Start Early. Start well.

October 28, 2019

The Audacious One: After 50 Years in the Field, Sam Meisels Is Taking a Big Swing at Solving Some of Early Childhood's Biggest Problems

Photos of Sam Meisels through the yearsLeft, Sam Meisels, who started his career as an early childhood classroom teacher, poses with his class in 1972. Top right, after decades as a researcher and professor, Meisels rose to become president of Erikson Institute, regarded as one of the best U.S. graduate schools for child development. Bottom right, Meisels, now the founding executive director of the Buffett Institute, reads to three of his grandchildren.

By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor

Sam Meisels’s face is flushed. His tie is slightly askew. He’s nearing the end of a speech to state board of education leaders from across the United States. His voice is rising.

“What we have here is high need in the face of inadequate support!” he says as the room murmurs.

Many of the state board members from Georgia and Maine and Wyoming lean forward in their chairs on a recent Friday morning in Omaha. They nod their heads. They furiously type notes as Meisels, the founding executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, tears through a speech about the promise of early childhood education, and the perils we face if we fail to make high-quality education more affordable and more available to our youngest children.

At one point he shows a documentary clip of working mothers struggling to find high-quality child care for their children. Several in the audience try and fail to choke back sobs.

Meisels has given a speech like this hundreds, maybe thousands of times, all over the globe. 

And yet, on this Friday morning at Omaha’s Hilton hotel, it still feels like the most important speech he has ever given. His eyes grow wider. His voice gets louder.

“How much cognitive dissonance do I need to endure before I get someone to do something about this?” Meisels thunders into the microphone.

Meisels himself has done more about this—more research, more action, and more spreading of the early childhood gospel—than almost any American in the past half-century.

In the 1970s, he became one of the first experts to fight for the “mainstreaming” of disabled children, placing them in regular classrooms and helping to kick-start a national movement. In the 1980s he built and then perfected a better way to assess the learning of young children—a tool still widely used today.

In the 21st century he rose to become one of the leading voices in the field, leading a prestigious graduate school while popularizing groundbreaking research proving that much of a child’s crucial brain development happens before that child enters Kindergarten. 

And then, in 2013, yet another act: He started the Buffett Institute. 

His stated goals: Making Nebraska the best place in the nation to be a baby. Strengthening an early childhood workforce suffering from low pay and high turnover while making quality early childhood education available to all children. And closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students—a gap yet to be closed anywhere in the modern U.S.

These goals are wildly audacious. They are part of the reason that he’s been named the 2019 winner of the visionary leadership award by the Simms/Mann Institute—one of the highest career honors given to early childhood experts.

These goals are oh-so Sam Meisels.

“It’s the head and the heart combined,” he says. “I have seen throughout my career and my life that you can think big. And you can get things done.”

It started oh-so-small, Meisels says, so long ago on the floor of a preschool classroom. 

She was maybe blond, or maybe brunette. She was 3 years old, maybe 4.

The details escape him now, more than a half-century after he met her during his first terrified week working inside a preschool. But Meisels, then a graduate student moonlighting as a teacher’s assistant, will never forget her name. 

Reba.

He will never forget what she gave him, what all the students did, as he watched them run and play and realized that the then-revolutionary ideas about early childhood development and education he had been studying at Harvard could be put into practice to help children just like her.

It meant so much to him that years later, when he and wife Alice had their second child—their first daughter—he already knew what her name would be. 

Their first child was Seth, simply because they liked the name.

Their second child would be Reba, because a little girl with that name had altered the course of Sam Meisels’s life.

“Working with Reba, working with those children … It changed everything,” Meisels says.

Working with kids was perhaps the last thing a young Samuel Meisels thought he would do.

He’s the son of a famed Jewish cantor, who along with Sam’s mother wrote and performed music in Cleveland that can still be heard in American synagogues today. 

Young Sam lived in a strict home. Years later, he would become an advocate for childhood play as one of the best ways to build the developing brain.

Young Sam was not a particularly good test taker. He later designed assessments of young children that show that a child’s true abilities go far beyond standardized testing. 

As Sam grew into adulthood, he had no young cousins or siblings. He was close to no children. He believes there was nothing to suggest that he would soon devote his life to helping kids. 

His parents wanted him to be a rabbi. As an undergraduate college student, Sam instead studied philosophy, immersing himself in a world of gigantic, esoteric questions: What is good? What is knowledge? What is reality?

