Our Insights

Lessons Learned

The annual CEELO/NAESC-SDE Roundtable brings together state early education specialists, national experts and advocates to share ideas, generate new ones, and reboot our collective enthusiasm for the challenge of improving children’s lives through education policy.

This year, about 140 participants spent two days tackling issues during work sessions. But the best part is the informal interaction among colleagues, swapping stories and sharing advice. To keep that good conversation going, we asked former state education policymakers now at CEELO and NIEER to talk about what they know now that they wish they had known then. See their insights below.

CEELO/NIEER Senior Co-Director Ellen Frede (NJ): Unintended Consequences
When I started my job as pre-k administrator in the NJ DOE, I was appalled the state had little to no data on the preschool program. We developed what I contend is the first statewide continuous improvement system for state pre-k (Don’t tell me if I’m wrong; just humor me!) including both child and program level standards. What I didn’t know was that even what seemed a “test” worth teaching to – the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale– could eventually be perverted even when there were not stakes attached.

I didn’t anticipate that over time, administering ECERS would consume so much of coaches’ time, they no longer coached teachers based on the results. I now strongly believe the tools we use to measure classroom practice for research, program accountability (including QRIS) and self-assessment and coaching should be conceptually linked to the curriculum and to each other — but should not be the same tool.

CEELO/NIEER Assistant Research Professor GG Weisenfeld (HI); Find Help
When I worked in the Governor’s Office in Hawai’i, I did not realize the depth of TA support and resources available. I participated in the CEELO Roundtable and National Governors Association peer exchanges, which were invaluable, but I should have asked for more help, or used some toolkits that I have since discovered.

In my work now, I have gotten to know many state early childhood leaders and retired professionals who have become mentors. I wish I would have met some of them sooner and asked questions and learned how they solved some of the problems I faced. The level of knowledge in our field is quite impressive.

NIEER Early Childhood Education Policy Specialist Karin Garver (NJ): Integrate Your Data
If I could go back 15 years to when I joined the NJ DOE, I wish I knew how important integrating early care and education data across programs and services for children, prenatal through grade 12, is to good policy making. Without such integration, we’re flying blind as we work so hard (and use our precious, limited resources) to improve programs and services, and target them to ensure access for our youngest and most vulnerable children.

Five years ago, the department began integrating New Jersey’s early care and education data. It is no easy feat and certainly not for the impatient. It can also be extremely expensive–but not more expensive than making bad decisions without it. Today–four months after leaving the department, I marvel at how far the state has come; but wonder where New Jersey would be if we’d started earlier.

CEELO Senior Policy Advisor Tracy Jost (MD): Befriend Your Fiscal Officer
Like many early education program managers in state education agencies, I had practical experience before coming to the position. I own an early care and education center so budgets, profit and loss statements, payroll, enrollment patterns, staffing patterns, and other management processes are all part of my role. What I wish knew prior to going into state government is how complicated the state budget process is.

The most frustrating part of bureaucracy for me was not being able to tell my grantees when they could actually hire teachers and purchase classroom materials because I was still waiting on that grant approval and no, I could not give them an accurate timeline for the approval. So, I wish I had known the challenges I would face in state agency budgeting! My recommendation is to befriend the division’s fiscal officer—we quickly became friends as she laughed a cynical laugh answering all my naïve questions!

CEELO/NIEER Senior Research Fellow Jim Squires (VT): Celebrate Accomplishments
As a former Early Childhood Programs Coordinator, I wish I had known to celebrate the little things more. Remember: there are perhaps only 100 people like you in the nation who have been brought into a SEA to make a big difference for young children. You are in that position for a reason and you have been given some authority to make things happen….

You will soon realize the work in front of you is often more than you can reasonably handle all by yourself. Handle the high priority matter first; be responsible about deadlines; but make peace with the fact there will always be more to do–and it is all important. Don’t lose sight of what has been achieved and make sure you celebrate it, recognizing others for their contributions.


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, conducts and disseminates independent research and analysis to inform early childhood education policy.