“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.”
Senior Policy Director
Alliance for Early Success
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.