Voices from the Field: Jana Martella

“All children, whether in poverty or a matter of ‘my’ kids or ‘your’ kids, deserve the best that we can give them.”

Interview with
Jana Martella
Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO)

Jana Martella

Jana Martella with state leaders: (from left to right) Jim Squires, Lindy Buch,
Penny Milburn, Jana, Rolf Grafwallner, and Jim Lesko

by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Jana Martella is the Co-Director of the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) at the Education Development Center. She has worked on multiple initiatives designed to advance high quality in early education, and is focused on education system and program improvement through standards-based reform. Prior to joining EDC, Martella was the executive director of the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS-SDE) and the National Association for Regulatory Administration (NARA Licensing), providing leadership and support to states and organizations on early childhood initiatives. She has dedicated over 30 years to education and has served as a state legislative liaison, coordinator for federal programs, school administrator, and teacher.


Steven: How did you begin your career in Early Learning?

Jana: I started as a teacher and I had a looped classroom of second and third graders, and I saw a remarkable difference between a second grader and a third grader. Their needs were significantly different, as was their development as an early learner. Flash forward to my policy world. I first came to Washington in 1984, which is right after A Nation at Risk came out. I began working on policy initiatives and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In the second authorization that I went through, my boss at the time, who was State Superintendent from Washington, informally worked during the 1987 reauthorization, for the House Education Committee, and in particular on Chapter I [now Title I]. She was absolutely committed to changing the face of compensatory education to include early childhood as three distinct strategies. Your query made me pull out some testimony that I wrote for her as she appeared before Congress—she was the only witness—and she spent three pages on early childhood education. At the time, the 1989 data point showed that only 1.5 percent of Title I dollars—it was Chapter 1 at the time—was spent on Pre-K, and less than 5 percent was spent on kindergarten. That was the very beginning. Then I began full-time on K-12 policy until 2001. Since then, I have been full-time on early childhood policies, and I feel so fortunate because that’s when all of the brain research kicked-in, like Neurons to Neighborhoods and Eager to Learn. When we were in Baltimore, Marcy Whitebook said that from the beginning, as teachers we knew that early childhood was really important and now we have the science on our side. I feel like that’s been the course of my career, too—I’ve had passion along the way and now we have the science on our side.

Steven: What do you see as the role of the State early childhood specialists in improving access to quality early learning programs?

Jana: I am an unapologetic school person. I’ve been in public education for more than 30 years, and I am totally committed to improving the way states do business as well. That’s been the gate to the policy world for me. All of my work over the last 30 years has been state-focused. It’s on the ground. It’s in communities where children experience schools, and settings where they experience their environment and great teachers. But I do think that it’s the state’s skeleton that holds the body up.

Steven: Why would you say the President’s proposal to provide high-quality early learning programs is important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities, particularly as it may relate to equity?

Jana: I’ll start by really giving high praise to the administration. One of the things I really appreciate about the last seven—soon to be eight—years is that the approach has been comprehensive, and that it’s been very intentional and woven throughout, so that if there’s an initiative on data, early childhood has been included. If there is an initiative on assessment, early childhood has been included. If there’s a systems approach, and particularly the Challenge grants, then that’s kind of giving a nod to the states and their needs to have policy infrastructure in order to serve kids in the best way possible. It has certainly been about access, but it also has been about building capacity in the states, and I think that that footprint is not going to go away anytime soon. That’s the upside; the challenge is that you have woven early childhood throughout virtually everything so that there are multiple initiatives trying to find alignment. That’s always challenging, but I also think it has driven all of us to think about collective impact and making sure that we’re putting one foot in front of the other and going on that long walk.

Steven: Is there anything else you want to add?

Jana: Particularly about equity, because the focus has been about building data capacity, and building teaching capacity, and building state policy capacity, and in a sense from the research—and particularly from an equity perspective—kids are going to do better in second grade if they get what they need in first grade, and it is a continual drum beat from birth through third grade and beyond. I think even third grade, to be honest, is kind of an arbitrary line of demarcation that resulted from the fulcrum of reading. In fact, everything we know about domains of learning continues into adulthood and that we ought to attend to play and experiential learning throughout a child’s educational career. That’s challenging because it’s putting a lot of complex things together. The other thing is in terms of investment, all children, whether in poverty or a matter of “my” kids or “your” kids, deserve the best that we can give them. We have the brain science and we have economic science as well, but I think that sometimes we read that for one dollar you get seven dollars of return, or for one dollar you get seventeen dollars of return—whatever the dollar return is mentioned—it’s not that, it’s an economy of scale. It’s $7,000 or $10,000 of investment that will get you that return on investments, so the economic promise of investment is there, but it’s dependent on quality and threshold.