The Truth-Teller of Early Learning

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The Truth-Teller of Early Learning

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Family Focus Dinner Honoring Barbara Bowman

May 14, 2013

I'm delighted to be here, and thrilled to have an opportunity to honor the extraordinary life and career of a dear friend, and one of my heroes, Barbara Bowman.

I don't think anyone here will be surprised that Barbara clearly instructed me not to talk about her this evening.

Instead, she said I should talk about the value of high-quality early learning, the importance of parental and community involvement, and the state of early learning today. She said that no one was coming to hear about her.

Barbara, you've been right about many, many things. But, I'm afraid you're wrong on this one. I, and I think everyone in this room, is enormously grateful to you and for the incredible work you have done on behalf of children for more than five decades.

Like everyone else here, I've learned a great deal from Barbara. And normally, I try to do exactly what she says, because what she says makes so much sense. But, tonight, I feel compelled to rebel a little bit.

I want to talk both about Barbara's contributions to the field of early learning and about how those contributions are helping to drive and redefine early learning policy today. In so many ways, Barbara is the intellectual godmother of President Obama's landmark Preschool for All proposal, which the President unveiled in this year's State of the Union.

Let me start by talking briefly about Barbara's career. It is indisputable that Barbara is a giant in the field of early learning.

In 1966, more than 45 years ago, she was one of the co-founders of the Erikson Institute--which has taken a leading national role in providing professional training and professional development for early childhood educators.

She was president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. She was the Chief Officer for Early Childhood Education for eight years at the Chicago Public Schools--and I was fortunate to have her running CPS's early learning programs for the first four of those years. Over the course of her career, she has given a staggering 1,500 keynote speeches and invited lectures.

At the tender age of 84, she is now heading back to the Erickson Institute as its acting president. Clearly, Barbara is just warming up!

But all of this is just Barbara's resume, the bare facts about her career. Her impact on the field of early learning and on literally hundreds of thousands of children has been far more profound than even her illustrious resume would suggest.

What is so remarkable about Barbara is the combination of the talents that made her a unique moral force for children and the importance of early learning.

Barbara was both a practitioner who relished working with children and teachers, and a researcher who combined research with practice. At CPS, she pushed me and others to commission rigorous research on ways to improve early learning. If you asked Barbara what worked in early learning, she could tell you—with the research to back it up. And she doesn't believe in tinkering.

Barbara never lost sight of children as her primary clients. But she never accepted the view, fashionable among some early educators, that the field didn't need standards to assess children's developmental and academic readiness. Even when it made some folks uncomfortable, Barbara was a passionate advocate for rigor, quality, and a focus not just on access, but outcomes.

She rejected the view that, because early educators use teachable moments, they can't plan ahead or predict what children should learn.

Barbara has a deep appreciation for early educators, but it has always been matched with an unyielding commitment to improving the quality of early learning.

Barbara is early learning's truth-teller. If there was a hard truth to say that others were reluctant to say, you went to Barbara—and she would speak truth to power, backed by real research and experience. In some half-day programs in Chicago, Barbara was known as the lady who got rid of naps.

Her power never came from status or position, but because everyone knows Barbara has no personal agenda—her only goal is to improve the life chances of our nation's most vulnerable children.

She was not shy about her views. In 1989, she wrote a book chapter for a volume on early childhood programs with the title—and I quote: "Are public schools insensitive to the needs of blacks? Yes, indeed!" In case there was any question about her answer to that question, Barbara included an exclamation mark after the phrase "Yes, indeed."

Barbara has little patience for bureaucratic turf battles or mission creep. When I went to Washington, Barbara was my key advisor on early learning. And she was a driving force in dramatically improving coordination between our department and the Department of Health and Human Services. Historically, that relationship could be characterized as dysfunctional or non-existent. But that reality made no sense--and poorly served children.

At the first of many public appearances that I did with Kathleen Sebelius, my good friend and counterpart at HHS, I was seated next to Kathleen. Barbara directed us to scoot our chairs closer together. And we did.

She intuitively understood the importance of that careful symbolism. Barbara, I don't know if this is good or bad, but Kathleen and I now spend so much time together that she refers to me as her "work-husband." We had one day recently where we had a breakfast meeting together, and then a lunch meeting. As we were leaving lunch, Kathleen asked, "Where are we going for dinner?"

I've in fact, always loved and appreciated Barbara's entrepreneurial eye and creativity—when she sees a need, she fills it.

I don't know how many people here know it, but Barbara hadn't really planned to become an early educator when she went to college. As part of a college class, she was required to observe a nursery school class. She went—and loved it.

She then got her certificate to teach preK-3. After she had her certificate, but before she started teaching, she went to watch a kindergarten teacher's class in Chicago. The teacher held 50 students spellbound, while playing the piano. That made Barbara realize that--even with her teaching certificate--she had little idea about how to engage students as successfully as that kindergarten teacher.

So she went to the University of Chicago's school of education to acquire those skills, while teaching at the Lab Schools nursery school. And then she helped co-found the Erickson Institute to fill the huge unmet need for high-quality preparation programs for early educators.

Barbara's commitment to children and early learning is remarkable for its longevity, consistency, and impact. In 1970—43 years ago—Barbara wrote one of her first academic journal articles. Her piece in the Notre Dame Journal of Education was entitled "Values in preschool education."

