into a documentary film and we decided after that the next step was to work for change and so we cofounded MomsRising along with a committee of women including Donna. My son, who’s now 19 years old and healthy, was born with a primary immune system deficiency and I was working in the environmental policy field. I ended up having to quit my job in an unplanned way when he was born in order to take care of him and because he couldn’t be in childcare and early learning due to his illness. So I had a moment when I realized that I was my mom was primarily single when I was growing up and I realized that if I didn’t by luck have a husband whose job’s health care covered us in our time of need and who made enough money to cover food on the table and a roof over our heads and for this unplanned emergency that it could have been an outright disaster. And in fact, it probably would have been an outright disaster for my mom, who was single. I did some research and I started writing about the topic and looking about the topic and really started understanding that luck alone shouldn’t determine the outcome of a child’s life. Luck alone shouldn’t determine if a child can thrive or not. And so from there started writing about the policies in magazines. And I wrote a book called The F-Word: Feminism in Jeopardy and then co-wrote the Motherhood Manifesto, looking at what it takes to make sure that businesses and families can all thrive and having access to high-quality affordable early learning and childcare opportunities is absolutely critical to having our business, our families, and our economy thrive.

Donna: My story is that I was actually working in domestic violence, doing domestic violence prevention work and had two kids and was really struggling to make it all work and realizing that I was barely making any money after the costs of childcare for two kids and decided to stay at home for a couple of years cause it made more sense and really started reading about motherhood and realizing I wasn’t the only one struggling to figure out how to combine career and family and how to make it all work economically and logistically for my life and sort of reading about motherhood and came across Kristin and Joan writing their book and helping with their book and started working on motherhood issues ever since then.

Steven: What do you see as the role of MomsRising in improving quality and access to high quality early learning programs?

Kristen: The role of MomsRising is that we know 84 million moms in America really desperately need access to affordable high-quality childcare. And so our role is to open avenues for busy people to be heard because not only do we know that we have a national emergency when it comes to access to childcare and early learning that’s high quality. We know that we have moms, who are busier than ever, moms are juggling an unprecedented number of roles at the same time and so have very little time for advocacy and policy engagement. MomsRising’s job is to find the points at which moms can make the most difference, open avenues for those moms to share their experiences, share their stories, share their thoughts and feelings on policy, share their contributions and needs with leaders, who have the ability to make a difference with the media, who have the ability to help shape our culture and with each other so that each person knows that when this many people are having this many problems at this many times. We don’t have an epidemic of personal failings. We have structural issues that we have to address and solve together and in doing so, we are empowering our members to be engaged for the better of our country.

Donna: I think that parents have to be part of the solution and we’re part of the system for educating children that we have a lot of wisdom and knowledge to share and we also have a lot to learn so we need to be part of that solution.

Steven: Why is the President’s proposal to provide high-quality early learning and development programs for our children important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Kristen: MomsRising applauds the president for putting childcare and early learning policy center stage when it belongs! One of the things that’s important about his policy placement is that for too long these policies have been set aside and siloed and ignored and since they don’t have economic impact. But with women now 50% of the labor force and 40% of primary breadwinners are moms, childcare and early learning polices are absolutely critical to our overall economic success so we at MomsRising applaud President Obama for raising these policies in a way that everybody needs to respond and be involved with them.

Donna: Echoing what Kristen said, it’s so important for our nation to invest in early learning and we’re so happy that the President has been a leader and really sharing that message. It makes so much sense in terms of our economy and where we are really getting a great return on investment in terms of where we’re investing in the budget. For every dollar that we spend on early learning, we get eight dollars in return –in terms of what it costs for remedial education, we have better earnings when people finish their education, better retention of students in schools so really totally makes sense for our nation to invest in early learning and we’re so happy the President has really taken leadership and prioritizing those investments. Then of course, the challenge is getting our whole Congress to agree to those investments and parents are really key in letting their members of Congress know this is a priority for families and a priority for our nation.

Voices from the Field: Elizabeth Burke Bryant

“We see this as a critical economic issue: we cannot, as states, have the kind of workforce we need if we have children starting out so far behind and never being able to catch up.”

