The midterm elections of 2018 is ushering in a group of new state superintendents who will put their stamp on states’ education systems and reforms. Though most of them probably will not have much early education background, many of them will also lead state pre-k programs and in some cases, even child care systems and other early childhood programs. (According to a recent report from the Bipartisan Policy Center, in most states, the state department of education is the agency that is responsible for the largest number of early childhood programs.) I wonder, though, how many of these new chiefs who oversee early care and education (ECE) will organize their state education agencies (SEAs) in ways that will allow them to leverage the power of early learning to accomplish the agencies’ core mission and goals.
Based on strong public and policymakers’ support of ECE, I’m optimistic that many of the new superintendents will understand its importance and draft strategic plans that include it as a priority or a key component. But how will that translate into their agencies’ structure and operations? It is rare for offices of early learning in SEAs to have sufficient resources to effectively monitor and support the quality of ECE programs (whether defined as just pre-k or inclusive of child care or the early elementary grades) and have sufficient institutional authority to influence the agencies’ core functions like developing and implementing policies related to learning standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and teacher quality. Even in SEAs where offices of early learning have sizeable budgets and bigger staffs, too often, they operate in relative isolation from the rest of the agency.
But a strong and empowered office of early learning is key for the SEA to incorporate ECE into its school reform and improvement strategies so that the state’s young learners have the strongest start possible and can build upon the gains they made before kindergarten.
So, if you’re an advocate for ECE and have the good fortune of talking to a new state superintendent, or even an incumbent, for that matter, I humbly offer the following questions to help them articulate how they will translate their rhetorical support for ECE into real support:
Early learning incorporated into mission and strategy
- How are principles of early education practice and policy incorporated into core SEA functions (i.e., developing and implementing policies related to learning standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and teacher quality) on a day-to-day, ongoing basis?
- Does your agency have mechanisms in place to provide leaders and staff of the SEAs’ core operational units ongoing opportunities to get input from and collaborative with the agency’s early education staff, and vice versa?
- Do the SEA’s various units, including early education, have a common philosophy about critical goals for children’s growth and development, how children learn best, and developmentally-appropriate instructional practices?
Capacity to support ECE
- Does your agency have an office of early learning that centralizes leadership, expertise, and functions related to ECE in the SEA?
- Does your office of early learning have sufficient staff and the necessary authority, experience, skills, and expertise to execute its plans and accomplish its key functions and goals (e.g., professional support system, continuous quality monitoring and improvement)?
- Does your office of early learning have access to quality data about children, educators, and programs to inform its day-to-day functions and improvement efforts?
Budget dedicated to early education
- Does your office of early learning have sufficient funding to execute its plans and accomplish its goals?
- Is your office of early learning supported by “hard money,” rather than grants that will expire?
Authority and influence of the office of early learning
- Does the leadership of your office of early learning have direct access to and regular communications with the agency’s chief, deputies, or the executive team?
- Is the leadership of your office of early learning part of the executive team?
- Is the early education leadership or staff at the table when major decisions are made about the agency’s priorities, strategic plans and goals, budget allocations, and budget requests?
Coordination with the broader ECE system
- Does your SEA have capacity (staffing, funding, expertise) to coordinate and collaborate with agencies that administer other early childhood programs (e.g., human services, health)?
- Does your SEA have capacity to help local school leaders collaborate with other early education providers in the community to increase access and quality of ECE programs?
Building a strong office of early learning in SEAs will not guarantee effective ECE programs and improved learning and developmental outcomes in young children. The state still needs to invest in its pre-k budget, child care subsidy rates, professional development systems, etc. But an SEA with strong capacity in ECE can make the most out of the resources it does have and advocate for the resources needed for high-quality ECE programs to truly contribute to the SEA’s mission and students’ long-term success. If your state’s SEA is interested in figuring out how to do this, the Alliance for Early Success can help. We support national experts, like the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes, who can help SEA leaders think through questions like those above and incorporate early education meaningfully into their agency’s work. Give us a ring!
Albert Wat, M.A.
Senior Policy Director
Alliance for Early Success
(February 1, 2019)