Forty-three years ago, she foresaw many of the challenges still facing early educators today. She wrote that "the quality of teaching and of child care is much more difficult to regulate than building structures, or vaccination schedules, or the number of calories and variety of foods to be offered to children. We know that good teaching can go on in simple housing, with minimum variations in daily diets and with a minimum of good materials. It cannot go on, however, without good teachers."

And I don't think she could have been more on target when she wrote that "society must decide if it can pay the cost, material and moral, for the failure to stimulate maximum potential in some of its citizens." That simple but profound statement is at the heart of the policy debate today.

I don't think we can pay that cost—and neither does President Obama. But unfortunately, 43 years later, we are still far from providing universal access to high-quality early learning in America. To date, we have failed to answer the challenge Barbara laid before us.

Back home here in Chicago, I was ready to practically beg Barbara to join me at CPS. I knew no one would be better, and frankly I didn't have a Plan B. I think Barbara both felt sorry for me and was intrigued by the opportunity. She initially agreed to head our office of early childhood education for a year. And then one year became eight years.

In the four amazing years we worked together at CPS, I got to witness firsthand what an extraordinary advocate Barbara was for early learning and young children. She implemented tough-minded reforms to strengthen quality that showed up in teacher evaluations, assessments of student outcomes, and in professional development. She led us exactly where we needed to go, but where people had feared to go in the past.

At the same time, she oversaw a big jump in access and enrollment. From the end of 2005 to 2008, reforms championed by Barbara boosted the number of children in CPS enrolled in the state's preschool program from about 12,400 children to 16,550 children. That's an enrollment increase of more than a third in just three years, in tough economic times.

So you won't be surprised to hear that when I moved to Washington, I asked Barbara to come help us lay the foundation for our early learning work in early 2009. I needed her wisdom, her expertise, and her passion. I needed her unique ability both to challenge the status quo and to build bridges.

For seven months, early every Wednesday morning, she would fly from Chicago to DC. She would be in meetings all day Wednesday at our department and with our colleagues at HHS. All-day Thursday she would be in meetings, too. And then Thursday nights she would fly home to Chicago.

Amazingly, she did this every week, seven months in a row, without complaint. And she did it while she was the full-time chief officer of CPS's office of early childhood education. The fact that she took this on, and did it so well at the age of 80, tells you a little something about Barbara's commitment and character.

As soon as she started working with us in Washington, Barbara came to me and said, "We need to define early learning as birth to third grade." That may seem like a no-brainer now. But it was a true paradigm shift for our department, and it helped to shape our work and mission in profound ways.

Barbara worked tirelessly in those seven months to build a culture of trust and collaboration with our programs offices and HHS's programs, laying the foundation for what would be a groundbreaking partnership in advancing state systems of early learning.

She reached out to every childhood leader in Washington, breaking down longtime barriers and a history of mistrust and apprehension. She knew if we were going to do what was right for children, we would need to have all of us working together, pushing in the same direction.

Barbara didn't return to Chicago for good until she had hand-picked our Department's first Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Learning, Jacqueline Jones. Jacqueline was a tremendous addition to the department—an absolute star. And she led us through the awarding of $600 million in Race to the Top-Early Learning grants to 14 states to implement models for the country.

So it's Barbara who in many ways planted the seeds for President Obama's historic Preschool for All proposal. The President's birth-to-five early learning plan would double the size of Early Head Start, and vastly expand both home visiting programs and Head Start for three-year olds.

And the President's plan would create a new federal-state partnership to create universal access to high-quality preschool for all four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families. President Obama has proposed an unprecedented 10-year, $75 billion dollar investment in the Preschool for All plan, every cent of which would be paid for by raising taxes on cigarettes and tobacco products.

We estimate it would give more than a million additional four-year olds access to high-quality preschool. Not only is this a life-transforming opportunity for young children, it is the best investment we as a society can make.

At its core, the President's plan answers the question that Barbara Bowman asked in her 1970 article—we must maximize the potential of every child. We must live up to the American pledge of equal opportunity. And we must help our children start kindergarten at the same starting line--not 12-14 months behind their more advantaged peers.

In so many respects, President Obama's Preschool for All plan marks a culmination of Barbara's life work.

She helped establish the idea that everything else we do to educate our children starts with early learning.

Under the federal-state partnership in the President's plan, states would have great latitude to implement early learning programs responsive to their local needs--but only if they meet the standards for high-quality that Barbara has tirelessly promoted.

And I think it's clear that Barbara's vision of a seamless continuum of early learning from birth-to-five, cutting across departments, is also at the heart of the President's plan. Our babies and their parents could care less the identity of the funding source—they just want a chance at a good life, and a chance to compete on a level playing field.

So, Barbara, on behalf of everyone here tonight, I simply want to say "thank you."

In my job, I've had the amazing opportunity to stand in the footsteps of giants, whether it was at Central High School in Little Rock, the Edmund Pettus Bridge at Selma, Linda Brown's school in Topeka, Kansas, or Dr. King's church in Atlanta.

But for me it has been an incredible opportunity to not only follow in the footsteps of giants but to work with and learn from a giant like you.

Thank you for being an amazing partner, and more importantly, thank you for the difference you have made in the lives of our nation's children. They are lucky to have you as their champion.