“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.”
Director of Early & Elementary Education Policy
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.