Paul Tucker
Photo from Rep. Paul Tucker’s Facebook page

Each year for five years, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has run an Early Learning Fellows program: a dynamic effort that’s designed for emerging leaders – legislators and legislative staff members.

“The program is geared toward those chairing or serving on human services, education or appropriations committees who want to expand their knowledge and learn from other legislators and experts across the country,” NCSL explains on its website.

The training is important because, “States have been leading efforts to improve the quality of child care, implementing preschool and innovative ways to support families with young children across the age spectrum from birth to kindergarten and into the early grades. They are also addressing challenges with governance, financing, data systems and teacher training/professional development.”

This year’s class includes State Representative Paul Tucker (D-Salem), as well state legislators from California, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Wyoming.

“One of my top choices was to be on the education committee,” Tucker, a first-term representative, told us in a recent interview.

“My background is law enforcement. I was the police chief in Salem. I was a policeman for 34 years. And I have a great interest in education. I teach part-time and I thought that for my community in Salem it would help if I had a seat at the table for all the contemporary issues. As an adjunct to that, the speaker nominated me to attend the early childhood education conference through the NCLS.”

Tucker is an education guy. As the Boston Globe reported in 2009 when Tucker became the police chief, “During his years on the force, Tucker picked up bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice, and a law degree from Massachusetts School of Law. He has taught criminal justice classes at three local colleges.” He still teaches at Salem State University and North Shore Community College.

Tucker said that learning about the importance of early education has been an “eye-opening” experience.

At an Early Learning Fellows conference that was held last month in Omaha, Neb., Tucker was particularly struck by Melanie Berry who talked about how stimulating the brains of children benefits them for the rest of their lives. Berry is a research associate at the Fisher Stress Neurobiology and Prevention (SNAP) laboratory at the University of Oregon and the Oregon Social Learning Center. Her presentation also touched on how early life experiences affect brain architecture, noting, “Genes are the blueprint, but experience is like the carpenter.”

“A lot of people think well, you know, a one-year-old, a two-year-old, they kind of play games a little bit,” Tucker says, “but this is a critical point in the long-term development of [children] as lifelong learners… It’s amazing what takes place in those first couple of years that has such an impact.”

How will these insights affect policies here in Massachusetts? Tucker has several thoughts.

“One is making sure that we have either legislation or policies in place that support the work of the early educators – and making sure that we get them the resources. So to me, there’s two parts to it. One is making sure there’s a recognition that we all understand how important this is, and that’s a message I’m going to bring back. The second piece is: funding is critical.”

“We do a lot around elementary ed. We do a tremendous amount in high school. And it almost seems as if the early ed. stuff has kind of fallen behind a little bit.”

During the rest of the Learning Fellows Program, Tucker will participate in two webinars and go to Chicago in August for another in-person meeting of the Early Learning Fellows. They’ll develop policies that the fellows can bring back to their states.

What kind of progress does Tucker want to make?

“We need to reach people who are new residents from other countries – particularly if there’s a language gap with the parents.” He also wants to reach out to young parents and single parents who don’t have the support services they need. In particular, he’d love to see the Parent-Child Home Program in Massachusetts expanded. As we’ve blogged, this is an intensive home visiting program that promotes school readiness.

“I’m concerned about parents who may not have the support or the wherewithal to understand how important this is. We need to make sure that we reach them… and that we have services and education ready to help.”

Tucker also talked about children who don’t have a strong early education, and who start school with skills that are considerably behind those of their peers.

“We need to identify those who are underserved, and we need to bring them up the level where everyone else is.”

Near the end of the interview, we asked Tucker about his time in law enforcement and how he has maintained his can-do attitude given everything he’s seen as a police officer, and we think his answer applies to early education, too.

“You have to realize why you’re doing the job. Not to preach, but if you’re going to get into this business, if you’re going to get into the law enforcement business, you’ve got to bring your best game every time… because people are relying on you.”