“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…”
Senior Policy Advisor
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.