“Investing in high-quality early childhood is part of making K to12 succeed and the foundation of providing equal education opportunity.”
Former Project Director for Early Childhood Initiatives
Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)
by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks
Tom Schultz served as the project director for Early Childhood Initiatives at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Prior to joining the CCSSO, Schultz worked at the Pew Charitable Trusts, where he co-authored the seminal report, Taking Stock: Assessing and Improving Early Childhood Learning and Program Quality. He holds degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Oberlin College.
Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?
Tom: In 1970, I was teaching 4th grade in the Chicago Public Schools and I was struggling, as were my students. A college friend told me about a job that was being advertised for a new federal office in the Department of HEW (Health, Education, and Welfare) that was part of what was the new Office of Child Development, which managed Head Start programs in the Midwest. I applied and was hired as a 700-hour temporary budget analyst for Head Start at $6,500 a year. I reviewed proposals for summer Head Start programs at a time when Head Start was funded at $375,000 a year. I was then able to get hired for a permanent job and was responsible for managing the Head Start programs in the state of Minnesota, and worked on this in an era where Head Start was pioneering a lot of innovations that were fun to implement. We had strong parent involvement guidelines that were promulgated, there were performance standards and program monitoring for the first time, they started the CDA (Child Development Associate) credential initiative, and we began to work with children with special needs for the first time. I had the chance to work with local programs in a diverse state, but also with a wide range of federal initiatives to improve a local program, and it was probably my favorite job in terms of the opportunities to learn. That started me off in early childhood, and I’ve never left.
Steven: What do you see as the role of state chiefs in improving access to quality early learning programs?
Tom: I guess I would highlight three things. I think chiefs are very important advocates and opinion leaders in public education, so I think it’s important for them to argue that high-quality early childhood is an integral element of school reform, that if we want to prepare all children for success on challenging standards, we can’t wait for kindergarten. Investing in high-quality early childhood is part of making K to12 succeed and the foundation of providing equal education opportunity. In doing that, it is important to be able to convince school boards, school superintendents, public school teachers, and administrators to understand that priority and be convinced that we need not just the K to 12 system, but a Pre-K or birth to 12 system.
I think that chiefs are responsible for managing sizeable programs—most of the state pre-k programs, early childhood special education, and childcare—and I think it’s important to recognize that we’ve got more than a million kids in state pre-k, and we’ve got around a million in Head Start and Early Head Start. So we need chiefs to be managing the publicly-funded programs that are under their auspice so that they are high quality and to be holding them accountable for meeting standards and for helping them engage in continuous improvement and also being a part of efforts to improve the workforce. To me, the third piece would probably be try to continue to improve collaboration with the different types of provider communities and the different funding streams so that the money gets well-used, and to improve quality but minimize unnecessary bureaucracy in terms of how that happens.
Steven: Why is the President’s proposal to provide high quality early learning programs important to our country, and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities, particularly as it relates to equity?
Tom: I think having a President of the United States make early childhood a priority in several State of the Union speeches is tremendously important. Setting aside what has happened in terms of federal legislation and federal funding, I think it really did heighten the visibility of high quality early childhood, and I believe it helped to support the efforts of governors, mayors, other leaders, and foundations to invest more in early childhood education. I’m tremendously grateful that the President made that a high priority, and has sort of been a spokesperson for that. I guess the opportunities are to provide a sustained public debate on how we get this to happen and how we fund it, and to continue to make this a national priority that we grapple with, whether people want to solve it at the state or community level, or they’re willing to entertain a much larger federal role in how it happens and the costs of failing to change the learning opportunities for young kids, particularly children of color and children in poverty, and the pay-off if we do invest in and lead efforts to make sure that when kids are in publicly-funded programs, those programs are of the highest quality. One challenge for me seems to be the difficulty in developing bipartisan support for new federal initiatives, and I think underlying this is really a question of how we create a funding system that will support the kind of workforce that we need, and be sufficient to support high quality.
Steven: Is there anything else you want to add or anything you’d like to tell us about?
Tom: I would say that given how long I’ve had the opportunity to work on early childhood, it’s amazing how much progress we have made over the long haul. For example, Head Start was a summer-only program when I began working with it. I think California had a state pre-k program, and New York had something called the Experimental Pre-K Program, and there may have been some funding in a couple of other states I can’t remember directly—I think one was Wisconsin. But, there were a handful of states and Head Start was a small, summer-only program, and the idea was that if we just take disadvantaged kids for six to eight weeks we can get them fully ready for kindergarten. I think we now have much more advanced research and understanding of what we need to do and how to do it well for kids, and the kind of program design we need, and we’ve come a long way in terms of public funding. On the other hand, I’m just totally dismayed and frustrated that we haven’t made more rapid progress. We’re much farther along, but we’re by no means where we need to be. But I think it’s important to recognize that the success of advocacy and research folks, and program leaders that have put us in a much better position, and we need to keep pushing and keep moving forward.