It’s Time to Make ECE’s Promise a Reality

August 12, 2015

By Stacie Goffin, Ed.D. 

Stacie Goffin is Principal of the Goffin Strategy Group, which is dedicated to building early childhood education’s ability to provide effective programs and services for young children through leadership, capacity, and systems development. Stacie is also the author of several seminal publications, including the recently released Professionalizing Early Childhood Education as a Field of Practice: A Guide to the Next Era

In his May 29, 2014 NIEER blog, Jim Squires asked, “Is early education and care a profession or not?” The answer to his straightforward question, he concluded, was “no.” Because of the nature of ECE’s work, few would question that ECE ought to be profession. Yet as John Goodlad reminded us, “A vocation (occupation) is not a profession just because those in it choose to call it one. It must be recognized as such.”

We use the terms “profession” and “professional” very loosely. People often are deemed professional, for example, when they perform their work at a high level or when they shift from amateur to paid status. Sometimes we mistakenly presume the presence of a degree confers professional status.

Small group learningProfessions differ from other occupations or jobs. Their unique occupational structure is designed to ensure practitioners are uniformly prepared and competent, regardless of funding stream, program sponsorship, or, in our instance, the children and families being served. To qualify as a recognized profession, ECE will have to include the attributes that define professions–criteria such as a prescribed scope of work as a field of practice and formal preparation as a prerequisite to being licensed to practice. To be accepted as a profession, therefore, ECE will need to move beyond its fragmented way of life and restructure as a cohesive, interlocking system of preparation, practice, and accountability bound together by a unifying purpose.

Fulfilling this aspiration will require system leaders who catalyze collective leadership. It also will require ECE to move beyond ad hoc and voluntary efforts to repair or incrementally improve what isn’t working. Instead, we will need to step forward to reform and re-form ECE as a field of practice. Doing so will help ensure each and every child regularly interacts with well-prepared teachers who have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to accomplish the results each of us wants for children’s learning and development.

Even though the desired state has been articulated, ECE’s configuration as a profession is as yet unknown, as are the full complement of steps for getting there. Because of the adaptive work involved and professions’ systemic nature, the work ahead, by definition, will be dynamic and emergent. This means it’s not possible to devise an all-inclusive action blueprint in advance of engaging in the work. Nor is it likely a viable approach will emerge in response to someone driving a predetermined change agenda.

There is a starting place, though, and I’d suggest it’s conversations with intent, conversations that engage us in the kind of personal and collective reflections that invite thinking together about how to create an alternative future for ECE as a field of practice. While eyes may roll at the thought of still more “talking” about ECE and next steps, conversations with intent, when skillfully and purposefully executed, offer the means for getting to sustained and transformative action.

Conversations with intent and the steps that follow must

  • attend to multiple perspectives and interpretations of the field’s present status, both within and across sectors and stakeholders,
  • face difficult truths about current realities, acknowledging, for example, that some of our interventions aren’t working or the extent to which ECE is becoming bureaucratized.
  • revisit individual and collective thinking that we or our sectors defend as sacrosanct
  • foster generative conversations that spawn new possibilities,
  • rearrange ECE’s sub-systems into a coherent whole, and
  • persevere to bring a co-imagined future to fruition.

Moving forward will require courage and imagination, but if we so choose, our aspirations for widespread public recognition of our contributions to children’s learning and development can be achieved. Tackling the deep structural issues that undergird ECE’s fragmented practice–for example, the field’s uneven expectations for teachers and their preparation–will necessarily involve frustration and conflict. Yet once united around a vision for ECE’s future, the shared image of what we’re creating will focus, channel, and energize our efforts. By assuming responsibility for our field’s competence, individually and collectively, we will fulfill ECE’s promise to children and their families.

As I’ve argued, professionalizing ECE requires defining, unifying, and taking responsibility for our profession–which Jacqueline Jones similarly underscored in her post last week that reviewed the Institute of Medicine’s report on the ECE workforce. With the increasing attention being placed on ECE, though, the stakes are mounting. Ultimately, we must move forward together to fulfill ECE’s promise because it is a matter of our integrity as a field of practice.

