Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Kudos and Qu’s on New Federal Office for Early Learning

Published:  November 7, 2011

Two years ago, when Jacqueline Jones was appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as his senior advisor for early learning – a first-of-its-kind position –  the early childhood community celebrated. Recognition of the early years as educational years was long overdue, and Jones was an excellent choice given her work in New Jersey to create a high-quality system of early learning, beginning at age 3 and continuing up through 3rd grade.

Then, of course, reality set in. Despite Jones’ arrival, it seemed that many officials in the Education Department were still operating under a K-12, instead of PreK-12, mentality. (See, for example, our criticism of the blueprint for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.)  Many early education advocates lamented that Jones could not make much headway without a full department under her control.

On Friday, those laments gave way to good news: The Department announced a proposal to open an Office of Early Learning, housed in the Department's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE).  Jones would be appointed to head the new office, with oversight of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants probably coming first on her to-do list.

At the NAEYC Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida Jones addressed a packed room of early childhood teachers, center directors, advocates and researchers who cheered when she announced the plan for the new office. Jones said the office would encompass birth through third grade early learning and allow for better coordination of federal programs that contain early learning such as Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighborhoods, as well as other programs authorized under ESEA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Staffing and other details are still forthcoming.

The announcement now spurs multiple questions:

  1. What will differ between this new office and the already existent Early Learning Initiative that Jones has been running? Could the new office have a stronger role in shaping other policies related to the waiver process under the current No Child Left Behind Act as well as deeper involvement in the Department’s proposals to reauthorize ESEA? 
  2. How closely will the department’s Title I officials be connected to this new office? Will we see continued guidance and highlights from examples of promising strategies for employing Title I funds to expand access to high-quality pre-K and full-day kindergarten?
  3. How will this office coordinate with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which runs Head Start and the Child Care Development Block Grant?  In September, the most important connector at HHS --  Joan Lombardi, deputy assistant secretary and inter-departmental liaison for early childhood development at the Administration for Children and Families – stepped down. Who will take her place and how will that person’s role be connected to the new education department office? And how will the recently formed Interagency Policy board change or expand under this new office?  We have yet to see much publicly from the convenings of this board, which was said to be looking at issues such as alignment of standards and data collection between HHS and ED.
  4. How will the K-3 grades be handled within this new office? Based on Jones’ comments at NAEYC, it sounds like there might be new emphasis on these grades, many of which (especially kindergarten and first grade), which are often marginalized in conversations about education reform because there are no typically no statewide standardized test scores in those grades.  Where will Jones put the emphasis?  On the expansion of standards to include more domains of learning, such as social-emotional devleopment? On effective teaching in those grades? Both?
  5. How will the earliest end of the spectrum – the programs for children starting at birth and extending to age 3 – be incorporated into the education department’s strategies and guidance to states and districts? Our country is still a long way from recognizing that infants and toddlers are already experiencing a form of education in the way their parents and caregivers play, converse and interact with them. Could this birth-to-3rd grade vision of early childhood become more fully incorporated into a contemporary vision of high-quality education with the help of this department?

The elevation of Jones' work within the education department is an important signal that federal officials understand how much improving early learning -- up through 3rd grade -- is critical to narrowing achievement gaps and building a foundation for success in school and life. We'll be watching as this new office embarks on its work in the coming year.

For more coverage, see analysis from EduFlak, a blog by Patrick Riccards, and Secretary Arne Duncan’s blog post on Huffington Post. .

CORRECTION 11/7 at 12:49 p.m.: Jacqueline Jones was appointed a little over two years ago, not three years ago as erroneously reported, to the position of senior advisor on early learning.

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