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U.S. Early-Ed Official: 'No More Exciting Time to be Working in Early Learning'

Quality-Counts-Kindergarten-play-Massachusetts-Facebook.jpgLibby Doggett, who oversees early-childhood policy for the U.S. Department of Education, has a long history in the field, including work with the National Head Start Association and the Pew Charitable Trusts, where she led the philanthropy's Home Visiting campaign and its Pre-K Now initiative. 

But the latest work in early-childhood nationwide is energizing even to this self-described "optimist." Said Doggett: "What's been exciting is to have so many unexpected allies. The business community, the law enforcement community, the faith-based community, others [are] stepping forward and saying that 'These are our children, and we're going to help.' And that's what's made the difference."

Doggett spoke to Education Week as part of the publication's 2015 Quality Counts report, which ranks states on their early-childhood performance and also gives insight into politics, classroom practices, and research surrounding young learners. She shared the department's plans to continue pushing the Obama administration's  $75 billion Preschool for All initiative, what she sees as notable successes, and the future of federal efforts around early childhood. The interviews, conducted in October and January, have been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Libby-Doggett-280.jpg

What do you think about states and municipalities moving on their own to expand preschool?

The research is so very clear. Policy leaders have heard from the business community, the law enforcement community that we've got to have larger, better access and better quality in all of our learning programs. And [state] and city officials are saying, yes, we hear you, and we're not going to wait for the federal government to act. But truthfully, we need every level of government to do more, because this has been such an underfunded area for so long, and the quality still varies. The challenges are immense. We know how to solve them, but it is going to take more resources, and everybody's got to step up. 

Everyone's talking about preschool. What is the department doing to bolster the early grades—k-3?

All the reforms that we have put in place over the last couple of years—school turnaround, teacher evaluation and suppport, our work around equity, and certainly our work around flexibility—are all focused on how can we improve the kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades. So that children who go to pre-K come out of there with great motivation and great skills—those are all sustained while they're in the early grades. There's been a tendency, in some cases, for schools to focus on preschool and then to focus on the 3rd grade because that's when kids take the test, and forget about those intervening three years. [Note: No Child Left Behind accountability testing starts in 3rd grade.] I do think our reforms will really make a difference for that.

What would be your dream system of programs and supports for young children? 

I'd like to see high-quality programs available from birth‐mainly at that point to support the family. They are the first teachers, and the most important teachers over the lifetime of that child. We'd want to make sure there's high-quality child care that's not just caring for those kids, but is an early-learning environment that is seamless, where families don't have to transfer children at noon over to a grandmother's house or from one setting to another to get a full-day program. 

We'd like to see, obviously, preschool for 3- and 4-year olds through either Head Start, enhanced child care, or schools stepping up and providing more programs. And then obviously, families need wraparound. Parents who work need before- and after-school care, and we want that to be linked to their learning.

And then finally we want full-day kindergarten and we want high-quality programs in kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade, to ensure that the gains that kids come in with are sustained. 

If we got all that, we as a nation would see incredible changes in terms of graduation rates, the quality of our schools and what's going on in classrooms, [and] more people flocking to teach, because teaching in a school where children have gotten a really high-quality early-learning experience from birth is altogether a different experience.

And probably the one important piece in there is we want programs to be voluntary. I think parents are very protective of their children and don't want to be told what to do. We want parents to have choices and make these decisions for their youngest children. 

Are we close to taking steps to create that seamless system? 

I think what's uppermost in people's mind is, is this actually going to happen? And I want to say a resounding, "Yes, it is." I hope people can refer to [U.S. Education Secretary] Arne Duncan's speech to the National Governors Assocation about six or seven months ago, when he said expansion of high-quality early learning is inevitable. It is going to happen, and I know that the president and Arne Duncan, are not going to stop. Neither am I, until we succeed. 

But congressional leaders have not yet shown an interest in taking up program expansion for young children. Who will be your friends among federal lawmakers? 

Lots of people are making predictions; I'm not one to do that. I think that early learning will have some new friends in the new Congress and will continue to build in the old friends we've already had. [Note: Doggett named Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee; Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.] It'll continue to be a bipartisan issue. It may continue to be a sleeping issue, but I imagine we will hear it talked about much more than people think. 

Photos: Mitchell De Araujo Silva looks through a cardboard tube in a building-block area with Lucia Nassif at Jefferson Elementary School in Rockland, Mass., during a time set aside for play of their choice.—Charlie Mahoney for Education Week. Libby Doggett courtesy of Lillian Mongeau, EdSource.

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