This post was updated with author edits August 14, 2015.


When Research and Emotions Collide

May 20, 2015

Certain practices evoke strong reactions among early educators. Kindergarten “red-shirting (Katz, 2000),” academic “hothousing” (Hills, 1987), and developmentally inappropriate practice raise ire, yet pale in comparison to the issue of retaining children early in their school careers. As an increasing number of states adopt policies supporting, even requiring retention, emotions run high among early educators, policymakers, and parents on the topic.

Retention has been common practice for many decades but is retention the right way to go? Everyone agrees that a student will be well served by possessing necessary skills to learn and apply new information, yet we recognize that not all children grasp new information and skills at the same level or at the same time. Thus, the debate over the merits and faults of retention persists.

So what does research have to say about retention? Among many in my generation, retention of young children was seen as bad practice and policy, shaped years ago by research conducted by Shepard and Smith (1987) and reinforced by Jimerson (2001) and others. But as a scientist I know research contributes to understanding, and I strive to let emerging research inform my opinion rather than the reverse. So I hit the journals to review the literature, learning the issue is more nuanced than one might imagine.

You can simply ask, “Does retention work?” but the answer may be hidden behind several doors, not all of which lead to the same conclusion. The answer you get depends on the questions you ask, such as:

  • Does the design of the research influence results?
  • What criteria are used by states and schools to base retention decisions on, and do different criteria yield different research findings?
  • What does research says about the short- and long-term academic and social/emotional/behavioral effects of retention?
  • Does the age or grade when retention occurs make a difference in students outcomes?
  • Is retention an effective educational strategy for young children below third grade?
  • Does retention affect certain groups of students differently?
  • Are there effective alternatives to retention?

These questions were among those examined by the Southeast Regional Comprehensive Center Early Childhood Community of Practice and CEELO, when early education leaders from several state departments of education were invited to explore retention as an effective education strategy for young children.

I’ll spare you the details of research shared in this “succinct” blog, but here are a couple of my research-informed takeaways about a practice which affects nearly 450,000 elementary school children annually, a quarter of whom are kindergartners and 60% boys. Both teacher- and test-based methods for determining retention are associated with short-term academic gains (typically restricted to literacy) that fade, even disappear, over several years. Research shows mixed results on the impact of retention on short-term social/emotional/behavioral development while there is evidence of adverse long-term effects, including school drop-out. Retained children are 20–30% more likely to drop out of school. The fairness of retention policy has been called into question, fueled by a recent report from the Office for Civil Rights, confirming that retention disproportionately affects children of color, those who are low-income, and those with diagnosed learning difficulties, with wide variation in rates across states. Additional research shared with the Community of Practice about retention’s complexities can be found here.

I came away further convinced that the decision to retain a young child, while well-intentioned, is an important, potentially life-changing event; one that should include consideration of multiple factors as to its advisability for a particular child. Inflexible policies based on a single point-in-time assessment, on a single topic or skill (e.g., literacy), may be politically popular, expedient, and, as some would argue, fair, but the research doesn’t convincingly support the practice to ensure intended short- and long-term outcomes for all students.

Further, costs associated with retention are typically absent from policy discussions. We know significant numbers of children are retained in the early years, including kindergarten (Table 1), and average K-12 student costs hover around $12,000 per year. The cost of retention and lack of comparison to less costly, effective alternatives such as remediation or peer tutoring should cause staunch proponents to rethink their position. Combined with long-term costs associated with drop-out, crime, and unemployment, retention makes little cents or sense when signs point to the supplemental interventions–not to sitting through another year in the same grade repeating every subject–as having great impact.

