Many factors can drive the creation, expansion and improvement of early childhood educational opportunities; higher funding, legislative reform efforts and technical expertise are chief among them. But perhaps the biggest impetus for reform is strong and competent leadership. We’ve written a lot about the roles of principals, superintendents and other school leaders, but what can education leaders do at the state level?
A report released earlier this year by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) spotlights six statewide heads of education in five states who have served as trailblazers for early learning.
Nancy Grasmick served a 20-year tenure, 1991 to 2011, as the Maryland superintendent of education. With her retirement she left behind a legacy of expanded opportunities for young children to learn and be kindergarten-ready. Grasmick worked to build from scratch a state- and locally-funded pre-K system for low-income 4-year-olds. Simultaneously, she pushed for early intervention services for pre-K children with disabilities who had been served through the federal IDEA Part C Infant/Toddler program. She implemented a school readiness assessment and coupled that with professional development to ensure kindergarten teachers were well-versed in using the data. And CCSSO reports that her hard work paid off – to the tune of a five-fold increase in state pre-K funding by the end of her career.
Sandy Garrett – superintendent of public instruction in Oklahoma over the same 20-year span as Grasmick – also dramatically increased funding for the state’s pre-K system. She expanded enrollment in a pilot program that had been established in the 1980s from 10,000 in 1997 to 37,000 twelve years later. But she never sacrificed quality in the programs; the pilot pre-K program required legislators to cut entire units, rather than just skim funding off the top, if they wanted to reduce funding. That way, lawmakers were forced to cut a classroom, not quality within classrooms. Her efforts to apply political pressure in support of early childhood education worked. In 2003, the first year that the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) published its annual State of Preschool report, Oklahoma ranked first in the nation in access to preschool for 4-year-olds.
What led to New Jersey’s 2011 NIEER ranking of 16th in access for 4-year-olds and first for state spending, though, was fraught with legal battles. A state Supreme Court ruling in 1998 (Abott V) required New Jersey to provide pre-K to all 3- and 4-year-olds in the so-called Abbott districts – 31 of the state’s poorest districts. By 2009, under the leadership of Commissioner of Education William Librera, almost 41,000 children were enrolled in Abbott pre-K programs; in 1998, that number was only 3,300. After Librera stepped down in 2006, Lucille Davy took over his position and served another four years, during which time she established an early childhood division in the state department of education, adopted kindergarten assessments and developed standards for PreK-through-3rd grade students. But perhaps most importantly, Davy fought to approve a new school aid formula that provided regular, foreseeable funding for Abbott pre-K classrooms each year. That way, schools had the certainty to plan and grow.
The CCSSO report also highlights two current state school heads. Deborah Gist has been Rhode Island Commissioner of Education since 2009, during which time Rhode Island won both Race to the Top K-12 and Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants. During Gist’s tenure, she has created a pre-K fund that is embedded within the school finance formula. The fund phases in to $10 million within 10 years. Her efforts were a welcome change; prior to becoming commissioner, the state had no pre-K program.
And Brenda Cassellius, who has been Minnesota’s state commissioner of education for about a year, has already begun the difficult job of improving alignment between pre-K and the early grades. Using federal dollars from the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, Promise Neighborhoods and Investing in Innovation programs, she is working to expand pilot programs for pre-K and quality rating systems. She is also working to build a data system that will track kids across funding streams and programs, and provide feedback to their teachers.
The state chiefs took diverse approaches to elevating early education, but one main takeaway is in how each chief built political will around his or her efforts. They each worked with school and district leaders to persuade them that early childhood education ought to be made a priority. They coordinated with other agencies to share information, experiences, and institutional knowledge. And they pushed lawmakers to provide funds and focus to advance early learning agendas.
The ultimate lesson in the report, though: leadership matters. Without a guiding force and tireless advocate working with federal, state and local governments on behalf of young children, early learning is often overlooked. These six leaders are only a handful of the many supporters of young children. Other state policymakers should take their cues from them when it comes to battles fought, lessons learned and tangible successes realized.