Voices in Education

Empowering Early Childhood Educators
Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, challenges his readers (and the politicians eager to represent them) to ask themselves if we can afford to continue to let learning opportunities slide for our youngest and most vulnerable children. Kristof is not the only one ready to dispense with the hand-wringing about whether early education “works” and move immediately on the promise of early learning to transform children’s life chances.  From the dramatic expansion of preK in New York City to the White House’s Preschool for All initiative, federal, state, and community agencies across the nation are engaged with an aspirational and ambitious agenda for dramatic expansion of children’s learning opportunities in the years before kindergarten.

As researchers concerned with promoting young children’s healthy development and well-being—ones who regularly partner with communities and states working on early childhood policy and practice—we know all too well that, as Kristof reminds us, children are “too small to fail.” But our work, and the work of our colleagues, also makes clear: If children are too small to fail, then the influence of adults on their success is too powerful to disregard.
If our concern is children, why focus on adults?

Because the quality of children’s early learning environments and experiences depends upon the educators and leaders on the ground.  Any effort to expand high-quality early education begins with the adults tasked with delivering on its promise. 

And if we weren’t sure of this before, the insights of our colleagues in The Leading Edge of Early Childhood Education make the fundamental role of adults indisputable. In this volume, we are joined by influential early childhood scholars and practitioners in sharing what we know about the pressing and diverse issues facing the early childhood field as we meet the challenge of simultaneously improving the quality of early childhood learning settings and scaling them.
What did we learn from these early childhood thought leaders?

It is clear we have the knowledge it takes to do right by our youngest children and create strong early learning environments in which they can grow and thrive. We can identify and support children facing adverse life experiences, and change and ameliorate policies that (unintentionally) exacerbate, rather than mitigate, the effects of adversity.  We have the tools and channels to implement universal screening systems to identify children at risk for developmental delays and to drive comprehensive prevention efforts.  We know the high costs of even subtle instances of social exclusion in our community-based settings, and we have strategies at the ready to begin more effectively promoting the emotional safety that all children need to learn. 

But whether focused on system-level issues or early learning practices, a central theme emerges: Strengthening and expanding early education—putting our collective knowledge into real-life action—means addressing the needs and capacities of the adults with whom we entrust children’s care and development.

How can today’s early education stakeholders accomplish this goal?

It is time to genuinely invest in early educators’ professional lives, their professional learning, and their wages.  It is also time to get serious about training and supporting early education leaders—those in the early education field who are making daily decisions that impact children, their teachers, and the settings where they learn and work. 

We take this collective call to action very seriously. Through our own work, as part of the Saul Zaentz Early Childhood Initiative, we will provide policy makers, administrators, and educators from across the country with professional learning opportunities that equip them to tackle the core issues tied to simultaneously expanding and improving early childhood education. It is our hope that through these efforts, and those taken by the many others working to promote early learning, we will do better by each and every child who has only one shot at a foundational preschool experience.


About the Author: Nonie K. Lesaux is the Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Her research focuses on promoting the language and literacy skills of today's children from diverse linguistic, cultural and economic backgrounds.

Stephanie M. Jones is the Marie and Max Kargman Associate Professor in Human Development and Urban Education Advancement at HGSE. Her research, anchored in prevention science, focuses on the effects of poverty and exposure to violence on children and youth's social, emotional, and behavioral development.

They are the editors of The Leading Edge of Early Childhood Education (Harvard Education Press, 2016).