While some encouraging short-term results have been associated with retention, policymakers shouldn’t wave the checkered flag just yet. We would be wise to examine the full body of research evidence, considering both short- and long-term consequences and the critical importance of providing children, parents, and teachers with timely educational and emotional support throughout a student’s career. Layer in the evidence questioning retention as a cost-effective use of resources, and the caution flag should be brought out. When it comes to declaring victory through retention, too much contrary evidence exists and too many important questions remain to allow our emotions to set policy in stone.

 
All
American Indian/  Alaska 
Native
Asian
Native HI/ Other Pacific Islander
Black/ African American
Hispanic/ Latino of any race
Two or more races
White
US 4% 7% 2% 8% 5% 4% 5% 4%
AL 6% 8% 5% 14% 5% 9% 9% 5%
AK 4% 6% 4% 8% 2% 4% 3% 3%
AZ 3% 5% 2% 7% 4% 3% 3% 3%
AR 12% 11% 13% 14% 26% 13% 11% 8%
CA 3% 9% 2% 5% 5% 3% 4% 4%
CO 2% 5% 2% 4% 2% 2% 3% 2%
CT 5% 12% 3% 16% 8% 8% 8% 3%
DE 3% 5% 2% 0% 4% 4% 3% 2%
DC 3% 33% 2% 0% 4% 4% 3% 1%
FL 5% 9% 3% 4% 7% 5% 7% 4%
GA 6% 4% 3% 11% 5% 7% 8% 5%
HI 12% 21% 7% 13% 11% 14% 12% 13%
ID 2% 3% 3% 3% 1% 3% 1% 1%
IL 2% 2% 1% 2% 2% 1% 3% 2%
IN 5% 5% 3% 0% 6% 6% 6% 4%
IA 2% 11% 2% 3% 3% 4% 3% 2%
KS 2% 4% 2% 0% 2% 3% 2% 2%
KY 4% 8% 3% 5% 2% 5% 5% 4%
LA 4% 3% 2% 0% 5% 4% 4% 4%
ME 4% 5% 4% 14% 6% 5% 5% 4%
MD 2% 0% 2% 27% 3% 4% 2% 2%
MA 3% 5% 3% 8% 5% 5% 7% 2%
MI 7% 12% 5% 7% 6% 9% 11% 6%
MN 2% 7% 1% 11% 4% 3% 2% 2%
MS 8% 10% 7% 5% 8% 14% 1% 8%
MO 3% 5% 2% 6% 4% 4% 4% 3%
MT 4% 6% 0.0% 6% 4% 6% 4% 4%
NE 4% 9% 2% 19% 3% 4% 4% 3%
NC 5% 9% 3% 5% 6% 5% 6% 4%
ND 5% 8% 14% 27% 13% 10% 3% 4%
NV 2% 3% 1% 2% 4% 2% 1% 2%
NH 3% 0% 1% 0% 5% 5% 0% 3%
NJ 3% 6% 1% 3% 5% 4% 5% 2%
NM 4% 6% 2% 0% 5% 4% 3% 4%
NY 3% 4% 2% 4% 4% 3% 3% 2%
OH 4% 6% 5% 6% 7% 7% 7% 3%
OK 7% 9% 5% 8% 8% 8% 6% 7%
OR 2% 7% 1% 2% 2% 2% 2% 2%
PA 2% 0.0% 1% 0% 3% 2% 2% 2%
RI 2% 16% 1% 0% 4% 3% 5% 1%
SC 5% 6% 2% 3% 5% 5% 7% 4%
SD 4% 12% 4% 0% 6% 7% 5% 3%
TN 5% 3% 2% 15% 4% 5% 7% 5%
TX 4% 6% 3% 8% 3% 4% 7% 5%
UT 1% 1% 0.0% 1% 1% 1% 1% 1%
VT 3% 0% 2% 0% 6% 0% 1% 3%
VA 4% 4% 2% 4% 5% 5% 4% 3%
WA 2% 6% 1% 4% 2% 3% 2% 2%
WV 6% 0.0% 3% 0% 7% 7% 7% 6%
WI 2% 2% 2% 6% 3% 2% 2% 2%
WY 5% 10% 4% 33% 17% 7% 3% 4%

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection, 2011–12.

–Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow


Will FY2016 be the year for children? Or déjà vu?

February 4, 2015

In January’s State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted several initiatives meant to simplify child care for America families. The White House’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2016, released on Monday, provides further insight into the costs and details of these programs as well as additional areas of focus within the early childhood world.

FY2016 budget table

Early childhood education is often referred to as a “patchwork” system in reference to the number of public and private stakeholders–with varying program requirements and goals–who are involved, and the federal budget is no exception. Several departments have larger programs that operate projects in early childhood education. The Department of Education oversees Special Education Preschool Grants and houses the current Preschool Development Grants program, as well as the President’s proposed Preschool for All program. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also collaborates on the Preschool Development Grants program. HHS oversees Head Start, child care, and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV). The President has also proposed expanding the current tax benefits for families paying for child care–a complex change to tax policy which would not be covered by either department as it is not itself a program.

Much of what the White House is proposing in this budget has been seen before. The Preschool for All program is similar to the version proposed in the FY 2014 budget, and the Preschool Development Grants seek to distribute funds to more states than those already awarded grants in FY 2015. A review of budget documents from the Education and HHS departments does reveal some suggested changes:

  • Special Education Preschool Grants would include appropriations language that would allow LEAs to expand the age range of eligible children to include children ages 3 through 5, as well as requesting a waiver of some reporting requirements for LEAs that exercise this flexibility.
  • Head Start requested an additional $1.1 billion to expand service to full-day and school-year calendars. There is also $150 million for Early Head Start and EHS-Child Care partnerships as well as $284 to help existing programs offset rising costs.
  • Child Care: In the requested increase, there is a proposed $266 million to implement the reauthorized Child Care and Development Block Grant Act. There’s also a requested $100 million for Child Care Pilots for Working Families, which would test and evaluate models for working families, including those who work nontraditional hours. The administration has also introduced a 10-year, $82 billion plan for mandatory funding for the Child Care and Development Fund, to ensure that all low-income working families with children ages three or younger have access to quality, affordable child care.
  • An expansion of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) up to $3,000 per child would triple the maximum credit for families with children under age five and makes the full CDCTC available to families with incomes of up to $120,000. While this credit is largely discussed as a way to help parents pay for the care of their young children, it can also be used for older children and dependents who are elderly or have disabilities.

The Obama administration has touted this budget as crucial to progress for the middle class. These proposals focused on the early years on life would fill major gaps in service for many of America’s children–children in low-income families who do not have quality care while their parents work; children whose families feel the “middle class squeeze” and could greatly benefit from the increased CDCTC; children with special needs for whom quality early intervention services can make a world of difference. However, two essential questions should be asked about each element of the proposal. First, is it designed in such a way that it will significantly improve the quality of children’s early educational experiences? Much of the potential benefit to children and society depends on the answer. Second, what is the potential for passage?  Without support across the aisle, as well as at the state level, these proposals will remain just proposals. Recent experience suggests that, at least for education, proposals designed to help every child will be better received than those that exclude the families expected to pay for them.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator


Early Education Has Its Day

December 11, 2014

Yesterday, the White House hosted its first Summit on Early Childhood Education. The Summit brought together a wide variety of stakeholders, including local government officials; private philanthropy; researchers; federal government officials; and business leaders. The President’s remarks can be seen here. The event also launched the InvestInUs campaign, administered by the First Five Years Fund to encourage private-public investment in a range of early childhood activities. The campaign released a profile of major private commitments, as well as highlighting notable “early learning communities” that may serve as models for other communities. The White House Council of Economic Advisers released a new report, The Economics of Early Childhood Investments, which examined the benefits of a wide range of early childhood education programs, from home visiting to kindergarten. A recap of the ongoing Twitter conversation can be seen here.

