To those in the education world, it’s not news that our schools, our systems, and our students are struggling. For nearly 40 years, since the publication of A Nation At Risk, we’ve recognized as a country that something isn’t working.
For more than a century after the United States’ colonization, school was intended for children who were overwhelmingly wealthy, white, male, and English-speaking - those demographics are no longer the case. Students today are representative of all our nation’s families, but our history means there’s a mismatch between what education has done up to this point and what children really need. What’s more, advances in science - psychology, medicine,
neuroscience, economics, and more - have shown us that to give children the greatest opportunity we must change what we’re doing. We can’t let another 40 years pass while we figure it out.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already begun to shift what we expect from education. Recovery has also been supported by an influx of resources, which open a window of opportunity to tackle some of these long-standing problems. But where to start? That’s why we recently convened experts Bridget Hamre (Teachstone), Danielle Ewen (EducationCounsel), and Lucy Recio (NAEYC) in conversation with Teachstone’s Vice President of Policy and Partnership Development, Amanda Alexander. The webinar is full of rich, brilliant conversation, but here are some key takeaways:
For a topic like quality that can be hard to define, our panelists very quickly agreed: we need to center the relationships that children have with their educators. Particularly in early childhood, the skillset needed to be an effective educator is dismissed - caregiving is taken for granted. However, making children feel loved, providing them with meaningful learning experiences, and intentionally supporting their development to the fullest requires specialized knowledge and skills. Investing in quality means investing in the workforce.
In some cases, this may mean professional development. In others, it might involve seeking degrees with meaningful coursework. But no matter what route is taken for workforce development, it must be in the greater context of support for educators. Teachers can’t be asked to take on physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding work for poverty wages. As the system stands now, many can’t afford the time or money to complete degree programs. As leaders develop their workforce, they will also need to devote attention and resources to developing systems of support for their staff.
There is no sugar coating it: children have experienced trauma this year. Parents have lost jobs, families have lost loved ones, children have been separated from longer-distance, older, or vulnerable caregivers, and, even in households that have avoided many of the worst pandemic outcomes, there has been stress, tension, and instability. In order to serve these children effectively, we need to recognize that this is, as Danielle said, “a cohort of children who will need a different approach and many more resources than their predecessors.” Meeting those needs will require an individualized, equity-minded approach.
That means revisiting what we’ve been doing because it was already inequitable. For example, Black children - especially boys - are suspended and expelled at disproportionately high rates, starting as early as preschool. Danielle’s fear - echoed by the other panelists - is that, with lower preschool enrollment during the pandemic, there will be more children who don’t have practice with classroom environments, who will be seen as disruptive and asked to leave. If this uptick in exclusionary discipline stacks on top of existing disparities, it will fall on the small shoulders of preschoolers of color. Instead, leaders will need to be intentional about giving children the differentiated support they need, knowing that it may be more than they are used to.
The pandemic has caused immeasurable “devastation and loss”, as Lucy Recio put it, but it has also “challenged our society to revisit policies and strategies” that have been taken as fact. In rebuilding our new normal, some changes can and should be here to stay. One such shift is in paying early childhood providers for enrollment, rather than attendance. During the COVID-19 crisis, this has provided needed consistency. But even in the best of times, providers run on razor-thin margins. This change can make a huge difference in programs’ stability and ability to know, with greater certainty, how much revenue they can expect each month.
The incoming funds also give a chance to reflect on existing systems and the ways in which they exacerbate inequity. While families seek out high-quality care in many different settings, Lucy pointed out that there can be differences in funding opportunities between center-based and family child care programs. Early childhood educators are paid poverty wages, unlike their (still underpaid) K-12 peers. Even though high-quality early childhood is known to be important for interrupting cycles of poverty, improving children’s K-12 academic performance, and supporting communities’ economic development, it’s not usually where funds meant to tackle these problems are spent. Our panelists’ advice: take a step back, and really, truly think about how you’re using existing resources as you make plans for the new.
And lastly? Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Yes, these may be short-term funds, and yes, it would be great to make sure new initiatives can be funded long-term. But, as Danielle pointed out, “We have two and a half years. That’s half of a kindergartener’s life.” Now is the time to innovate and remake the system into something that will work for all of our students.
We’re feeling energized and ready to rebuild alongside you. Build warm classroom environments that support social-emotional development. Build a high-quality workforce and promote positive child outcomes. Build capacity to ensure equity for all students. Learn more in our webinar, The Future Is Now, then let us know how we can help you bring your vision to life.
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