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Preschool Matters Today

Leading from the Middle


June 7, 2017
Diane Schilder, Ed.D.

Recently, an associate commissioner of education reached out to CEELO for help implementing the state’s early childhood strategic plan. She was already coping with increased responsibilities, fewer staff to do the job, reduced state and federal  funding for early childhood, and changes in policy. Despite years of working in the field and steady advancement in leadership opportunities, she now faced the unique challenge of “leading from the middle”–complying and adjusting to new federal policies while also implementing legislative directives and coping with state budget constraints.

State early childhood leaders today must navigate all the systems–health, education, child care–that influence children’s lives from birth through early elementary school, often with even fewer resources than K-12 programs have.

At the same time, state education leaders have gained responsibility due to the new administration’s redefining the federal role in education to allow more decision-making at the state level, along with passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the 2014 reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), and proposed changes to Head Start programs.

Moreover, policy leadership now requires regular engagement with a range of early childhood stakeholders such as state agency directors, governors, federal policymakers, state legislators, early care and education providers, prekindergarten administrators, superintendents, principals and teachers, and most importantly, families of children participating in early education programs.

To be the most effective you can during times of change requires the ability to see the larger system, capacity to reflect and engage in generative conversations, and ability to shift focus from reactive problem-solving to co-creating the future, according to Senge, Hamilton & Kania.

The first hallmark of an effective leader is knowing when to reach out and use outside facilitators and networks to advance policies and programs. Such leaders place their work in context of the larger system, foster reflection, generate conversations, and shift the collective focus from reactive problem-solving to co-creating the future, with a focus on concrete and measurable outcomes.

The Center on Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) provides a range of opportunities and resources to help develop the  knowledge, skills and strategies to effectively lead. For example:

An annual Roundtable of state and federal policymakers and early education stakeholders. This year’s meeting, June 7-8 in San Francisco, will engage participants in advancing each state’s early childhood agenda and priorities through building effective leadership dispositions, knowledge, skills and strategies.

The CEELO Leadership Academy, designed to strengthen leadership and management competencies of individuals with responsibilities for early childhood education programs in state departments of education (SEAs), early learning agencies and other state early childhood education agencies. Participants in the Academy report positive benefits–but everyone can benefit from the resources and materials shared.

Every Student Succeeds Act materials and supports include a blog, reports, summaries of state plans and tailored responsive assistance from CEELO staff. Curation of leadership resources provides the latest research on leadership, as well as tools and guides. This information is updated on a regular basis.

Responsive technical assistance provided by CEELO staff working closely with state education agency staff. Each state can reach out to a specialist for assistance with general, targeted or intensive requests. Find the CEELO liaison assigned to each state here.

Peer exchanges focused on topics such as the cost of quality preschool and monitoring, as well as informal virtual peer exchanges providing state leaders with a chance to connect and learn from others’ experiences with issues ranging from development and implementation of Kindergarten Entry Assessments to formative assessment.

Facing all of today’s changes and responsibilities leaves many early childhood leaders feeling as if they are drinking out of a fire hose. To support leaders during these times, CEELO helps state leaders move from merely reacting to challenges to building positive visions for the future.

Diane Schilder is Senior Research Scientist at EDC. She brings more than 20 years of research and evaluation experience in child care, early education, and K–12 education programs and policies to her study of how those programs provide efficient and effective services. Schilder is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Salem State University, where she teaches research methods. She is a member of the Child Care Policy Research Consortium Steering Committee.