The Departments of Education and Health and Human Services also made major announcements aligned with the Summit. Eighteen states were announced as winners of competitive federal Preschool Development and Expansion Grants. Grant winners are displayed in Figure 1, with amounts in Figure 2.

Image Source: Department and Health and Human Services & Department of Education. (2014). What are preschool development grants? http://www2.ed.gov/programs/preschooldevelopmentgrants/pdgfactsheet.pdf

Image Source: Department and Health and Human Services & Department of Education. (2014). What are preschool development grants? http://www2.ed.gov/programs/preschooldevelopmentgrants/pdgfactsheet.pdf

Development grants are for states with no or small state-funded pre-K programs, while expansion grants are for those states with established programs to improve quality and increase access. More information on the current preschool offerings of these states is available here. The Departments estimate that this $226 million investment will expand services to more than 33,000 additional children in the first year alone and ensure that children are experiencing preschool of high quality. The Department has released score sheets and applications for winners and for those who did not receive funding.

The Department of Health and Human Services also announced preliminary grantees for their Early Head Start-Child Care partnerships. The program, which works with existing child care settings to expand access for infants and toddlers to high-quality care, will provide $435 million in funding to 234 grantees. The Department noted that it is still in negotiation with the agencies they’ve announced, and that the award amounts may be subject to change. The full allocation of $500 million will be awarded by the end of March 2015.

All told, this week’s announcements are adding new federal funds for early childhood education to 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Mariana Islands, and will serve an estimated 63,000 additional children. While state education departments and others who have worked hard on these applications are surely enjoying well-deserved celebrations, the greatest challenge may be on the horizon: implementing the plans and working toward the goal of expanding quality early education.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER/CEELO


The second “I” in QRIS

November 24, 2014

NAEYC03_SquiresAs quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS, QRS, and Tiered QRIS) take hold across states with support from federal agencies via the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge’s high-quality, accountable programs and Preschool Development Grant opportunities, the “system of systems” still remains under quiet scrutiny and undergoes continuous improvement itself. This is particularly true to better serve children with special needs and their families.

The intention of QRIS is to encourage a combination of inputs assumed to yield improved results for children, and provide the basis for distributing quality- or effort-based financial incentives to cash-strapped providers. A QRIS is often seen as an alternative to a more expensive, all-or-nothing quality designation through accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children or similar organizations. It also seeks to develop internal commitment by programs to continuous quality improvement, rather than building an externally forced scheme with underfunded mandates–a carrot rather than a stick approach. Most important, QRIS was predicated on the premise that as quality of services improved, children and families would be the primary beneficiaries.

Yet QRIS systems are not without questions or concerns. In “Assessing QRIS as a Change Agent (forthcoming special issue of Early Childhood Research Quarterly),” Stacie Goffin and W. Steven Barnett cite the paucity of empirical evidence to substantiate QRIS as an effective tool for improving program quality and child outcomes, and the field is playing “catch-up” with policy and practice to demonstrate QRIS’ validity and efficacy. Uneven buy-in to QRIS results from inconsistent standar
ds criteria and scoring rubrics across state systems; an emphasis on compliance-oriented inputs; insufficient attention to child outcome data; and uneven participation of stakeholders in QRIS design, including parents and public schools. The closing commentary in the special issue by Kim Boller and Kelly Maxwell raises several issues based on the research reviewed, including the lack of a national QRIS picture and implications for future research to address current gaps in understanding.

One of the most compelling arguments for establishing a QRIS is to provide parents seeking early childhood services with an easy, trustworthy method for identifying a quality program; a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” of sorts. Finding a space in a high quality program is tough enough for most families; quality often competes with other factors influencing parental choice, such as location, program schedule, and cost. This difficulty is exacerbated for hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities. There is a golden opportunity for QRIS to assist all parents in making informed decisions about where and with whom their young children should spend their days away from home, particularly children with special needs.