Elizabeth Bryant

Interview with Elizabeth Burke Bryant
Executive Director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT

by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Elizabeth Burke Bryant is Executive Director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, a children’s policy and research organization founded in 1994 that provides information on child well-being, stimulates dialogue on children’s issues, and promotes accountability and action.

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Elizabeth: I started my career in early learning at the same time I began my career in child advocacy over 20 years ago. I was fortunate to be the first executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count. Right from the very beginning of our work to establish a child advocacy organization in Rhode Island, I knew that investments in early learning and early childhood development were the most cost-effective investments states could make along with access to health insurance, child abuse and neglect, and juvenile justice. Early childhood issues and early learning is at the core of our work and have been ever since Rhode Island Kids Count got started.

Steven: What do you see as the role of state advocates in improving the quality of early learning?

Elizabeth: Well, one of the things I’m privileged to be doing right now is that along with Cecilia Zalkind, the Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, my New Jersey counterpart, we have received some logistical support from the Alliance for Early Success to form an ad-hoc group of state-based early learning advocates. We actually got going just at the time President Obama gave a very impassioned speech about the importance of early learning and there were opportunities coming up with the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge and others, and the Preschool Development Grants were fortunately right around the corner. We just felt there was a missing element to federal policy development on early learning, which was that we really needed state-based advocates that are used to working with their partners in state government to launch and grow early learning programs at the state level to really help inform new, exciting federal opportunities in early learning and share a taste of what was going on at the state level – so really a two-way communication channel. We started regular phone calls with state-based advocates around the country to do just that and its worked really, really well.

We appreciate the Alliance for Early Success for bringing us all together but it’s been a real peer to peer learning and strategizing opportunity and what we have found are practical lessons learned from states that have been at the forefront of starting state pre-k programs with governors and legislative leaders. We really have a lot of lessons learned as we try to expand early learning through federal opportunities. We really see that state and federal partnerships are the only way to ensure that many more of our low-income children have access to high-quality preschool in the years before kindergarten.

Steven: Why is the President’s proposal to provide high-quality preschool for all four-year olds important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Elizabeth: First, it’s incredibly important that the President has identified this as a very urgent issue for our country. I think there are some people who believe the job is done, that children have access to preschool but we know in our states and states across the country that huge numbers of children especially low-income children and children with high needs are completely left out and are never in a high-quality early learning program until they enter kindergarten and that puts them even further behind their more advantaged peers. The President – using his incredible bully pulpit to focus like a laser-beam on this issue – was so important and continues to be so important and I think that governors around the country really understand the importance. They’ve been leading the way with very little other than sometimes beleaguered state budgets to put the pieces together for state pre-k programs.

Having the pulpit of the Presidency to focus like a laser beam on it really helps state legislative leaders and governors. We know that there are ways to partner with the federal government of which we always had partnerships with, head start as well. It’s been interesting to see a lot of the ways that – thanks to Preschool Expansion and Development Grants – we have been seeing great partnerships between Child Care and Head Start and public schools. We think the President’s leadership was really important in focusing a lot of needed attention. We see this as a critical economic issue: we cannot, as states, have the kind of workforce we need if we have children starting out so far behind and never being able to catch up. I know in our state, our state leaders – Governor Raimondo, Senate President Paiva Weed, and Speaker Mattiello – all see early childhood education as a core part of Rhode Island’s economic strategy. Having the President put so much attention on this issue has been a way to raise the visibility of this issue and the sense of urgency to serve more children faster.

Voices from the Field: Lisa Guernsey

“Right now the general public agrees and applauds the push for more preschool, but does not necessarily understand the work that needs to happen before and after preschool.”

Interview with Lisa Guernsey
Director of the Early Education Initiative and Learning Technologies Project at New America

Lisa Guernsey

by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and director of the Learning Technologies Project, two projects in the Education Policy Program at New America. Guernsey leads teams of writers and analysts to examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed.

Steven: Can you talk a little bit about how you began your career in early learning?

