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Trying to Break Down the Walls Between HHS and the Dept of Ed

Published:  December 8, 2009
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Flickr image by P Doodle reprinted under Creative Commons license.


It is no secret that government has a way of creating isolated bureaucracies that never talk to each other or, worse, promulgate policies that make it difficult for the other’s programs to succeed. The challenge is no different for early education policy: If we’re going to ensure that children get high-quality early learning opportunities before their formal school years, policymakers have to figure out how to break down the walls between health-and-human services departments and education departments.
At a research summit at Georgetown University yesterday, officials at the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services took pains to show that they are dismantling those walls. Their model has yet to be tested, but from what Early Ed Watch has heard not just at yesterday’s meeting but at other forums over the past several months, it includes a few promising elements that could be replicated at state and local levels.  
The summit, convened by Zero to Three, Georgetown’s Center on Health and Education, and the U.S. Department of Education’s professional development program for early childhood educators, brought dozens of researchers together to look at the latest science on teaching and training educators in early childhood.
Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, and Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of HHS, sat next to each other during the summit luncheon and both emphasized how closely they are working together, and the proposed program for Early Learning Challenge Grants mandates that they do. (The luncheon honored Barbara Bowman, who was advising President Obama earlier this year and who runs the early childhood division of the Chicago Public Schools.) Duncan acknowledged that the relationship between their departments had been “pretty dysfunctional” in the past. (The collegiality of Duncan and Sebelius also caught the attention of Ed Week’s Curriculum Matters in a blog post yesterday.)
In the late afternoon, the partnership between the two agencies was highlighted in a session titled: “The Early Learning and Development Inter-Departmental Initiative: Vision of the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S Department of Health and Human Services.”  It featured a second high-powered duo -- Jacqueline Jones, Duncan’s senior advisor on early learning, and Joan Lombardi, deputy assistant secretary and interdepartmental liaison at HHS.  
Jones and Lombardi have been making co-appearances at early childhood events ever since Jones’ appointment in July. This time, Lombardi mentioned two issues demanding their attention these days: the idea of building standards across programs and the belief that children’s learning and development must be considered from “prenatal all the way through the primary grades.”
“That’s the vision that is driving the two of us together,” Lombardi said.
When Lombardi took her post earlier this year, she called for the formation of study groups on topics like workforce development and standards and assessments. As she reported today, “more than 100 people came, across the two departments,” and the groups continue to meet regularly.
Better communication was clearly overdue. In some meetings, Jones said, people “came together not knowing that their counterparts existed.”
Whether these meetings will lead to any stronger ideas or greater efficiencies is still to be seen, but their existence is an important first step -– one we would urge policymakers to take at the state and local level too. Agencies in state governments should start regular “study groups” of their own. Local school districts and cities’ human service departments should be working toward integrating their services. Directors of local Head Start programs have to start becoming better aligned with school districts.
The harder part – beyond opening channels of communication – will be creating a seamless experience for children and their parents, with services provided across funding streams and across agency lines.
“This isn’t coordination,” Lombardi explained. It is more than that. “This is inter-operating programs together,” she said. “It’s a different concept.” 
We hope this means that instead of focusing only on specific programs – which can lead to an array of conflicting guidelines for families trying to figure out child care or pre-K programs they qualify for – the departments will start to see themselves as providing a fully integrated continuum of learning and development opportunities to children and their families.
Determining exactly how to do this – and what policies will make this happen – is the hard work of the coming years. But true integration between education departments and HHS departments is the only way to build a real system of early learning opportunities for young children around the country. And as Sebelius said today, alluding to what has been occupying her department this fall: “It’s a lot more fun than the flu.”

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