Early Learning Priorities for the Biden Administration and 117th Congress

Q&A with Nonie Lesaux, Stephanie Jones, and Emily Wiklund Hayhurst
Blog Post
Alex Gakos
Jan. 11, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic is putting unprecedented strain on the nation’s early learning system. Our newly elected officials have the opportunity to make bold, transformational change. To learn how the latest early learning research can inform policy solutions, I interviewed Nonie Lesaux, Stephanie Jones, and Emily Wiklund Hayhurst of Harvard University's Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative. They offer recommendations for what the Biden administration, 117th Congress, state leaders, and advocates should prioritize to build a stronger early learning system.

While our nation has made some progress improving systems of early learning, we have yet to realize the best possible systems. What should the Biden administration prioritize around building a strong, unified, and well-resourced early learning system?

Looking forward, the new administration has a tremendous opportunity to advance a stronger, more resilient system of early education and care – one that successfully achieves the Biden administration’s goal of “building back better” after a year of immense challenge for American families. This system would provide stabilizing funds and sustained funding streams that recognize child care as the public good that it is. The approach would also support all aspects of what we call the “mixed-delivery” system—a system with many different types of care settings, from home-based care through to public school pre-K. To accomplish this quality improvement at scale, this new system would seek to provide opportunities for practitioners and leaders—the cornerstones and linchpins to quality—to develop and enhance their key competencies and skills, and it would incentivize and reward quality improvement. Finally, getting there will also mean creating a more dynamic, actionable link between science and decision-making, leveraging our growing understanding of the “micro-features” that define high-quality early learning settings, irrespective of specific program type, to make smarter, more sustainable decisions and investments in the system.

The coronavirus pandemic and economic crises create an immediate need for investment in early learning. How should the Biden administration tackle both immediate and long-term support for early childhood policies and programs?

There’s no doubt that immediate, stabilizing funds are needed to ensure providers can continue to and/or reopen to offer safe, high-quality education and care. But we can’t stop at the crisis. Simultaneously, the Biden administration should commit to a long-term plan for improving the system as a whole, incorporating the components we describe above. This will mean coupling a big, ambitious vision for the future with a highly detailed and feasible plan for making that vision a reality. The plan should reflect new and ongoing research that shows what works and for whom, and reflects today’s demographics, challenges, and contexts.

Equally important, there is a need and opportunity to attend to how new investments are framed for and discussed with policymakers and the public. Historically, the approach to case-making has been to focus on the long-term benefits of early education and care for those who participate. While these benefits are important, this narrative also conjures up the idea that this investment may be a “nice to do” rather than “need to do.” In reality, early education and care advances children’s early learning and development, and it’s crucial for society given that 75 percent of parents of young children are working parents.

Congress is an essential player in improving our early learning systems. What are some strategies for moving beyond talking points and campaign promises to real investment in early learning?

The challenges of the past 10 months have made it ever more clear how fundamental the child care system is to American families, communities, and the economy; Congress has a great responsibility—and opportunity—to help improve this system. Fortunately, there are signs that the new Congress will be well-positioned to make early education a priority, including that Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), a former preschool teacher and longstanding champion of early learning, is now set to lead the Senate education committee.

In the short-term, it will be crucial to include child care as a core policy and funding priority in any future COVID relief bills. From a bigger-picture perspective, early education priorities should be part of a broader and more holistic education system, rather than a separate cause. In the everyday, all types of child care settings, including universal pre-K, and K-12 education, are deeply intertwined in the lives of today’s children and families. Finally, to ensure meaningful and sustained quality improvement, Congress should craft policies and investments that focus on the cornerstone of the system—the adults—by creating professional and financial supports for the early education professionals who shape the settings where young children learn and grow.

Candidates at the state and local levels featured early childhood prominently in their platforms. Significant child care policy and investment is decided at the state and local levels. What is your advice for state and local officials for bringing research to bear on policy making?

State and local leaders have a critical role to play in creating a better system of early education and care. Beyond some of the approaches and strategies described above, these leaders can focus on developing strong, connected systems of communication and governance that will help them enhance coordination across complex programs and funding streams. In part, this means providing the professionals in this complex system with opportunities to strengthen the kinds of leadership and communication skills, and the professional networks, that are needed to work together toward common objectives and goals. State and local leaders can also learn from others who have found success in “starting small.” Alabama, for example, began building their statewide system by supporting a small number of high-quality, well-coordinated programs that could later serve as a model for future refinement and expansion.

Early learning advocates are incredible. They have played a critical role educating decision-makers and the public about the importance of investing in early childhood programs and services. What is your advice for advocates as they wrestle with the conundrum of promoting that the limited pot of money allocated for early learning goes either toward greater access or improved quality?

Advocates have been instrumental in advancing conversations about early education and care—and the importance of treating it as a public good—among decision-makers and the general public. And they have long had to negotiate a delicate balance related to expanding access and affordability while improving quality with limited resources. Going forward, advocates will have an important role to play in moving policymakers and the public away from thinking about access and quality as a zero-sum game; advocates can support an “access plus quality” approach by detailing how the availability of more and better child care helps meet children’s and families’ needs and creates a stronger society. Advocates can also leverage decades of research that shows how investing in early educators—including through better professional learning opportunities, professional networks, and equitable, living wages—helps them create better, more responsive learning environments for the children they serve.

Nonie Lesaux is a professor at Harvard University and co-director of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative.

Stephanie Jones is a professor at Harvard University and co-director of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative.

Emily Wiklund Hayhurst is the Assistant Director of Learning Design and Communications at the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative.

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