Lisa: I took an unusual path into early learning and early learning policy. I started my career as a newspaper reporter working at the Chronicle for Higher Education, and then at the New York Times focusing on the intersection of education and technology. When I had my first child I started digging deeply into the research on how technology affects young children, and it lead me down a path of more than five years in developmental science on how the brain in the early years of life is affected by the people in the environment. It was such an “ah-ha” moment to be learning all this science at the same time as being a mother of two little kids. By the time I finished all that work and put out a book on screen media and young children, I was absolutely convinced that our country needed to change its ways and recognize the importance of the early years, and that many policies needed to be adjusted and reformed to help families make the most of those first years of life. I had the good fortune of landing at New America. The think tank was looking for a senior writer to translate research for policy makers. I have spent several years doing what I had hoped to do in the first place, which was to really make this research visible to people, and to help them understand how important it is to change policies to help families and kids.

Steven: Can you talk about what the role of New America plays in improving the quality of early learning?

Lisa: I think New America is in a unique position to be able to amplify and accentuate the research on children’s learning, and to put it in front of policy influencers. We are uniquely situated because we are not a membership organization. We are not necessarily speaking for educators or for certain funding of programs. We are looking at the whole system – or lack of system – to find ways to elevate research across the different pieces. We are non-partisan organization, which we take very serious. It’s an interesting place to work because we have analysts that hale from the republican side, from the democrat side, from the libertarian point of view, and many journalists and reports who are not necessarily attached to a particular political philosophy. So we often have very interesting debates internally, but we can also bring to the floor some ideas that are not from a political agenda, but are based in evidence and research.

Steven: Why you think the President’s proposal to offer high-quality preschool to all children is important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and some of the opportunities?

Lisa: I think that the President’s proposal and the work of many people in Congress is paramount for improving the lives of the next generation and for improving the success of our country in the next 20-30 years. It’s absolutely critical to understand that the learning children are doing in their first 8 years of life is setting the foundation – setting them up for success as students, but even more so as citizens and thinkers in the 21st century. To me, what has been really heartening to see in the President’s work and the work of the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services over the past few years, is how much that’s recognized and understood. It’s not questioned. This administration sees early learning as a critical piece of the education pipeline for students and is working to push that idea forward. And I think the challenges ahead are really to continue to accentuate the need for more preschool opportunities while also recognizing that infant/toddler care and the K-3 grades are critical and often ignored, and they need a lot more support and focus. At New America we make a point to look at policies across the birth through 8 spectrum to ensure we don’t only have a focus on 4-year olds, but that we’re recognizing what happens before children turn four and what happens after that. I think we could be at risk at undermining gains, if we only focus on gains made during one year of a child’s life.   We may see short term impact from real intensive intervention during that one year, but it may lessen over time if you don’t recognize the need for high quality teaching during the first and second grades. I think that it’s not understood yet by the general public that continuum is critical. Right now the general public agrees and applauds the push for more preschool, but does not necessarily understand the work that needs to happen before and after preschool.

This fall New America will be releasing a 50 state policy scan that ranks on how well they are doing on birth through third grade policies. It will be a comprehensive book so it’s not just about whether a state has good preschool or child care, but it’s looking all the way up to third grade reading laws. I am looking forward to the report coming out and hoping it will elevate the discussion on policies across the age spectrum.

Voices from the Field: Katie Hamm

I think the power of the administration supporting [Preschool for All] ensures it will always be on the agenda, but I think it also forces other candidates and political leaders to take a position on it.”
Interview with Katie Hamm
Director, Early Childhood Policy, Center for American Progress (CAP)


by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Katie Hamm is the Director of Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress. Prior to joining American Progress, Katie worked as a program examiner at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, or OMB, on federal child care and early education programs. She also worked on international issues in early childhood while on detail to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD.

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Katie: So believe it or not, when I was thirteen I was a volunteer in a Head Start classroom. I was reading stories to kids and that’s when I knew I want to go into early learning. I was really impressed with the programs and the opportunities they provided to families and kids in my community. That led to similar volunteer programs through high school. I was able to work with my local Head Start to set up a program in the evenings called “Family Literacy Night” where parents could get GED classes, English language classes, or computer classes. My role was to develop a program for the kids with the other volunteers from my high school. So that’s where I got the early learning bug. In college I developed a major that focused on political science and child development through the psychology department. After college I sought out organizations in DC that were doing this kind of work. Eventually, I landed a job at the Center for Law and Social Policy, and Danielle Ewen was my first mentor and boss. Then I went to OMB and then to CAP.

