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Commissioner Thomas L. Weber Testimony Before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Education

Posted by: Sally C Fuller
State House
State House

Madame Chair and members of the Joint Committee on Education, good morning. My name is Tom Weber and I am the Commissioner of the Department of Early Education and Care. Thank you for scheduling this hearing on the important subject of early learning and for providing me with an opportunity to share the Department's mission and activities as they relate to your deliberations on proposed legislation and the direction of the Commonwealth's early education and care agenda. It is my pleasure to join today with Secretary Peyser, who personally and through the Governor's Executive Office has been deeply supportive of the Department's operations and initiatives.

Much has been said about the Commonwealth's decision to create a first-of-its kind consolidated Department of Early Education and Care in 2005. This was an important achievement and the Commonwealth should take a measure of pride in the leadership that we exercised with this step. The Department of Early Education and Care's subsequent inclusion in a newly-formed Education Secretariat further cemented in practice what we have long recognized as family members and citizens: conditions for optimal learning start at birth - in fact, prenatally - and must be sustained by the Commonwealth's commitment to high-quality learning experiences for all children through their early education, K-12 and higher educations. This is the modern interpretation of the ideals and responsibilities embodied in the Massachusetts State Constitution - concepts so timeless that they forever speak to the present health and future prosperity of our Commonwealth and its people.

Elementary, secondary and higher education are fixed concepts in the minds of citizens. If we knew then what we know now, our early education system would be every bit as established as its sister sectors in the education continuum. As it stands, however, Massachusetts is learning and, like a young child, learning fast. As we approach very well considered policy and funding proposals, it is important to trace our decade of learning and chart an informed course.

We start with the Department's well considered mission to provide "the foundation that supports all children in their development as lifelong learners and contributing members of the community, and supports families in their essential work as parents and caregivers."

We support this mission in partnership with the approximately 10,000 group child care centers and family child care homes licensed by the Commonwealth through our agency. These providers support our children, families and economy with infant, toddler, preschool and school-age services. Programs are held to the strongest licensing regulations amongst states and an increasing number are participating within our Quality Rating and Improvement System, or QRIS, to provide enhanced services through research-based measurements of program quality. With limited resources, we fund educator professional development and higher education scholarships, occasional salary rate increases and supports for programs to improve their level of quality.

Importantly, the Department also licenses group residential and temporary shelters, foster care placement agencies and adoption agencies.

Last year, the Department administered financial assistance for over 56,000 children from low income families, or families receiving support from the Department of Children and Families or the Department of Transitional Assistance, to attend an early education and care program. As of today, more than 28,000 children are on the Department's waitlist for income-eligible child care, as an expression of interest in receiving support for those services. In an effort to support more children and families, the Department funds early education and care programming in informal settings such as museums and libraries, and through our network of local Coordinated Family and Community Engagement grantees.

The Department is also responsible for leading the Commonwealth's efforts to seek and secure Federal grant opportunities - and in this regard, we have been successful, which is a testament to the leadership and commitment of our field of early educators, Department staff and the Commonwealth's legislative and executive branches. Each success has built toward the next and enabled the Commonwealth to advance methodically a system of increasingly higher quality despite the generally challenging economic climate and revenue environment of the past ten years.

The $50 million Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge Grant, which expires in large part in December and entirely next summer, accelerated and expanded important areas in the early education and care system. Most recently, Massachusetts received a $15 million Preschool Expansion Grant that has the potential to be renewed at this amount for three additional years for a total of $60 million over the life of the grant. The Preschool Expansion Grant design leverages the strengths and aligns the early education and care and public school systems to expand high-quality preschool in the high-needs communities of Holyoke, Springfield, Lawrence, Lowell and Boston. Equally important, it provides us with a unique opportunity to evaluate the initiative's impacts both qualitatively and quantitatively through developmentally appropriate methods in order to help inform our future direction in preschool and across the entire system.

These opportunities, in addition to investments provided under recent state budgets, have allowed Massachusetts to build on the foundation of the Department, but we have by no means cemented our leadership in early education or delivered fully on the promise of high quality programming to either our families or our early educators. We cannot allow our high achievement in K-12 education - hard earned, well deserved and yet itself a work in progress - to obscure the fact that there is considerable work to be done in early education and care.

Only 38% of low-income Third Grade students are at a Proficient or higher level in English Language Arts. Recent research suggests that the foundation for low language proficiency begins as early as 18 months in children from low-income households. While our overall K-12 performance shines in comparison, achievement gaps are every bit as present in Massachusetts as any other part of the country, which is why the Baker Administration is so committed to leveraging the tools and resources provided under the direction of the Legislature to support all children in attaining and exceeding proficiency levels.

As you seriously consider steps for both expanding access and elevating the quality of programming available to our children, I respectfully share the following thoughts and considerations based on our experiences:

1. Appreciate that expansions and reforms in any area impact other parts of the system because the traditional provider model delivers multiple types of care. The typical early education and care operator provides infant, toddler, preschool and school-age services or some combination thereof. Therefore, adjustments to one part of the system impact the operator's business model and potentially impact the larger economic system. Some states that have undertaken expansions - specifically in preschool - have testified about the unintended consequences on other parts of their early education and care system, especially infant and toddler care, which, both in Massachusetts and nationally, is already experiencing a supply challenge.

