“I think that is where we really need to take all this brain science that has allowed us to be in this position where we are now: talking about the importance of the earliest years and really infuse that in the daily practice of the providers who care for our children.”
Interview with Myra Jones-Taylor, PhD
Connecticut Office of Early Childhood
by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks
Myra Jones-Taylor, PhD was appointed the first commissioner of the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood (OEC), established in 2013 by Governor Dannel P. Malloy. The agency’s mission is to coordinate and improve Connecticut’s birth-to-five programs and create a cohesive, high-quality system that supports the state’s youngest children in their development. She also oversees Connecticut’s Preschool Development Grant.
Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?
Myra: It was a very circuitous route. I was getting my PhD in Anthropology and American Studies and I was planning on looking at welfare reform and I was thinking about issues of poverty. Everybody said you need to understand childcare. If you really want to understand the policy shifts that are happening, you should really pay attention to early childhood education and childcare. After I heard the 10th person telling me this, I thought maybe I should really pay attention to this. And I completely changed paths and focused on all these reforms that were happening around early childhood education and specifically how providers on the ground were reacting to them. So I ended up doing ethnography on early childhood education policy. And then that was it. I was going to go on and do my next project, which was also going to be about education and poverty. I was going work at the University of Pennsylvania, and then somebody called me and they said, remember that big mess that you were uncovering in early childhood education in New Haven? They want someone to come in and create a plan to fix it at the state level and I think you should give it a shot. I was really torn about going into academia anyway. I have this sense of urgency that I just wasn’t sure academia was going to be able to keep pace with. So when this opportunity presented itself, I really jumped at it. I thought, well, I can at least create this plan and come up with some way to have an impact. It was an incredible honor to be appointed to the lead agency that was the outgrowth of that plan.
Steven: What do you see as the role of state leaders, like yourself, in improving access to high-quality early learning programs?
Myra: There are two things that try to I focus on.. One is really figuring out this system of early childhood education. Twenty years from now, or ten years from now, I no longer want to be talking about blending and braiding funding. We really just need to figure out a better way to reflect the real need and get our federal partners and our state partners to rethink the way we currently fund early care and education. I think part of it is coming up with a new vision for the way that we serve young children in our early childhood education. That can start with three-year-olds and four-year-olds but it certainly needs to include birth to three-year-olds.
The other piece is: How does early care and education actually improve outcomes? Once you do all the tactical work of aligning policies to achieve quality and access – and not pitting one against the other – what does that quality piece look like? I think that is where we really need to take all of the brain science that has allowed us to be in this position where we are now – talking about the importance of the earliest years – and infuse that in the daily practice of the providers who care for our children. That comes through high-quality professional development. It comes through changing the conversation in communities around what is important for children and how we all need to rally around them to make sure they get that.
Steven: The President has proposed, for four years in a row now, high-quality, voluntary preschool for all four-year-olds. What do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities, particularly as it relates to equity.
Myra: I really hope that we get it this year. I hope that we could go further. The PDG, this has been huge for our state. It is allowing us to provide things in our state-funded preschool programs that we have always wanted to have but have not had the resources to include, such as delivering comprehensive services directly to children in the classroom; higher salaries; and more intensive coaching, mentoring and consultation for our providers. We can all point to what I was alluding to earlier, which is, there have been so many studies now, talking about the importance of the earliest years of a child’s life. We have all that research from neuroscience and we have all the studies that make a connection to the importance of high-quality early experiences for children, but more often than we had hoped our field falls short of providing early experiences that deliver on the promise of those studies. And every once in a while there will be some new study that may throw everything into question. But if you really peel it back, you will find that children may have had a high-quality early learning experience, and then they go into a K-3 experience that has not kept pace with the amazing experience that they had in their early learning setting. Or, you will find that a state put money into an early learning program where quality was absent. We will not see the outcomes studies tell us we should be seeing with access alone. Quality and access must go together. We know that together they make a difference. And no one should be asking these questions anymore about whether it is really worth the investment.
We need to be defining what quality looks like and how you support providers to make that happen. I think those are the biggest challenges right there. Quality costs money and providers need a lot of training. And this is a field that has been undervalued and underpaid for a very long time. And if we really want to get the good outcomes that we’re talking about, we have to have providers who can afford to take the classes that we’re saying they need to take, and who aren’t coming to work frazzled and stressed, and bearing the signs of poverty that they are just barely getting out of themselves. At the end of the day we need to ask ourselves: how do we really make this a system, regardless of the setting, that’s a high-quality setting with a workforce that is up for the task?