Steven: What do see as the role of the Center for American Progress in improving the quality of early learning?

Katie: I that CAP’s role, since we’re a multi-issue organization, is to tie early childhood into the broader progressive agenda, and to make some of those connections – not only why we need to invest in early childhood, but why quality matters and tie it to, for example, family economic security and our broader economic wellbeing. And to break down some of the silos to talk about why it is so important, and using that framing to keep it on the political agenda.

Steven: Why do you think the President’ proposal to provide high-quality early development and learning for all kids is important to our country, and what do you see as some of the challenges or opportunities?

Katie: I think when the President proposed Preschool for All and the additional investments in early head start and home visiting – two years ago now – it really put early childhood on the map as an issue for the national policy agenda. I think the power of the administration supporting it ensures it will always be on the agenda, but I think it also forces other candidates and political leaders to take a position on it. It’s forced some movement in Congress. Even in a difficult budget environment, it’s allowed us to get some modest investments in Preschool Development Grants, Head Start, Child Care, and Home Visiting. I think by putting on the agenda it has helped us make some small progress. I think the challenge is really getting the bipartisan support we need to get the big investment – the $750 million dollar investment. I think that is going to take some time, but we’re slowly making our way there and I think we’ll get there.

Voice from the Field: Celia Ayala

“I think that we as a country need to care about all of our children, not only our own children.”
Interview with Celia Ayala
Chief Executive Officer, Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP)

Celia Ayala

 by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Celia Ayala oversees LAUP‘s long-term strategy and day-to-day operations, with the goal of increasing access to quality and affordable preschool for children across Los Angeles County. Under Dr. Ayala’s leadership, LAUP is successfully funding the enrollment of more than 10,000 children into quality preschool each year. Recently, LAUP created “Take Time. Talk!” as a Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) America commitment.

Steven: Can you talk a little bit about how you began your career in early learning?

Celia: I grew up with lots of children around me, but I think I can recall making a difference when I was a teacher assistant at 32nd Street Elementary. I was assisting in first and second grade classrooms, and I saw how one student did not know his ABCs. He was so limited in his language skills. His social skills were not well developed either. I remember spending so much time working with him, and just getting him to speak and getting him to ultimately feel comfortable with who he was. I didn’t realize that I could make a difference in a child’s life. But it was really in my second time of being a principal and having three big preschool classrooms that were for 3 and 4 year olds. I had children that had been in preschool and children that had not. I realized kindergarten is not where education starts, and I had been a kindergarten teacher in the 70s. And here I was in the late 90s, and realized that we need to do more in early education and working with parents – parents being the first and most important teachers. We can do so much more in kinder readiness. We needed to work with our 3 and 4 years-olds to get them socially, emotionally and cognitively ready for kindergarten.

Steven: What do see as the role of LAUP and local communities in improving the quality of early learning?

Celia: I see LAUP as a great brainstorm of a child that created something first and foremost about quality and all the support systems with no excuses. So it wasn’t an issue of if we could afford it, it wasn’t an issue of can we do it, and it wasn’t an issue of who could do it. It was building in quality criteria without any limitations. LAUP wanted to be a part of helping each child, east to west and in between, in communities with a mixed-model delivery system and to think about what is the best model without excuses or without limitations. And I believe that LAUP has become a very replicable model, truly addressing the local needs of every community in every part of Los Angeles County. We address the local needs of every community with a quality rating improvement system that is applicable to all of its mixed-model delivery partners. It is not LAUP and then the community. We are part of every community, providing quality programs.

