“Right now the general public agrees and applauds the push for more preschool, but does not necessarily understand the work that needs to happen before and after preschool.”
Interview with Lisa Guernsey
Director of the Early Education Initiative and Learning Technologies Project at New America
by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks
Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and director of the Learning Technologies Project, two projects in the Education Policy Program at New America. Guernsey leads teams of writers and analysts to examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed.
Steven: Can you talk a little bit about how you began your career in early learning?
Lisa: I took an unusual path into early learning and early learning policy. I started my career as a newspaper reporter working at the Chronicle for Higher Education, and then at the New York Times focusing on the intersection of education and technology. When I had my first child I started digging deeply into the research on how technology affects young children, and it lead me down a path of more than five years in developmental science on how the brain in the early years of life is affected by the people in the environment. It was such an “ah-ha” moment to be learning all this science at the same time as being a mother of two little kids. By the time I finished all that work and put out a book on screen media and young children, I was absolutely convinced that our country needed to change its ways and recognize the importance of the early years, and that many policies needed to be adjusted and reformed to help families make the most of those first years of life. I had the good fortune of landing at New America. The think tank was looking for a senior writer to translate research for policy makers. I have spent several years doing what I had hoped to do in the first place, which was to really make this research visible to people, and to help them understand how important it is to change policies to help families and kids.
Steven: Can you talk about what the role of New America plays in improving the quality of early learning?
Lisa: I think New America is in a unique position to be able to amplify and accentuate the research on children’s learning, and to put it in front of policy influencers. We are uniquely situated because we are not a membership organization. We are not necessarily speaking for educators or for certain funding of programs. We are looking at the whole system – or lack of system – to find ways to elevate research across the different pieces. We are non-partisan organization, which we take very serious. It’s an interesting place to work because we have analysts that hale from the republican side, from the democrat side, from the libertarian point of view, and many journalists and reports who are not necessarily attached to a particular political philosophy. So we often have very interesting debates internally, but we can also bring to the floor some ideas that are not from a political agenda, but are based in evidence and research.
Steven: Why you think the President’s proposal to offer high-quality preschool to all children is important to our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and some of the opportunities?
Lisa: I think that the President’s proposal and the work of many people in Congress is paramount for improving the lives of the next generation and for improving the success of our country in the next 20-30 years. It’s absolutely critical to understand that the learning children are doing in their first 8 years of life is setting the foundation – setting them up for success as students, but even more so as citizens and thinkers in the 21st century. To me, what has been really heartening to see in the President’s work and the work of the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services over the past few years, is how much that’s recognized and understood. It’s not questioned. This administration sees early learning as a critical piece of the education pipeline for students and is working to push that idea forward. And I think the challenges ahead are really to continue to accentuate the need for more preschool opportunities while also recognizing that infant/toddler care and the K-3 grades are critical and often ignored, and they need a lot more support and focus. At New America we make a point to look at policies across the birth through 8 spectrum to ensure we don’t only have a focus on 4-year olds, but that we’re recognizing what happens before children turn four and what happens after that. I think we could be at risk at undermining gains, if we only focus on gains made during one year of a child’s life. We may see short term impact from real intensive intervention during that one year, but it may lessen over time if you don’t recognize the need for high quality teaching during the first and second grades. I think that it’s not understood yet by the general public that continuum is critical. Right now the general public agrees and applauds the push for more preschool, but does not necessarily understand the work that needs to happen before and after preschool.
This fall New America will be releasing a 50 state policy scan that ranks on how well they are doing on birth through third grade policies. It will be a comprehensive book so it’s not just about whether a state has good preschool or child care, but it’s looking all the way up to third grade reading laws. I am looking forward to the report coming out and hoping it will elevate the discussion on policies across the age spectrum.