But his reality changed that first day he entered that Boston preschool during his second year of graduate school at Harvard. He was supposed to be continuing his studies in philosophy. Instead, at the urging of his then-fiancée Alice, he decided to learn about children, and these relatively new fields of child development and early childhood education, from the ground up.

Sam Meisels became a teacher. He taught science to 3- and 4-year-olds, then public school Kindergarten, then first grade.

He moved to Tufts University, where as a faculty member during the 1970s he ran that university’s lab school, putting new ideas about how young children learn into practice.

“In many ways, I have never left preschool,” Meisels wrote in an autobiographical speech he delivered to colleagues in 2002.

It was at Tufts that Meisels met Jack Shonkoff, then a pediatrics fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital and now one of the world’s leading experts on child development. Meisels and Shonkoff, now the director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, co-authored two editions of a famed early childhood textbook still read in college classrooms today. 

Shonkoff has watched the arc of Meisels’s career. “Does Sam stand out as a person who has made a difference, who has been a force in the field?” he says today. “The answers to those questions are unequivocally, ‘Yes.’” 

Early in his career, Meisels successfully fought for legislation in Massachusetts and then in Washington, D.C., that gave children with disabilities and those at risk more services and the right to enter regular American classrooms.

He became a professor and research scientist at the University of Michigan, where he studied and wrote about how to best assess and then improve the development of children between birth and age 8.  

He rose to become the president of Chicago’s Erikson Institute, regarded as one of the best graduate schools for child development in the United States. He rose to become a leader in the field, invited to give speeches all over the country and the world nearly every week of his career. 

And he fought long and hard, in Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois, and in the halls of Congress, both for things he believed would help young children and against things he knew would harm them.

“He’s action-oriented, rather than sitting in an ivory tower contemplating the world,” Shonkoff says. 

“Sam’s a person who doesn’t make decisions by saying, ‘How can I make a cushy life for myself?’ He says, ‘What are the most urgent issues I should be spending my time on? Where can I make a difference?’”

“That urgency is what energizes him. It has fueled a lot of the contributions he has made.”

And it fueled his decision to help found the Buffett Institute, a groundbreaking University of Nebraska institute started with an endowed gift from Omaha philanthropist Susie Buffett.  

Before his first day on the job, Meisels wrote down this sentence: “The vision of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute is that Nebraska will become the best place in the nation to be a baby.”

Not long before moving to Omaha, he wandered out of his study, excited to find Alice in their Chicago home and tell her something.

“I know what I’m going to do when I get to Nebraska,” he said when he found her. 

“Good, what is it?” she asked.

“I’m going to close the achievement gap,” Meisels said. 

“That’s great, Sam,” Alice replied. “Just don’t tell anyone.”

Alice Meisels’s worry is well founded. The achievement gap—in this case, the test score and opportunity gap between students from affluent families and students living in poverty, particularly students of color—has remained persistent in America for as long as we have been studying it.

But in Omaha, Meisels has led the implementation of the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan, where thousands of students inside Omaha-area schools get a full range of programming—some of it starting at birth—meant to help close that gap by focusing on the earliest years of brain development. 

And in Nebraska, the Institute is involved in identifying and trying to fix a system in which many families simply can’t afford high-quality child care for their sons and daughters—and a system in which early childhood teachers with college degrees are paid poverty-level wages.

None of this is small or easy, Meisels says. It’s the sort of hard problem that can only be solved by the work of the Institute’s early childhood partners, dozens of other groups and the grassroots support of Nebraskans.  

It’s audacious. It’s also necessary. 

“We have a long ways to go,” Meisels says today. “But I think we are making progress.”

Back in that conference room on a recent Friday, Meisels finishes his speech. State board members from state after state line up to ask questions. He answers them. Four members of the Nebraska State Board of Education gather around him to take a photo. 

And then, two hours after it began, the speech is over. Sam Meisels’s hair is mussed. His face is flushed. He has been doing this, or some version of it, for a half-century. 

He will do this again next week, and the week after, and the week after that.

“We are going to continue to fight, because this is real life,” Meisels says. “We are standing on the cusp of real change. Real change is what we’re after.”

 

Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.

His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter. Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Matthew at matthewhansen@nebraska.edu.

Scroll to top