Steven: Can you tell me why the President’s proposal to provide high-quality early learning and development programs for children is important for our country, and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Celia: I think the President is smart because he wants to provide equity. By providing high-quality early learning opportunities, it is truly giving children a chance to enter the K-12 world on an even playing field. And it is about involving families and caregivers – because some of our children don’t live with parents, but with grandparents or foster parents – to work with our children where every they might be – a center, school district, or a non-profit. He sees that the benefit in the short term is the child, but in the long term, it is our entire society by preparing the future workforce. The children entering kindergarten need to be ready to succeed in school and in life, but it is also the workforce that we need to focus on because they are preparing our future engineers, our future teachers, and our future plumbers. I truly believe he is seeing the short term and long term benefits of these early investments and interventions. I think the challenges are that people don’t get the importance. They are not seeing that we are spending dollars on remediation instead of intervention. They’re not seeing that it’s not only a short term investment for the children, but an investment in the long term for our country. The challenges are we cannot get a budget to support it. And then there is a challenge in terms of making sure that we see that in the long term it is going to take time to ramp up, to staff up, and to sustain over time – that this is a long term investment in local communities, in our states, and in the nation. Those are the challenges: we’re not identifying the resources to support this and we’re not seeing this as potentially a ten year ramp up and sustainable effort that will hopefully benefit our country socially, economically, and educationally.

Voice from the Field: Betty Hyde

“China’s doing it. Everybody’s doing it. It’s time that we become an early learning nation too.”
Interview with Betty Hyde
Director of the Department of Early Learning (DEL), Washington State

Betty Hyde

by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Dr. Bette Hyde was appointed Director of the Department of Early Learning (DEL) by Gov. Chris Gregoire on Feb. 10, 2009. Bette’s focus is on creating one statewide early learning system that prepares all Washington children for school and life. She strongly believes that school-readiness means ready schools, ready children, ready families and ready communities. Washington is a Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grantee.

Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?

Bette: I spent the first 32 years of my life in the K-12 system and early on I was in what we called an Intermediate School District and a Supervised Head Start. But really I started when I was Superintendent for Emergent Schools and we would have kindergarten round-up. And we would know with great certainty which kids were going to make it on the first day of kindergarten and which not. And we just thought that is really awful. And so we thought what can we do about that? And so we did the research at that time, when early learning was just coming to be. So we decided to partner with the child care programs in our community. We spent the first year just sitting around, having coffee, looking at brain research, getting to know them, eating cookies, you know, that kind of thing.

Then we asked them to help us. And they decided that they wanted to help with literacy and we thought “Great!” The Bremerton School District is a school district with about 7,000 children, a K-12 district: now it’s a P-12 district. But it was in great poverty, a military town, so there was a lot of need. And to make a long story short, we spent another year with them looking at various curricula. They chose the curricula, and then we used our Title I money on the condition that they participate in professional development, that they used it with fidelity and so forth. And I was at Brandy’s Superintendent in Bremerton and at one of my first Board meetings I remember saying to the School Board, “well based on the sub-test that we’re using, about 4-6% of our kids are ready.” A board member asked “did you say 46?” And I said “No! I said 4-6.” And everybody went my gosh, we have to do something. And so, that first year, that 4-6 percentage on the DIBELS, or whatever we were using at the time, jumped up to 55%. I mean this is phenomenal. And then we decided the next year, well let’s get the kids most at-risk and put them in for full-day kindergarten. And although that’s so common now it wasn’t so common then. And so, we then used Title I money, and we started the year having the afternoon kindergarten classes smaller. Most parents want their kids in the morning anyway, so that was easy to do. And at the end of October, not sooner, the kindergarten teachers really identified the kids that were behind. Then we invited their parents to have them stay a full day. We would buy their lunch and transport them. And they just simply got a double dose. You know, morning and afternoon with the same teacher. And that bumped our scores up, you know, to something like 80%. And we thought well gosh, if all day kindergarten works for them, it probably works for everybody. We offered free all-day kindergarten and were the first in our little peninsula of the state. And honestly Steven, you know, it was like a lingerie sale. People lined up around the block, you know. People from other districts came and enrolled. And a huge majority of people stayed with us through elementary school and probably beyond. So that was a long answer to a short question. But being in the K-12 system and just looking at these children who come in the first day of school, you know which ones are likely to make it and which ones aren’t. They have the whole rest of their life ahead of them. And so we decided, we gotta do something about that. And so that’s what we did.

Steven: What do you see is the role of public schools and districts in improving the quality of early learning?

