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FINE Newsletter, Volume IV, Issue 1
Issue Topic: New Developments in Early Childhood Education

Voices from the Field

Jacqueline Jones, PhD, is the Senior Advisor on Early Learning to the Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education. In this role, Dr. Jones leads the Department’s efforts to craft and implement an early learning agenda.

I did not begin my career thinking I would focus on early childhood education. I was a speech pathology major and thought I would spend my professional life studying adult stroke patients. I was really interested in language development and language breakdown and was fascinated by the question, How you know what someone knows when they can’t tell you what they know?

I think what really changed my career trajectory was working with Irv Sigel and Ted Chittenden during my postdoctoral fellowship at Educational Testing Services (ETS). Siegel and Chittenden were doing early childhood education research, and during my work with them that same question came up: How you know what a child knows when he or she can’t really tell you? How do you understand young children’s learning and development if they can’t speak for themselves? I thought it was an absolutely fascinating area, and I was hooked. What was meant to be just a one-year fellowship at ETS turned into a 16-year career there.

An Extraordinary Time for Early Childhood Education

Fast-forward to my current position as Senior Advisor on Early Learning at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and I am still hooked. It’s an exciting time to be in the field of early childhood education at ED and across the United States. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan feels a real sense of urgency around school reform and he sees high-quality early learning programs as an important element in the effort to transform education. When the Secretary looks at school dropout rates and the number of students unprepared to go to college or into a career, he feels that something has to be done right now and that we need to start young. This commitment is shared among federal agencies and we see this especially in ED’s collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge

This interagency collaboration was most evident in the recent Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge (ELC), a $500 million grant competition jointly administered by ED and HHS. Our intent with this competition was to make sure that states had coordinated efforts among their various systems, from state-funded preschools to Head Start and childcare programs. We wanted states to pull together different early education funding streams and work on creating common statewide standards, with the goal of improving program quality and making sure more children enter kindergarten prepared to be successful in school. We didn’t want state-funded preschool programs to propose one strategy, Head Start programs to propose another, and programs authorized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to propose yet another. We wanted educators to learn from each other within a state and across the various sectors.

States responded: Sectors that had no prior history of collaboration came together for these applications. In Massachusetts, for example, the Executive Office of Education; the Departments of Early Care and Education, Elementary and Secondary Education, Higher Education, Public Health, Children and Families, Housing and Community Development, and Transitional Assistance; the Office for Refugees and Immigrants; and others, committed to a “framework for collaboration” for implementation of their ELC grant project. This framework calls for the lead agency and all of the participating agencies to be knowledgeable of the state’s ELC application; help with relevant activities during the implementation process; and share with each other their challenges, successes, and outcomes related to the project’s work.

Engaging and supporting families. When we were planning the Early Learning Challenge we knew we had to highlight the role of families in preparing children for school. Children don’t grow and develop solely in the context of an early childhood program, no matter how high-quality that program is—they grow and develop in the context of their families, their homes, and their communities. As such, both departments (ED and HHS) were clear that families needed to be a criterion in the application. We wanted applicants to intentionally think about families as critical partners in their early childhood education programs.

The Early Learning Challenge

The applications for the 9 winning states and 28 other applicants can be found online here. These applications detail the states’ commitment to early childhood and plans for future innovations and developments.

Questions for Readers:

  • Do you know about your own state’s Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge application?
  • Do you know about your state’s commitment to and plans for engaging and supporting families?
  • What do you think about your state’s efforts to engage families in early learning?
  • Is your early childhood program using innovative methods to include families?

Share your feedback with us on Facebook, or email us at

Some examples of the strong family engagement practices that emerged in winning states’ plans were North Carolina’s provision of universal home visiting services to families of high-need children, and Maryland’s formation of a Coalition of Family Engagement comprised of parents and practitioners who plan to customize the Office of Head Start’s Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Framework for the needs of the state and roll it out to all of the state’s 24 local education agencies.

Next Steps

Sharing what the winning ELC states (California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington) are doing as they implement their proposals is tremendously important to us. We are working to bring together these nine states so that they can share information among themselves and with the rest of the country. I want these states to share and reflect on what really happens during the implementation process. What are the problems that they are facing? What are the strategies they are using to engage families, to use data, or to align systems in meaningful ways? We are still working on how best to do that and some ideas include a new website that would house information across ED and HHS, and a webinar series that would feature the nine winning states. We want to be transparent about the work that is being done in order to help as many programs and people as possible.

This resource is part of the March 2012 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access our archive of past issues, visit

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project