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Perspective: Leading in Times of Transition
or How to Dance during an Earthquake
CEELO Co-Project Director at EDC
Jana Martella of CEELO, center, at farewell reception for former Senior Advisor Steven Hicks from the USED Office of Early Learning (left) and former US Department of Education Deputy Assistant Secretary Libby Doggett.
State early childhood specialists are experts on transitions. They live and work with varied shifts and moves on a regular basis, planning and adjusting accordingly. Calendars flow through annual budget and legislative cycles each year, and every four years, elections change the shape of those annual progressions.
This year those shifts may seem a bit more seismic. State elections and the move to a new federal administration, combined with implementation of the new federal elementary and secondary education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), present new adjustments and, if you look deeper, new early learning opportunities, as CEELO’s Lori Connors-Tadros informed us in the last Impact Perspective.
Yet I have found great comfort in the skillful approach state early childhood specialists take to assuring continuity and managing change in their states, as shown by Harriet and John’s thoughtful comments below. As CEELO’s Jim Squires wrote a few years back in Preschool Matters Today, it is this “B-team" who will be there when elected or appointed officials come and they will be there when they go, providing the necessary continuity and consistency for programs to operate and improve, remaining abreast of developments in the field and establishing working relationships across the spectrum to get things done.
Perhaps state early childhood educators are equipped to embrace change and support continuity because of lessons they have learned from developmental science. They have long experience in supporting programs as they pave the way for young children moving from one environment to another and one grade to the next.
As the National Center for Quality Teaching and Learning notes in Effective Transitions to Enhance School Readiness, the goal of a smooth transition is to create conditions for successful adjustment. The most powerful catalysts for success include: opening the door to information; assuring supportive relationships; and, aligning environments and programs. Teachers in early childhood classrooms deploy transition strategies every day to support young children through changes. They forecast and plan before transitions occur, they inform children and individualize their practice to prepare each child for the shifts and flows in front of them and they rely on relationships – teacher-child interactions – to support agile and flexible adjustments. The most effective also rely on, and collaborate with, families and colleagues to meet the tougher challenges.
These early childhood classroom strategies are not unlike those our Leadership Academy fellows are called to assimilate throughout their intensive training. The change we now face federally and in the states calls upon technical knowledge, skills, and competencies but more directly ask us all to deploy “adaptive leadership” -- concepts highlighted in a major resource used by the Academy. In Leadership on the Line, Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, authors Heifetz and Linsky call these “adaptive challenges” because they require “experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in an organization.” To manage big changes, they suggest moving between “dance floor and balcony,” achieving perspective by stepping up out of the fray of everyday activities to get clearer views of the big picture; and then moving back to the dance floor once we’ve gained perspective, making adjustments, observing impact, and returning to action.
When approaching seemingly seismic shifts today, the dance floor of early childhood education policy development may feel a bit shaky. However, we can learn from sound classroom practice for transitions: we can double down on the grounding provided by research; we can predict, plan and prepare for necessary adjustments; and, we can rely on collaborators and colleagues to face and solve tough problems of practice together.
This last weekend I did a lot of walking and on my journey was inspired by quotations found on the monuments along the National Mall. Two stood out as uniquely applicable to our work. On the Einstein Memorial in front of the National Academies of Science where the hallmark report, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth through Eight took shape: “The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.”
The second, a clarion call aligned with CEELO’s focus on identifying and addressing disparities, was among many inspiring words at the Martin Luther King Memorial. From his speech during the 1959 March for Integrated Schools: "Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in."
Harriet Feldlaufer CT Director of Division of Early Care and Education & John Pruette NC Executive Director of Office of Early Learning
This issue focuses on managing change and embracing opportunities presented during transitions. This month we shine the spotlight on two policymakers with good advice to share.
Director Harriet Feldlaufer is state administrator for CCDF and oversees state-funded early childhood grant programs and leads Connecticut's preK-Grade 3 initiatives.
Director John Pruette directs a state agency within the Department of Public Instruction focused on both primary education and prekindergarten to promote a strongly aligned, high-quality early learning experience for children in North Carolina.
Q. How did you get interested in early childhood education? HF: I always wanted to be a teacher. I was an education major in college and earned a joint degree in early childhood and elementary education. I was incredibly fortunate to study with both George Forman and Patty Ramsey while at the University of Massachusetts. I developed Piagetian tasks for Dr. Forman’s research program. At the same time, I was intrigued by the pedagogy of Maria Montessori and read everything she wrote while volunteering at the Amherst Montessori School.
JP: Early in my teaching career, I found early education to be most impactful in supporting the individual strengths and needs of children. I could see the trajectory of success improving for those students involved in strong early education programs and wanted to be part of that in a demonstrative way.
