Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce

For many years, advocates of early education have focused on reaching children and their families. Getting more four-year-olds into pre-K, for example, has been an important and increasingly successful rallying cry.

But as pre-K expansion accelerates and the science of children advances, we are at a new fork in the road. Brain science is continuously showing just how much children’s growth and development is affected by their interactions with people around them. It is time to get real about what young children, especially the most vulnerable, truly need from the teachers and other caregivers with them every day.

The early education policy and advocacy community is now turning more attention to the adults who work with young children. What kinds of skills do they possess? What are their working conditions? Do they have what it takes to support children’s growth and learning? If not, many of today’s children will not have what they need to grow into successful adolescents and adults. What must be done?

This is the focus of a long-awaited report released last month by the National Academies of Science, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation.  The report was written by study director Bridget Kelly and La Rue Allen, who chaired a 19-member committee brought together by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science. (Full disclosure: I had the incredible privilege of being part of the committee.) A four-page brief is here.

At the report’s heart is the recognition that supporting the growth and development of young children from birth through age eight—including their cognitive development, their social-emotional development, and so much more—is complex and challenging work. Parents, of course, are primary in children’s development, and a forthcoming report from the Academies will examine the parenting side of early childhood. But last month’s report addresses the skills of adults who are paid for working with and teaching young children. It recognizes that helping to develop children’s bodies and minds requires much more than putting out snacks and coloring books.  Yet many parts of today’s early education system, or in many cases, its non-system, do not help adults provide much more than that.  In five parts and 571 pages, the report lays out that vision for a new era for early education.

“Comprehensive implementation of these recommendations will not happen overnight and will not come cheaply,” the report says. “It will require a strategic, progressive trajectory of change over time to transform the professional landscape, accompanied by significant commitment and investment of financial and other resources.”

Working within a 0-8 age span is incredibly welcome to us here in the Early Education Initiative at New America, where we focus on birth-through-third-grade strategies and are often reminding policymakers not to forget the K-3 grades. It is unfair to expect that children will somehow acquire the critical skills of learning how to learn in just one year of pre-K or kindergarten without parents, caregivers, and early learning teachers paying attention to their development in the years before and the years thereafter. Ignoring the developmental stages that span early childhood’s eight formative years is a recipe for grade-to-grade backsliding, wasted resources, painful transitions, and children flailing in school.

What kinds of skills must be possessed by professionals in each of these years? Chapter 7 of the report has answers. One part identifies the knowledge and competencies that should be present in all professionals who work with young children. The larger part of the chapter focuses on the specialized knowledge needed by professionals with direct, daily or near-daily responsibilities for the care and education of these young children in child care settings and in pre-K and elementary schools, as well as principals and center directors.  See Box 7-2 and ask yourself: How do today’s educators attain these competencies?  No doubt the answer will vary wildly depending on the professionals’ working conditions, not to mention prior preparation or access to continuing education. Overcoming these disparities — made worse by entrenched fragmentation and funding inequities between settings and programs along the age span — will be among the toughest challenges for our education system in this and coming decades.

Fortunately, the report (Part IV) delves deeply into what kinds of changes will be needed and provides the blueprint for how to meet that challenge. There is so much to review and consider, but I’ll end here with a reflection on the “tiered” tree analogy in the report, with branches for differentiated and specialized knowledge for different children at different ages in different settings, but with a strong “trunk” or core of fundamentals for working with children in general. It is a vision of tiered professionalism with similarities to other more mature fields, such as the medical and health profession.

It’s exciting to imagine a transformation like this taking shape. Now it is up to policymakers, educators, and the entire field of early education to make it happen.

Lisa Guernsey, New America
(May 1, 2015)

Excerpted from April 8 EdCentral Blog