As reported in a new CEELO FastFact reviewing 42 state QRIS systems, 20 states make some provisions for children with special needs. Many provisions reflect open enrollment policies and collaborative relationships with outside professionals to deliver or reinforce specialized services. Seldom do QRIS criteria reflect specialized staff knowledge, qualifications, or skills to address inclusion deeply, and often opportunities to incorporate elements of DEC/CEC’s Recommended Practices such as instruction, environment, interaction, and family are missed.

Several states are making headway in this area. In Georgia’s Bright from the Start: Department of Early Care and Learning, the Quality Rated system eventually plans programs to attach a designation of “I” (for inclusion) indicating it meets additional criteria for effectively serving children with disabilities. One such requirement is successfully completing the Inclusive Classroom Profile (ICP), a rating scale developed at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute specifically measuring inclusion, with results verified during an unannounced visit by a regional inclusion coordinator. As the first state to offer universal pre-K, Georgia is again demonstrating leadership in early education.

ExceleRate Illinois also stands out for its plans to establish an Award of Excellence (AOE) dedicated to Inclusion of Children with Special Needs. Comprehensive indicators in the accompanying Illinois Inclusion Guidelines Checklist enable programs to conduct a self-assessment to prepare for peer review and on-site verification. This designation will allow parents to identify programs taking inclusion to a higher standard of quality. Parents will be able to contact their Resource and Referral agency to easily locate a program well-suited to their child’s abilities and needs.

Other states are also considering inclusion in their QRIS designs, utilizing the leadership and resources of the National Early Childhood Inclusion Institute, Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center, Early Learning Challenge Technical Assistance Center, BUILD Initiative, QRIS National Learning Network, and CEELO. The recently launched online QRIS Compendium, developed by BUILD and Child Trends, provides an excellent searchable database for strengthening QRIS.

QRIS designs are evolving quickly in the spirit of continuous improvement, and in response to emerging research. Inclusion is an important component of a quality early education program, and should be recognized in a meaningful, visible way for parents and providers. Adding a second “I” to QRIS represents an opportunity to demonstrate that high quality programs serving “all children” really means all children- no exceptions, no excuses.

–Jim Squires, NIEER/CEELO Research Fellow


Preschool and politics

November 4, 2014

In a recent post, Fawn Johnson of the National Journal’s Education Insider asked

If everyone wants preschool, why isn’t it growing? What catalyst is needed to dramatically grow preschool enrollment? Why has it stalled? What can state and city governments do to increase enrollment?

There is ample evidence the public, across the country and across political orientations, strongly supports early childhood education; some states and cities are seeking ways to provide it:

Just before children started back to school this year, Gallup surveyed Americans on their attitudes towards the importance of education, including preschool education. Results continue to indicate strong backing for early childhood education programs, supported by federal funds, even when Americans believe that preschool (and college) are less important to long-term life outcomes than the K-12 years. Together, 73 percent of Americans polled indicated that they believe preschool is very important for future success in life.

Figure 1: How important would you say the education a person receives at preschool is to a person’s ability to succeed in life?

Figure1preKandPolls

Image from Gallup.

There are differences in perspective along political lines, (53 percent support from Republicans, 87 percent from Democrats); as well as by income (81 percent in low-income families compared to 65 percent in both middle- and high-income families); and by status as parents of young children (75 percent among families with children under 18, compared to 68 percent for those without), but overall, approval is strong, with 70 percent supporting the use of federal money to “make sure high quality preschool programs are available for every child.”

Since at least 2013, polls have been showing growing, strong, bipartisan enthusiasm for early childhood programs. Polling in July showed similar results. NIEER Director Steve Barnett wrote then about the importance of maintaining high quality standards when increasing access to programs—providing care is not enough, without quality, to lead to the short- and long-term outcomes the public now expects from preschool.

A poll in North Carolina also showed strong public affirmation (88 percent) across parties for investing more in preschool. Specifically, they support home visiting, teacher training to improve quality, and improved access to preschool (65 percent). There is variation by political party on preschool viewed generally (51 percent of Republicans, 58 percent of Independents, and 82 percent of Democrats) but strong agreement across affiliation for investing in classrooms and teacher training (81 percent of Republicans, 86 percent of Independents, and 94 percent of Democrats).

The Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS) just hosted an early education summit for candidates in the upcoming election. They discussed results of in-state polling indicating strong agreement on expanding voluntary pre-K in Georgia. Among those polled, 83 percent approved of using Georgia lottery funds to increase access to preschool.

Figure2govtexpand

Image from GEEARS.

Among Georgia respondents, 52 percent indicated they would be more likely to vote for a legislator who had worked to expand access to preschool. Overall, support was stronger among Democrats responding, although almost half of Republicans polled said they supported expanding access to preschool.

Politicians at all levels are responding to this public interest. This year, New York City has offered 50,000+ new preschool spots (not without some challenges) and states and cities across the country are wondering whether New York’s quick implementation can serve as a model for their own plans to scale up preschool programs. Across the country, states and cities are stepping up to find their own ways to increase access, along with quality. Politico recently reported on the role of pre-K in several high-profile races, including those in Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas. Several ballot initiatives as also focused on pre-K, including two separate initiatives in Seattle and San Francisco.

Preschool is on the rise in areas where it has historically not fared as well. Hawaiians are voting on a Constitutional amendment to allocate state funding to private preschools, an important question as the state seeks to expand public access to pre-K. The mayor of Indianapolis (in a state with no state-funded pre-K) has been working on an initiative introduced in July to provide scholarships for 4-year-olds to attend high quality preschools, and funds for programs to improve service quality. The scholarship program would be funded by reducing a tax credit to homeowners, at a cost of about $22 per home. Indiana has also introduced a 5-county pilot preschool program, and business and nonprofit leaders are strongly encouraging increased funding for that program to expands access.

At the federal level, there has also been movement toward expanding access to preschool programs. Two bills related to early childhood care and education have been addressed in Congress; the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which adds an increasing focus on quality in child care; and Strengthening Education Through Research, which will make data more accessible to schools, and research more relevant to policy decision-making. At least 30 states have also indicated their intent to apply for federal funding through Preschool Development Grants to introduce or expand state preschool programs; including Texas, which declined to participate in a previous round over Common Core concerns.

Along with improved access, voters also clearly want high-quality opportunities, as can be seen in a series of infographics from Grow America Stronger.

Figure3whatvoterswant

Image from Grow America Strong.

Grow America Strong also shows results by state. (Learn more about what makes a program great here.)

So the public is asking for high quality preschool. Some states and cities are looking for ways to make that happen. If yours isn’t one of them, maybe you should be asking why not.

—Kirsty Clarke Brown, NIEER Policy & Communications


Raising the Bar for Early Education

May 28, 2014

Is early education and care a profession or not? The debate has dogged the field for decades. Positions taken by the workforce and organizations representing their interests seldom come to full agreement in scenarios reminiscent of the “tastes great; less filling” debates. This in-fighting, often played out between public pre-K, Head Start, and child care, does not center around the acknowledged value of the workforce’s intentions, efforts or contributions; rather, it stems from the field’s failure to consider what actually qualifies as a profession and its willingness to take it to the next level. Too often, terms such as “job,” “occupation,” and “career” are used interchangeably with “profession,” only clouding the issue.

Sociologist Byrne Horton (1944) provides an interesting lens to examine the issue. Based on an analysis of characteristics found across professions, his “Ten Criteria or Earmarks of a Genuine Profession”[i] contend, that a profession must:

  1. Satisfy an indispensable social need and be based upon well­ established and socially acceptable scientific principles.

    Even stock photos make it clear: this job is tough. But is it a "profession?"

    Even stock photos make it clear: this job is tough. But is it a “profession?”

