Commissioner Sherri Killins

In an interview this summer, JD Chesloff, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care and deputy director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, laid out the case for investing in tomorrow’s workforce by investing in high-quality early education today and discussed his vision for the EEC board. I recently met with Sherri Killins, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, to ask her about steps the state is taking to build a system of high-quality early education and care.

Listen to an excerpt from the interview with Commissioner Killins.

Readers of this blog will recall that Chesloff also revealed that “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” was his favorite book as a boy. What children’s book did Commissioner Killins love? She gives her answer at the end of this item.

Prior to joining the department in February 2009, Killins worked as vice president for human development and operations at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, was founding president and CEO of the New Haven Empowerment Zone, ran for mayor of New Haven, and led operations and programs for the Empowerment Zone Corporation and Family Preservation Initiative of Baltimore. She earned a nursing degree from the University of Pittsburgh, a master’s degree in administrative science from Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Sarasota.

On an easel in the commissioner’s office is a chart noting goals for programs (QRIS and accreditation) and goals for early educators (BA, AA, certifications, CDA (Child Development Associate)). These, she says, are the ingredients of a statewide system. A critical piece of this framework was the launch in March 2010 of a QRIS pilot and the awarding of grants to 640 programs participating in the pilot. With QRIS (Quality Rating and Improvement System), Killins says, the state has stated its definition of high-quality early education and care.

“We have finally structured an infrastructure for a statewide system,” the commissioner says. “There’s still a lot to do to breathe life into it. What are the core functions we want to use statewide, and where do we need to differentiate to reflect local need?”

The process, she acknowledges, has not always been easy, but she sees the strong participation in workshops on early literacy and pre-kindergarten to third grade alignment as evidence that early educators are responding to the emphasis on quality.

“It’s been painful for the field,” Killins says. “It’s been a difficult year because change is hard, but it’s something we can really build on as the economy starts to turn around.”

The recent regionalization of professional development grants formalized collaboration among providers of college and other training for the early education workforce.

“You need some sort of understanding of where the adult is, and you have to create an academic plan that deals with their needs,” Killins says. “It’s reshaping the system so the education is linked to better outcomes for kids. It’s reshaping the system so programs can attain their goals. It’s putting the early educators and programs in the driver’s seat to work toward the state’s definition of quality.”

With the changes, Killins says she hopes to clearly communicate the department’s expectations to the field and support them in achieving these expectations. “Professional development is a partnership between the educator, the program and the professional development system,” Killins says. “We need formal education but we also need opportunities for individuals enhance their skills while reflecting on their current work as they attempt new practices.”

Another major area of concern, Killins says, is oral language development and early literacy. The Departments of Early Education and Care and Elementary and Secondary Education are, she says, “in deep conversation” about piloting a literacy assessment tool that could form the foundation for a kindergarten assessment. “Literacy is a great bridge between early education and K-3,” Killins says. “We’re not going to forget about formative assessments, but we also want to do a dipstick on literacy….

“We’re really trying to get folks to understand about oral language development and that it doesn’t interfere with play,” she adds. “You’ll see us focus on play, focus on literacy, focus on families and communities. It’s translating the science to the practice. That’s my mantra.”

The federal government’s new investment in home visiting programs provides an avenue to promote oral language development. The commissioner and Dr. Lauren Smith of the Department of Public Health are co-chairing a task force on home visiting. “The goals around home visits are comprehensive. They’re about school readiness as well as health and development and the prevention of abuse,” Killins says. “You may enter through the door of literacy or enter through the door of health, but the responsibility is comprehensive.”

She mentions “the critical importance of the governor’s support for this work.” The task ahead, Killins adds, is to ensure that all children have access to high-quality programs.

“We need children to have access to early education and care as a birthright and not as a work support for parents. If we believe in the science, we have to do that,” Killins says. “Then we have to define our level of quality. Quality is probably around Level 3 or 4 in QRIS. We have to work toward helping programs meet that goal. That is the work of the next 18 months. The third thing is figuring out how to compensate programs so they can achieve quality. It’s making sure that programs understand the definition of quality and helping programs move up the quality ladder. Then it’s making the decision that all our funding [for subsidies and slots in programs for low-income children] will go to quality, that kids will only have access to quality.”

Post script. I ask about favorite childhood books because it’s important not to lose sight of the lasting magic of early experiences with reading in all this talk about research, policy and practice. When I asked Commissioner Killins about her favorite children’s book, she looked not to her own childhood but to her experiences reading to her three daughters, who are now 22, 19 and 18.

“When I raised my kids it was ‘Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.’ We loved it. We still have it,” Killins says. “It’s a gorgeous story about two sisters and their father. It’s really about a journey and self-learning. Life is really a journey.”

“Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters” by John Steptoe is derived from an African folk tale and tells the Cinderella-like story of a king searching his royal realm for a bride. A villager named Mufaro has two beautiful daughters, kind-hearted Nyasha and mean-spirited, self-centered Manyara, who plots to make sure she is chosen over her sister. Here is the first page:

“A long time ago, in a certain place in Africa, a small village lay across a river and half a day’s journey from a city where a great king lived. A man named Mufaro lived in this village with his two daughters, who were called Manyara and Nyasha. Everyone agreed that Manyara and Nyasha were very beautiful.”