April 1st shall be memorialized in the minds of many of us as a benchmark day for the profession of early childhood education. And I use profession with proud intent. This was the day that the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science released its comprehensive and visionary report: Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation. The authors of the report examined the science of early learning and child development to answer a pivotal question. What do lead educators need to know and be able to do to be effective in their work with children, birth through age eight?
The recommendation that is getting lots of attention is that all lead teachers of children from birth to age eight have a bachelor's degree in early child education or in a closely related field. The esteemed panel of experts responsible for the report decided it is time to stop debating whether infant, toddler, and preschool teachers need a BA degree or specialized training. They need both. A major take-away from this report is that qualification-silos based on sector or funding stream are not supported by science and do not serve the best interests of children. All young children, whether enrolled in schools, centers or home-based programs, deserve access to high quality early learning opportunities and the workforce determines the quality of that early learning experience.
It is important to note that the minimum requirement of a BA with specialized knowledge and skills in early childhood education is not just for lead teachers. The report uses the term “lead educator” which is defined to also include principals, center and program directors, and family child care providers. While a principal is likely to have a graduate degree, most principals do not have the requisite knowledge in early learning and development. The qualifications of center and program directors, as well as family child care providers, tend to be much lower than that of principals. Currently, only four states require a degree for the director of a licensed child care center; only one of these states requires a minimum of a BA. There are no states requiring a degree for family child care providers. The degree in early childhood/child development is only part of the equation. Leadership and management competencies are also essential. While the report highlights that effective leaders require competency in instructional leadership and program administration, only a handful of states currently require any college coursework in program administration prior to assuming the responsibilities of center director. No state requires college coursework in FCC-specific competencies.
The implications of the science of early learning are clear; children birth to age eight need well-prepared lead teachers across all early childhood settings, supported by well-prepared and effective program leaders. Now is the time to get down to business and figure out how to accomplish this goal given the diverse ways in which early learning and development services are delivered and funded. It won’t be quick or easy but local, state and federal policymakers, accrediting bodies, philanthropic foundations, large providers of early care and education services, and higher education entities will all need to pull together to achieve the audacious vision laid out by this report.
The violence of the past days has reminded us all that we must be vigilant in denouncing hate and speaking out against it. I encourage everyone who cares about our courageous country and experiment in democracy to get out and vote on November 6th! Paraphrasing from an editorial in the Hartford Courant today, the strength of our united character is being put to the test. We must speak up, and no better way to do so than voting or encouraging others to do so. Truly great educators are those who never give up. I am not ready to give up on our country as a land that holds such great promise of freedom and justice for all, beginning with our youngest ones who cannot vote but will live in the world we are creating with every action or inaction.
Take heart! For too long, one of the least heartening perspectives on the federal government budget came from early childhood education advocates, who, year in and year out, felt left out of the political dialogue during budget talks. They were either ignored or, worse, the recipients of unwanted attention as federal spending on education was slashed or level-funded as costs increased. However, during a time when we see much division in our country, especially coming out of Washington, D.C., it actually is a bit –just a bit – encouraging to look at early childhood education programs which are garnering more and more bipartisan support.
The statistics around exclusionary discipline practices, like suspension or expulsion, are grim. Kids who get kicked out, especially repeatedly, are often already behind academically, become less engaged in school, and are monumentally more likely to drop out of high school. And while exclusionary discipline affects all students, it’s essential to keep in mind that children of color are suspended and expelled at rates disproportionate to their white peers.
Early childhood folks are a special breed. We know how great an impact our work can have (Perry Preschool Program! Abecedarian! Heckman!), and we’re proud of it. At the same time, we’re aware that when children leave our classrooms, we have no control over the rest of their educational experiences. The fadeout effect—when children’s gains from preschool diminish in elementary school—has shown up in several large studies, including the Head Start Impact Study and a randomized control trial in Tennessee.