Research, policy, and practice: Dr. Aaliyah Samuel on early childhood development, equity in schools, and listening to educators’ voices

This week, I had the opportunity to talk with Aaliyah Samuel, executive vice president of government affairs and partnerships here at NWEA. She leads the effort at NWEA to impact public policy and local, state, and federal education agendas. Dr. Samuel was recently elevated to senior fellow at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. We spoke via e-mail about her work at the center, as well as her new limited podcast series on race and education, Testing America’s Freedom.

Congratulations on your appointment to senior fellow. What work does the Center on the Developing Child do, and why is it vital now?

Thank you, Joe! The Center on the Developing Child is a multidisciplinary team of scholars and leaders driving science-based innovation in policy and practice. The work I support at the center focuses on the impacts of racism on the health and development of young children. As a mother and educator of color, I have felt firsthand the impacts of racism. To be able to support work linking the science to the physiological outcomes is an extraordinary and vital opportunity.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work with the center?

As a former K­­–12 educator who left public schools to become a national advocate for public education, it has been critical to me to serve as a bridge between early childhood into K–12 and beyond. I’ve always believed in the fundamental power of policy and the impact that it can have on people’s life outcomes. I firmly believe in the incredibly strong triad of research, policy, and practice, and my work at the center is focused on bringing those together to support young children and families. Research and science should be at the forefront of policy discussions if we really want to change practices.

Education systems, like any complex system, often are fragmented, and it is not uncommon for one part of the system not to speak to the other. That is why I believe that having a deep understanding of every component of the educational system helps me to advocate and provide policy recommendations with a holistic view of education that can broaden the impact on students and their families. My role at the center allows me to work across the whole spectrum of development, when combined with my K­–12 focus at NWEA.

Research and science should be at the forefront of policy discussions if we really want to change practices.

How does your work at the Center on the Developing Child align with your work as a leader at NWEA?  

Thinking about how we can use science and the best research to strengthen and partner with communities is critical for both organizations. At the center, recent work has focused on elevating the need for community involvement and improving the capacities for adults working with children to improve child outcomes. The realities of this pandemic mean the role of adults as providers of educational support, health, and safety has never been more important. While many schools that offered childcare to students remain closed, we have to think about how we can partner even more closely with community-based organizations and other community partners to ensure the education, health, and safety of all our children. That’s most important for our children who are in the greatest need, and those are the children who are the focus of my work at both the center and NWEA.

What’s been the impact of COVID on early child development? 

The effects have been devastating for childcare providers, parents, and, most importantly, young children who do not have adequate supports at home. It is imperative that we stabilize the early childhood field in order to ensure positive lifelong impacts, provide support to working parents, and stabilize the economy. The lack of childcare is detrimental not only for children and families but the economy of our nation.

In one episode your podcast, Testing America’s Freedom, you have a conversation with student leaders from two high schools about their ideas for how education must change to be more equitable. What role do student voices play in your work? What do education leaders gain from listening to them? 

The student voice—and, most importantly, the human voice—is at the core of who I am and how I approach this work. I left my post as an elementary school principal because I felt like the policies that were occurring at the state and federal level didn’t reflect teacher voices. I wanted to amplify the many educators and individuals who fundamentally believe that everyone has a right to a basic education.

While on the journey to be a voice for educators, I have found that I can be a voice for so many everyday people, like students, who I share similar lived experiences with. These stories are often not reflected, represented, or heard at the policy table. I fundamentally believe it is my job—in life, at the center, and at NWEA—to be the voice for those who often are not heard.

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