Back to the Future

By Libby Doggett, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning


A new year is a time to look forward and backwards. For me this New Year provides an opportunity to reflect on the Administration’s accomplishments. I am honored to have been a part of President Obama’s early learning team. We have so many accomplishments of which we can all be proud. Here are my top 10:

  1. President Obama. The President not only hired great leaders who cared deeply about early learning, but he championed the cause as well. Beginning in his first term, he used the bully pulpit to continually make the case for investing more in our youngest children. In his second term, he doubled down with his 2013 Preschool for All proposal to his 2015 promotion of affordable high-quality child care.
  2. Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC). The administration’s $1 billion investment to support 20 states in designing and implementing cohesive systems of quality early learning programs and services for young children from birth through age five has been an awesome success. The RTT-ELC states have not only significantly increased the number of programs providing high-quality early learning to our most vulnerable children, but have experimented and succeeded with new ways of reaching families, expanding screening, connecting education and health, collecting and using data and measuring children’s status at kindergarten entry. Most have a more efficient and cohesive governance structure, and all are drastically improving quality. Forty states applied for these grants, and the states not funded continued to advance their planned early learning reforms. A few bold states are moving toward only providing state and federal subsidies to the highest rated programs.
  3. The Preschool Development Grants (PDG). Not only are many more children being served in high-quality programs, we were able to establish inclusion of children with disabilities and paying preschool teachers a salary commensurate with K-12 teachers as two of 12 quality standards. While we are proud of ED’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) programs for young children, we have been eager to draw more schools into early learning. PDG did that. Through PDG, we worked with states as partners, supporting their diverse-delivery models and providing incentives to increase state and local funding for young children.
  4. Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Our new education law, ESSA, provides more opportunities to expand early learning by reaffirming the use of federal Title I funds to support preschool-aged children and building on the work of the original PDG.  Our non-regulatory guidance discusses how states and LEAs must and might leverage ESSA by expanding early learning programs; promoting coordination in early learning among local communities; aligning preschool with early elementary school; and building the capacity of teachers, leaders, and others serving young children.
  5. The Interagency Policy Board (IPB). The IPB was set up voluntarily to advise the Secretaries of ED and HHS on how to better align programs and systems, and improve coordination and administration of federally-funded early learning programs serving children from birth to age eight. Among many other accomplishments, ED and HHS partnered to develop joint policy statements and pushed forward on key early learning issues: eliminating suspensions and expulsions, reducing chronic absenteeism, supporting working families, highlighting the early childhood workforce pay disparities, and improving vocabulary and STEM development. Most importantly, the IPB demonstrated how two very different agencies can work together for the good of the children.
  6. The Early Learning Team at ED. Nothing happens without a strong team, and we have one. Our staff in ED’s first ever Office of Early Learning jumped into early learning from other related fields. They brought their expertise at grants management and strong contacts across ED office which helped as we created both the RTT-ELC and PDG programs. They have spread the gospel about early learning to all ED staff and worked tirelessly with our partners at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the states to make both RTT-ELC and PDG a success
  7. Our colleagues at HHS. Staff at HHS helped us jointly administer RTT-ELC and PDG while simultaneously putting major reforms in place for Head Start and Child Care. They also created a brand new and highly successful program, the Early Head Start – Child Care Partnership grants, expanded home visiting, implemented new Head Start Program Standards, and pushed through new Child Care rules. And they did all of this with smiles.
  8. Use of our National Activities Funds. Through our national activities grants funding, ED and HHS have been able to support technical assistance for our 32 state grantees and fund some innovative projects. Here are just a few: The Turnaround Arts program is creating a system of tools, resources, and training opportunities designed to enhance instruction in preschool classrooms in targeted locations, and bring more arts-based early learning partnerships into the Turnaround Arts schools. The Early Learning Research Network is investigating the implementation of early learning policies and programs; identifying malleable factors associated with early achievement; and providing information, tools and products that policymakers and practitioners can use to build effective early learning systems and programs. Eight Preschool Pay for Success feasibility pilots will explore whether Pay for Success is a viable financing mechanism for expanding and improving preschool in their communities in the near term.
  9. National Academies Studies. ED and HHS have collaborated with philanthropy to fund four National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine consensus studies on key issues: early childhood workforce, family engagement, dual language learners, and financing early care and education with a highly-qualified workforce. These four studies are designed to help local and state policy leaders work collaboratively to improve quality in early learning settings. We have already seen how Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Vision has set new goals for both education and competence for all early learning teachers.
  10. The Successes of states and local communities. While not directly involved, I have watched with pride the amazing work going on in states and local communities. From new preschool funding in Mississippi to ballot initiatives in Dayton and Cincinnati state and local leaders and stakeholders are coming together to expand access to early learning, improve health for young children and support parents.

Despite these successes, our collective work, as a nation, to expand quality early learning is not yet done. There are still too few resources; most educators in early childhood continue to be poorly paid; and too many children remain in programs that are mediocre or worse. Today, only 41 percent of all 4-year-olds in the United States are enrolled in publicly-funded preschool through state programs, Head Start, or special education. Even fewer are enrolled in the highest-quality programs. We are squandering tremendous opportunities to help all of our youngest children meet their full potential.

I am proud of the steps we have taken together and hope the next administration will build on this foundation and do even more for the future of our children and our country.