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Former Obama Administration Officials Reflect on Subprime Learning

Early Learning has been a major priority for the Obama Administration.  In 2009, the Administration became the first to appoint high-ranking officials in the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to specifically focus on early learning, birth-through-8, and bridging the silos between agencies to improve the coordination of programs serving young children.

We asked Jacqueline Jones,  former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning at the US Department of Education, and Joan Lombardi, former Deputy Assistant Secretary and Interagency Liaison for Early Childhood Development at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to reflect on their tenure with the Obama Administration in the context of our recent report: Subprime Learning: Early Education Since the Great Recession. Jones' and Lombardi's unabridged responses are below. We, here at the Early Education Initiative, appreciate their time and willingness to comment.

Jacqueline Jones, PhD, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy & Early Learning, US Department of EducationSubprime Learning provides an insightful analysis of federal funding for early learning during the first term of the Obama administration. The analysis reminds me of how much was accomplished and how much work remains ahead. Early in the first term of the Obama administration Barbara Bowman spent several months commuting from Chicago to serve as Secretary Duncan’s early childhood consultant, and I arrived in August of 2009 to be his senior advisor on early learning.  It was impossible at that moment to have foreseen the roller-coaster ride that would follow and the magnitude of change that would occur across the states and within ED.

There was the promise of an Early Learning Challenge Fund (ELCF) with mandatory finding of $1B a year for eight years, and ED and HHS worked feverously on language for a bill that would bring about real systems change. The loss of ELCF in 2010 was devastating, but both departments pushed forward.  Within ED there was a rush to provide the Department with a solid understanding of the complex field of early childhood education, emphasizing the very real issues that would need to be addressed if the administration was going to make a difference in the trajectory of children’s lives. For this task, I will be forever grateful to the researchers, program administrator, advocates, and other early childhood experts who provided briefings to the Secretary and senior staff.

Early learning became the foundation of ED’s strategic plan, and we worked with programs across the Department to reflect a new focus on our youngest learners. So I very much appreciate Subprime Learning’s acknowledgement of the contributions that i3 and Promise Neighborhoods have made to advance ED’s early learning agenda. Yet, it was 2011 that made a huge impact when Secretary Duncan gave early learning $500M of his $700M allocation for Race to the Top.  ED and HHS were back at it – this time with real money.  Thirty-seven states took the challenge and did the hard work of planning state-wide coordinated systems to support early learning. There is no way to give full due to the ED and HHS staff members who accomplished the impossible and allowed the first round of RTT-ELC grants to be awarded in December 2011. After awarding nine grants, Secretaries Duncan and Sebelius made calls to all the Governors whose states had written proposals. It was extraordinary to hear so many Governors - whose applications had not been funded - make the commitment to continue to support the work with whatever funding they could gather. I know that we were able to provide a catalyst for change that went beyond the dollar figures. San Antonio, Mississippi, New York City, and New York State are among the cities and states that have stepped up to support early learning.

With all that has been accomplished, we still have much to do to support early childhood educators.

I departed ED in December of 2012, as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning, presiding over the first Office of Early Learning within the US Department of Education. It was more than gratifying to know that early learning had become  a part of the thinking of most ED offices; that there was a strong collaboration with HHS; and ED had pushed out nearly one billion new dollars to early learning in the first term of the Obama administration.

But the challenges are great. With all that has been accomplished, we still have much to do to support early childhood educators. Building the quality of teacher preparation programs; improving induction programs for new teachers; implementing effective ongoing professional development programs; and enhancing the early childhood knowledge and skills of principals and program administrators will be necessary for the investments to pay off. The National Association of Elementary School Principals has been actively seeking strategies to build these skills in their members. In addition, more attention needs to be paid to the upper end of the birth through 3rd grade agenda that ED has developed.  What does high quality developmentally appropriate practice look like from kindergarten through 3rd grade? What principles of early childhood practice can support the development of more effective K-3 programs? Where are models of good practice that guide other programs? My home state of New Jersey has published Kindergarten Implementation Guidelines, and other states are working to build a stronger preschool to 3rd grade continuum of services. Subprime Learning gives us a platform from which we can reflect on where we are and lay out a vision of how to plan for the next phase of strategies that will improve the lives of young children.

Joan Lombardi, PhD, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary & Interagency Liaison for Early Childhood Development, US Department of Health & Human Services Subprime Learning: Early Education in America since the Great Recession, released by New America Foundation, provides a sobering picture of how far we have to go as a nation to ensure early opportunities to all young children and families.  The report reviews both the progress that has been made over the past five years and the challenges that remain.

If we look further back, over the past few decades, there is room for optimism:

  • There is much greater public awareness of the importance of the early years to long term health, learning, and behavior.  The growing scientific evidence all trends in the same direction; and the new voices carrying these messages have finally brought the issue of early education to the national agenda,  and it feels like it is here to stay.
  • Leadership is coming from all directions- and yes it is bipartisan. Congress demonstrated real leadership last month when it restored cuts and stepped forward with what we hope is an important down payment on a long term investment in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.  While there is still debate, many are singing from the same songbook- from the President to governors, to mayors, to business leaders, to long time advocates.
  • A wave of innovation is sweeping the country- with states, communities, and neighborhoods trying new combinations of services. There is a growing chorus calling for a pathway of services from the prenatal period through the early primary grades to prevent the achievement gap and get children off to a strong start.  We are seeing new approaches to supporting families, encouraging parents- both mothers and fathers- to be consistent partners in the education of their children.

But then we have to hit the pause button, and look at the realities we continue to face: 

haunting inequality among our youngest children, the overwhelming stress that families face day after day without good child care options, and with stagnant wages, increasingly shut out of affordable housing.  On top of that, we have an early childhood workforce that is underpaid and almost invisible as they read article after article celebrating the importance of early education.

Leaning forward, we need:

  • New public financing strategies that will provide early childhood services that are affordable to families and can attract the best teachers for the youngest children.
  • Creative approaches to supporting familiesthat provide more resources to young parents so they have more time for their children, better options and more secure assets.
  • Instructional innovation and new methodologiesthat build a strong love of learning, persistence, problem solving, language, and math skills, curiosity and an ability to get along with others, as well as a system that uses data not as “gotcha” but as part of continuous improvement.
Let’s celebrate progress, but push forward from subprime learning to successful child development and improved outcomes, and towards the level of investment that all young children and families deserve."