Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
The high costs of early learning presents one of the biggest obstacles to accessing childhood education. It’s a challenge Amy O’Leary is attacking, not only as NAEYC Governing Board president, but also as director of the Early Education For All campaign of Strategies for Children, which seeks to make publicly-funded, high-quality early education available for all Massachusetts three, four and five-year-olds.
Chris Riback: Amy, welcome to the studio.
Amy O’Leary: Thanks for having me.
Chris Riback: Congratulations on the event. A lot of energy here.
Amy O’Leary: Absolutely.
Chris Riback: Have you had a chance to stop and actually take things in? What have you seen or you can’t stop for a moment?
Amy O’Leary: In my travels and it has been so exciting to feel the energy and momentum of over 9,000 early educators, researchers, advocates, equity warriors here focused on what we need to do for young children and families.
Chris Riback: Is there anything in particular that you’ve noticed or heard? Obviously equity, major theme, major issue, teachers and the professionalization.
Amy O’Leary: That’s right.
Chris Riback: Anything that you’re hearing?
Amy O’Leary: I think just the relationship building and the opportunity to network. When I attended my first conference, I could not believe how many early educators I was standing with.
Chris Riback: Yes. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
Amy O’Leary: It really is, and I think the commitment to supporting our educators from classrooms all the way up through administrators to our elected officials. You can feel that here today.
Chris Riback: So a big open ended question before we get to some of the specifics. I think it’s a central one and given your role, your views would be useful. Where is America on early childhood education? Hypocritical, committed, successful, lacking, aspirational.
Amy O’Leary: I would say America is waking up around early education and childcare.
Chris Riback: That’s a good feeling.
Amy O’Leary: It is a great feeling. I think we are coming close to a tipping point where it’s not if we’re going to do something, but it’s really what are we going to do and how are we going to do it?
Chris Riback: What do you think is the why? What’s driving the awakening?
Amy O’Leary: Our honesty about how expensive it is for families to find high quality early education for the children. I think the economic arguments that we’ve had for a long time and I think growing our workforce. Making sure that we have people who can do jobs that we haven’t even dreamed of yet in the future.
Chris Riback: Do you know what I’m hearing a lot about as well from the folks I’m getting to listen to is, as we all think about and worry about the opportunity gap and the inequality gap later in life, there’s this sense that if we can attack that early on, if we can address equity and quality education.
Amy O’Leary: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Chris Riback: We can start to close that opportunity gap later in life by making the investment earlier.
Amy O’Leary: That’s right. Common sense tells us if we invest earlier we’ll have a better chance. But the research tells us that as well. In fact, I was just on a panel with a woman who works in the innovation space and she said the people who are going to be 150, to live to 150 have already been born.
Chris Riback: Wow.
Amy O’Leary: And I said, “And you know what their parents are trying to do right now is find childcare.” So if we are serious about having people who are going to live to be 150, have long, healthy, beneficial lives. We need to think about that right now.
Chris Riback: So turns out you also have a day job.
Amy O’Leary: I do.
Chris Riback: Maybe it’s a night job. Maybe it’s a day and night job. You are director of Early Education For All campaign of Strategies for Children. That campaign seeks to make publicly funded high quality early education available for all Massachusetts three, four and five-year-olds. That sounds like quite a challenge.
Amy O’Leary: It is a challenge, and I think that’s where I get the waking up. We started the campaign back in 2002, and I think to see the shifts we’ve seen with our elected officials, with the policies that they’re creating with the advocacy community coming together. To really think about what it’s going to take to best serve our youngest children. I’ve seen a tipping point. In Massachusetts, they’ve just passed a new education bill to make sure that districts have money to support young children across through 12th grade and full day high quality Pre-K is part of that agenda.
Chris Riback: You see all levels. You see the education environments themselves and the teachers. You see the families, you see the higher education folks trying to bring in the next generation of teachers. You also see the policymakers. Is there a block in progress in any of those areas or do you perhaps see better integration among those areas. And maybe what’s going on in Massachusetts is an example of what’s possible.
Amy O’Leary: I think what we’ve seen our policy makers wanting to do the right thing, but we need to help with some of those solutions. So instead of complaining and talking about cuts, we have seen a shift in people’s thinking about solutions. This is what we need and not being afraid to ask for what we need.
Chris Riback: So I read your personal mission, which is, “to work to empower early educators and help get them involved in advocacy policy and research.” Maybe listening to what you just said, at first glance, one might ask, well where are the children in that? But I bet you have an answer for that.
Amy O’Leary: You bet, I do. I think if we have confident, well-respected, early educators who come into work every day wanting the best for themselves and the children they serve, we’re going to see a trickle down. And if children are in those environments and learning skills like empowerment and sharing and being kind to each other. We know those are the qualities that we want to instill in children early on because the benefits that we get from that later make the difference. So I think early educators are the key determinants of what a program looks like, what it feels like. When parents report, when they’re visiting programs, they want to know how they feel when they walk in the door.
Chris Riback: They’re the linchpin.
Amy O’Leary: That’s right.
Chris Riback: Amy, to close out, this is your last year as an NAEYC president. It ends in June. I know you’re not counting down the days.
Amy O’Leary: No.
Chris Riback: I know you’re not. What do you think your legacy will be? What do you want it to be?
Amy O’Leary: I want it to be, I started as a preschool teacher and sat in many of the seats where people are sitting today, and now I get to be president of our largest membership association dedicated to early educators, children and family. So I want to make sure people know that anything is possible and that there are people and mentors that want to help you along this journey and that we are the linchpin to the future of this country. And we need to invest in young children and educators to see our vision through.
Chris Riback: Well, thank you. Thank you for coming by the studio. Thank you for the work that you have and continue to do.
Amy O’Leary: Thank you so much.