2. Recognize and leverage the mixed-delivery system of early education and care. Building on the existing system of public, private, and nonprofit group child care, family child care and school-based early education and care providers is sound policy, economical and forward-thinking. Recent education reform efforts have extolled the virtues of parent choice - choice of delivery models and choice of schedules. The existing early education and care system provides more choice than any other education sector. Advancing our goals through this system empowers families and takes advantage of a system that is already providing substantial services to children from birth through age 12.

3. Establish a multi-year plan that builds on what we know and what we may soon learn from the Preschool Expansion Grant opportunity. The prior two points acknowledge a complex system. One-fits-all approaches will not succeed within a mixed-delivery model. Children's needs differ. Families' needs differ. Service delivery differs across the prototypes of early education and care. However, we have learned much about the high-quality early education and care experience. Much of this is reflected in the Massachusetts QRIS and its components, which should serve as the basis for measuring program quality under any potential expansion. Over the next two years, we may learn a great deal from our Preschool Expansion Grant effort, first by measuring the implementation efforts of the five communities and then through impact data generated over the first two years. Salient features of the Preschool Expansion Grant, which are also embodied in our QRIS, are:

  • Smaller class size and teacher child ratios
  • Inclusive instruction and settings
  • Attaining/maintaining NAEYC program accreditation and/or QRIS Level 3 or higher
  • Educator professional development including coaching, mentoring, and professional learning communities
  • Teacher compensation aligned with public school salaries
  • Use of data and assessments to inform strategic planning and measure benefits to children
  • Family engagement
  • Comprehensive services that include physical and behavioral health, nutrition and dental, vision and hearing screening
  • Transition entering preschool and exiting to Kindergarten
  • Alignment with infant/toddler and K-3rd grade systems
  • I recommend these for your consideration as you consider quality criteria under the proposed legislation.

4. Emphasize depth over breadth and prioritize need. Our early education and care system cannot and should not attempt to go universal overnight. System capacity needs to be established in order to absorb any expansion that purports to deliver high quality. As it stands, too many of our providers, especially those who support our high needs populations, are struggling to make ends meet. Many are literally operating month to month. We need to strengthen the systems foundation as we seek to expand. When we expand, we must target children with the greatest need. Research demonstrates that high-quality early education benefits all children, but the Commonwealth's initial investments should be made in the children who stand to benefit the most. Those children are not born preschoolers, so we should consider starting our investment in those children as early as possible and sustaining it, especially through the early elementary years. We know that providing children with a strong platform for success by Third Grade, while by no means a perfect inoculation against future challenges, very often positions them for future academic success.

5. Prioritize and incentivize local alignment of early education and care providers and public school districts. In supporting a mixed-delivery approach to building its early education and care system, the Commonwealth is answering conclusively the question of whether the private and public systems can co-exist. They must and, moreover, they must align. A child's education pathway should follow a smooth course and that necessarily requires alignment between all the partners in the mixed-delivery system. This is the model employed in the Preschool Expansion Grant and our early experience in those five communities is promising. The Preschool Expansion Grant, however, is limited to only four year-olds, so we should consider how to include the important work of infant, toddler, early elementary and before and after school care in any future iterations. Aligned local early and elementary systems leverage strengths and resources on behalf of children that neither system can deliver independently.

6. Invest in early education administrators and early educators. Strong and well-supported early education leaders are essential. Early education is a profession that can only be sustained by a workforce that is respected by a fair wage and professional supports. Placing new expectations on the existing system without addressing the current and future needs of our workforce as a prerequisite is a design for frustration and failure. The QRIS contemplates a career pathway for early educators and the Department, in partnership with our sister agencies in Education, must and will do more to refine this pathway. This work must be complemented with sufficient resources to sustain the program and classroom leaders who are tasked with the profound responsibility of caring for and educating our young children. Tasked with considerable health and safety responsibilities, we cannot ignore that the field of family child care providers is diminishing and that those who endeavor at great personal time expense to achieve higher credentials are logically leaving the field, often to pursue careers in the elementary and secondary education sector. Stabilizing and supporting the early education and care workforce is, quite simply, a threshold issue. It is the only path to a high-quality system.

7. Proceed with carefully considered urgency and sustainability. The momentum behind early education and care is palpable in the nation and in our Commonwealth. Massachusetts has the opportunity and responsibility to increase our support on the basis of the informed consideration of research, best practice and our own initiatives, including the Preschool Expansion Grant. As we resolve our approaches and timelines, we should carefully measure each step, investing every new dollar where and in a manner that we have strong reason to believe will yield the most positive return for children and the public. We also want to sustain such investments with the same high standard of commitment that we have provided elementary and secondary education. To succeed, we need to sustain a child's high-quality experience across the education continuum. There should be no break in the link of the chain between early education and K-12. The existing and future Massachusetts early education and care system, with its flexibilities and strengths and an honest assessment of areas for improvement, can deliver on its end of the continuum.

I commend you for approaching these proposed measures with the careful consideration and respect that our young learners and families deserve. Democracy does not endow the child with a vote and parents of young children are very often overwhelmed with the challenging responsibilities of providing and supporting their early needs, which is not easy even under the most ideal of conditions. Perhaps the chief wisdom of placing public education in our State Constitution is the recognition that the interests of our children and our future need special recognition.

Thank you for connecting this moment to that special recognition, and know that I and the Department are prepared to support your efforts in establishing a more perfect early education and care system for our children and families. I appreciate this opportunity and will be pleased to receive any questions.