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Q & A with Jacqueline Jones

Published:  December 18, 2012

Jacqueline Jones, our country’s first Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning, left her post at the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month. Early Ed Watch had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with Jones. Below is the complete interview, edited for typographical errors only.

We thank Jones for her commitment to helping to improve the quality of and access to early learning programs, birth through third grade. Over the past several years, in conversations with Ed Department officials across the spectrum, we have heard several of them mention that Jones would not let the Ed staff forget about early learning and was continually pushing for its recognition in public education. This prodding, from a thoughtful, respected leader throughout the early childhood field, is what will lay the ground for even more change in the future.  We wish Jacqueline Jones the best in her next endeavors.

Early Ed Watch: Reflecting on the past four years, what would you say were your biggest accomplishments?

Jacqueline Jones: From my perspective, there were three big accomplishments:

  • Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) – The administration began with such high hopes for the $8B Early Learning Challenge Fund, and then we saw those hopes vanish. When Secretary Duncan received the authority to use Race to the Top funds for an early learning initiative in 2011, we were finally able to begin a focused effort to support statewide coordination of early learning and development programs that could lead to stronger outcomes for young children. Currently, there are 14 states that have received funding from the RTT-ELC program.
  • The ELC Framework for High Quality Programs – Although the RTT-ELC application is complex, it represents a framework for high quality early learning programs that ED and HHS worked very hard to construct.  In particular, the components of the Program Standards in the Tiered Quality Rating & Improvement System, represent the basic building blocks of high quality. Representatives from states that were not funded have told us that the application has served as guide for how to move forward.
  • The Office of Early Learning in ED in OESE – During most of my tenure at ED, I served as the Senior Advisor on Early Learning to Secretary Duncan; I believe that was the right way to begin this work; ED needed to create a clear vision and a focused strategy for the early learning work. However, we also knew that the work needed to be institutionalized within the Department by creating an Office of Early Learning.  Led by a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning, the office lives within the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and has responsibility for grants management and intra- and interagency coordination of early learning-related programs.  The Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deb Delisle is a strong supporter of early learning, and the staff is terrific.

EEW: What still needs to be done?

JJ:

  • Implementation of ELC – With RTT-ELC funding now going to14 states, implementation of state plans will be a big focus.  The work will probably include providing technical assistance, developing communities of practice, and dissemination of best practices to states that did not receive ELC grants.
  • Expansion of high quality early learning programs for more children with high needs – A good deal of work still needs to be done to improve the quality of early learning programs across the birth through 3rdgrade continuum.  A significant number of young children are not attending high quality preschool programs, and we need to expand access. In addition, we need to collect more examples of high quality early elementary programs and build strong models of P-3 quality.
  • Continued interagency coordination – We continue to attempt to build quality in the context of a patchwork of discrete early learning funding streams – Head Start, IDEA, Child Care, Title 1 and ELC.  In order to build quality and promote better outcomes for children from birth through age 8, the coordination between ED and HHS needs to continue and deepen.

EEW: What are the biggest barriers to advancing better early learning policies at the federal level?

JJ: I believe the multiple funding streams for early learning programs will continue to be a challenge. Different authorizations, stakeholders, funding levels, etc. need to be carefully thought through as one works toward stronger coordination. However, I’ve been impressed by the willingness of programs to work together and tackle some of these hard issues.

EEW: The Administration talks about early learning as being birth through third grade, but the Department’s early learning initiatives have focused only through age 5; can you talk a little about the challenges of bridging the pre-K and K-3 work?

JJ: I don’t believe that it’s the case that “the Department’s early learning initiatives have focused only through age 5.”  It is true that ELC focuses on coordination of birth to age five early learning programs and services. However, ED programs such as i3, Promise Neighborhoods, and Striving Readers provide funding across the birth through 3rdgrade continuum.

That said a significant amount of work remains if we are to bridge the gap between the early years and the early grades. I think a first step is for each side to stop blaming the other. I hear early childhood folks make broad generalizations, accusing the schools of destroying the work they accomplish in preschool programs. I also hear early elementary educators wonder why preschools can’t do more to prepare children for school.  If we really believe that early learning spans the period from birth through 3rdgrade, these educators need to spend much more time working together to focus on how to provide the most effective programs and services for young children in the context of the various systems and settings within which they work. We need to highlight and support innovative models, such as P-3 systems and classrooms in which children remain with the same teacher for two or three years, such has a class of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds.

I also believe that higher education can play a critical role in bridging preschool to grade. We might consider models such as preparing infant and toddler specialists as P-3 specialists. If higher education programs really prepared a set of teachers to meet the needs of children from preschool through 3rdgrade, we would have educators with the skills to understand development and appropriate pedagogy across that span.

EEW: What advice do you have for your successor?

JJ: During the first term, the President and Secretary Duncan demonstrated a strong commitment to early learning. So, my advice to my successor: never forget what an extraordinary opportunity it is to serve in this capacity; support and enhance the first term’s work; be bold; make your own mark, and have fun. 

EEW: What’s next for you?

JJ: I’ve said on several occasions that my top priority is to engage in prolonged periods of sleep.  But there is no denying that I love this work. I need a bit of time to decompress and figure out my next step. Until all children in this country have access to high quality early learning programs and until they all leave 3rdgrade on track to be successful in college or a career – I believe there will be some way in which I can make a contribution.

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