Q. What transition have you recently experienced? HF: In 2013, CT established a new executive branch agency -- the Office of Early Childhood -- to coordinate and improve the various early childhood programs and components in the state to create a cohesive high-quality early childhood system. This brought together programs and services from five state agencies, including programs I directed and staff with whom I worked at the Department of Education. This allowed a group of dedicated, highly knowledgeable professionals to come together to create a new vision and mission focused on supporting all young children in their development by ensuring that policy, funding and services strengthen the critical role families, providers, educators and communities play in a child’s life.
JP: I am currently involved in a significant transition at the state level with a newly elected Chief State School Officer overseeing my department as well as a gubernatorial change in the administrative branch of government in NC.
Q.What is the most challenging aspect of transition? Advice for coping? HF: No matter what type of change, there are going to be some demanding aspects. Probably the uncertainty was most taxing. Our new leadership team had to work really hard to establish a new “culture” and a set of norms and values that would be consistent with our newly created vision and mission. Beliefs and related behaviors are very difficult to modify--and the stakes were high for our new agency as providers, policymakers, and advocates watched to see if this new way of doing business would work.
JP: The most challenging aspect of any transition is the initial uncertainty of it all. And, how will any change impact the important work in which my team and I are involved.
Q. Advice for coping? HF: There were bumps along the way and we still are navigating lots of new territory. Leadership must provide both strategies and an environment allowing people to move through the change process.
JP: Look for the opportunities that exist to move your agenda forward. I’ve found that any transition can result in newfound relationships that will be beneficial if you keep the focus on what you know to be true, keeping children at the center of all discussions and decisions. And, don’t be afraid to move beyond the status quo (constructive disruption).
Q. What is the most rewarding aspect? HF: I have been introduced to new areas in the world of early care and education. For example, I became the state administrator for CCDF and have been able to learn about the program and the newly reauthorized law. In a relatively short time, I have been able to change some policies and strategies to better support this very large population of children and families in CT. It has been incredibly eye-opening.
JP: Recognizing the progress you make toward improving the lives of young children by engaging more/new champions in the work.
Q. How has CEELO been helpful in making progress during transitions? HF: Our staff have participated in CEELO peer learning networks. Plus, our agency is a federal Preschool Development Grantee so CEELO has provided support regarding policy, implementation and evaluation regarding development and expansion of high-quality preschool education. We also collaborated with CEELO on a national survey of states regarding strategies for supporting the early child education work force. This work was instrumental in preparing a set of recommendations to our legislature.
JP: CEELO keeps me grounded in the most recent research and recommended practice but most importantly serves as an objective sounding board. With any move forward, you need an opportunity to vet your thoughts and opinions with a neutral party. CEELO’s contribution to my thinking has been invaluable in that regard.
Events: Alabama First Class Pre-K Conference
More than 2,300 early educators and administrators attending the Alabama First Class Pre-K Conference in Mobile earlier this month received a warm, congratulatory welcome from Governor Robert Bentley.
Touting the success of AL's steadily expanding, high-quality pre-K model for its proven impact on children's learning, Gov. Bentley said "There is much wrong with education in our state, but pre-K is not one of them." He has referred to preK educators as "our rock stars."
Gov. Bentley said the K-12 system should take note of pre-K and the P-3 model's success, pledging support for the Department of Early Childhood Education's effort to apply lessons learned to the state's entire education system.
NIEER/CEELO Senior Fellow Jim Squires presented two seminars addressing "Building the Next Generation of Inclusion Leaders in Alabama" and examining "Children, Childhood and Early Education: Where are We Heading?"
As one of the comprehensive centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Programs, CEELO strives to enhance the capacity of State Education Agencies to implement comprehensive and aligned early learning systems and expand the number of children prepared to succeed in school.
Over the past federal fiscal year, CEELO staff provided technical assistance ranging from customized information responses to co-hosting a National Roundtable focused on Birth-Third Grade education attracting more than 150 participants from 40 states. Each region of the country, and most states in each region, received TA from the CELLO staff who presented at more than a dozen national and regional meetings, and held five Peer Exchanges for Preschool Development Grant–Expansion states.
In addition, CEELO launched a third Leadership Academy with seven Fellows representing Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and New Hampshire. In New Jersey, CEELO continued the EC Academy engaging administrators, educators and policymakers to build peer learning among school districts. CEELO also brought together experts and teams of leaders from 12 states in a six-month Learning Table peer exchange to develop practical steps for improving teaching quality.
Responding to state needs, CEELO produced the Cost of Preschool Quality Tool, hosted a webinar on its use and continues providing assistance to train state educators and advocates on use of the tool. Advocates in Indiana effectively used CPQ to educate policymakers about expanding access to high-quality preschool. As states begin budget hearings, CPQ will remain a useful resource for educators and advocates of high-quality early education.
New from CEELO:
Assessment Tools Used in Kindergarten Entry Assessments (KEAs) is a national scan on the current assessment tools that are used in states to assess the development of children at kindergarten entry.
This resource, developed at the request of a state early education administrator, could be useful to any state developing or revising their KEAs.