Betty: I think it is the responsibility of all of us educators, to be cognizant of what the research says about what helps children learn. And you have to be almost illiterate to not know that early learning is a critical part of that if done with quality. I think the role of the public school is to be aware of that and each district, in their own way, embrace early learning. I have had conversations with, for example, the superintendent of Bellingham, which is a relatively big district north of Seattle. He was asking, “Do you start with all day kindergarten? Do you start with preschool?” And I said, “You can start with what works best for your community.” You know, there’s no formula. But you want to have a complete continuum. And you want to make sure, like all the research says, that it’s quality from the beginning, quality all the way through- that you have good transitions from the early learning to the K-12 system. In Bremerton we used to have what we called ‘the hand-off’ and the early learning teachers would sit down with the kindergarten teachers and talk about each child in some detail. First grade teachers would talk to second grade teachers and so forth. And so I think, it behooves the school districts to see this is a big part of how we can make our children ready for common core, or for the increasingly complex world that they’re entering out there.

So I think their role is to be not be passive, or not, certainly not resistant, but to say, “How can we as a school district do what works in our school district, to begin early learning, to embrace it?” Can we give space in our schools for preschool classrooms? In our state we have our law that says if you are transporting kids and preschool kids are at the same bus stop, and they’re going to your preschool program, you can transport them too and get reimbursed. Things like that that really help school districts say they’re really our communities. You know, I talkwith my principles in Bremerton and I say “What do you know about the incoming kindergarteners? They’re our children, go find out about them and start talking to the preschools and the child care programs in your area.” You know, they’re part of the community team that you have to utilize to really get kids ready. Since then, Steven, we’ve had all this great research, at Harvard and other places, about how incredible the brain develops and so, so early- much earlier than we thought. So we would all be fools not to work together as a community team to say these are all our children, these are all our families. How can we each do our part and make them most successful?

Steven: Why is the President’s proposal to provide high quality early learning and development programs important for our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and the opportunities with that?

Betty: I think it’s important for a number of reasons. I don’t know to say this politically correctly, but it keeps us up with our international neighbors. You know, other people have been doing this for a long time. Many years ago I visited the UK and Finland and they were doing this, and have been doing it. China’s doing it. Everybody’s doing it. It’s time that we become an early learning nation too. He [President Obama] is cognizant of that, his advisors are cognizant of that, you guys are probably cognizant of that. He’s moving our country up internationally like it should be. Secondly, I like his plan because it is really well grounded in the research – what works. Again he’s got good advice about what to do. Thirdly, it’s not just like here’s something let’s do that. But he has this whole comprehensive plan. When he had his early learning summit, it was very, very clear in his planning that it’s not just one program. But he’s talking about home visiting, he’s talking about Early Head Start – Child Care partnerships, he’s talking about preschool. Oh and by the way he preceded that with Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge to build the infrastructure in states. And now I think this ESEA reauthorization is just a godsend in terms of how it really pulls out the importance of quality, full day and so forth. And I can support that it’s the national bully pulpit, he is president. And the fact that he is really hunkering down and fighting for this speaks volumes. He has lots of other things on his mind.

But this is always really in the forefront. It’s not just, the flavor of the month. He’s coming up with a more comprehensive, inclusive, evidence-based, research-based plan. So I really applaud the administration. I just think they are spot-on in terms of what really works to get kids ready for school and kindergarten and beyond. Now what’s the challenges of it? I suppose the States’ readiness for this. I think different states are in different places. We are blessed in Washington because we have good rapport across the aisles and across the parties. But I’m not sure that’s true everywhere. Every state has a different readiness for this. And so that might be stopping some legislators and governors, but I think it’s getting better and better. I think secondly, different states – and its related – have different infrastructures and data readiness. I mean, even if all the elected officials said we want to do this, you have to have a plan, you have to have some buy in – perhaps from unions depending on the state. How are you going to measure your impact? And you don’t just do that in a month. That takes a while to do. But because he’s doing this and it’s so comprehensive and it keeps happening, there is kind of a national hype. Kind of what people used to call a zeitgeist for early learning. You know, we often in Washington talk to other states, either to help them or to ask how are you doing this, and there seems to be not a possessiveness. People are pretty darn eager to share in terms of breaking down silos. I think a great opportunity is something you folks modeled with the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants. I remember very clearly that at every meeting we were at ED was there and HHS was there, the whole time. People didn’t just float in and out. People were kind of modeling with their feet. I think this is a teachable moment for early learning. And I think people are pretty eager to jump on the wagon.