  2. Demand adequate pre-professional and cultural training.
  3. Demand a body of specialized and systematized knowledge.
  4. Give evidence of needed skills that the general public does not possess.
  5. Have developed a scientific technique that is the result of tested experience.
  6. Require the exercise of discretion and judgment as to the time and manner of the performance of duty .
  7. Be a type of beneficial work, the result of which is not subject to standardization in terms of unit performance or time element.
  8. Have a group consciousness designed to extend scientific knowledge in technical language.
  9. Have sufficient self-impelling power to retain its members throughout life. It must not be used for a mere steppingstone to other occupations.
  10. Recognize its obligations to society by insisting that its members live up to an established and accepted code of ethics.

Other sociologists and scholars (Katz, 1985; Moore, 1970; Rich, 1984) have echoed Horton’s criteria.

Obviously, for early childhood teachers, we can check off some of the above. The commitment to expanding a scientific knowledge base for early education is burgeoning and the work addresses an indispensable social need. Based on all the criteria, however, I’d be hard-pressed to issue a resounding “Yes” if asked whether the field of early education and care currently qualifies as a profession.

Many of Horton’s criteria, particularly those addressing professional training and knowledge, are not uniformly expected, met, or enforced across our field. In a field where high school graduates lacking adequate pre-professional training or specialized knowledge work immediately and independently on par with others who have invested years in specialized training and degrees, we have a problem.  When people enter the field without knowledge and skills beyond that of the general public, we have a problem. With a track record of high attrition confirming our field’s inability to retain its members throughout life – due in part to demanding responsibilities for which they were not prepared and low compensation – we have a problem. Let’s be honest: as a result of a well-meaning effort to open a wide early education and care umbrella inviting all comers with and without qualification, our field fails to meet requisite criteria to be recognized as a profession. The lowest common denominator defines our field and as such we stumble in advancing as a profession. More important, we do a disservice to children, families, and colleagues.

A profession establishes the gate through which only qualified and competent individuals may enter to provide service. We have too many gates lacking uniform standards of quality. The NIEER 2012 State of Preschool Yearbook reported only 30 publicly-funded preschool programs in 25 states require lead teachers to have a BA; New York requires a Master’s degree. Programs in 4 states (Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, one program in Vermont) did not require lead teachers to have either a BA or specialized training in pre-K. Several state-funded pre-K programs operating in partnership with community-based child care programs permit lead teachers to have high school degrees or certificates, creating an uneven professional field within the same state or community.  Head Start has made tremendous strides in advancing the qualifications and skills of its teaching corps, surpassing ambitious targets through a combination of policy and support. Alternate pathways are made possible for para-professionals who commit to becoming professionals. Years in the field may provide valuable experience, but if not systematically approached to attain knowledge and skills well beyond those held by the general public, such experience may simply reinforce unprofessional or ineffective behaviors.

In Early Childhood Education for a New Era: Leading for Our Profession, Stacie Goffin portrays early education and care as a field of practice where reform is driven by external and internal forces, arguing that we need to assume responsibility for elevating and accelerating internal change. Speaking at the Maryland Department of Education Research Forum (January 2014), she warned “(v)oluntary strategies (are) not leading to practitioners collectively capable of competent practice” and that change must come from the “inside out.” I agree. As a profession, we must hold ourselves to high standards of excellence and accountability, not justifications for mediocrity. The gauntlet has been thrown.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the need for adequate resources to elevate early education and care as a profession. Each of Horton’s 10 criteria has an associated price tag if an indispensable social need is to be addressed by knowledgeable, skillful, effective professionals who remain committed and supported throughout their professional lives. Parents cannot be expected to carry the full price any more than we can expect the children. As columnist Thomas Friedman said in a recent interview, “If we will the end, we must also will the means.” States, communities, business, and the federal government need to step up.

Certainly, we are further along the path to being recognized and valued as a profession, but now is not the time to rest. Until the field of early education and care comes to agreement on criteria for its “profession” and commits to meeting exemplary standards differentiating it from a “job” or “occupation,” we are destined to be viewed by the public as a lesser profession and reap commensurate benefits. It’s time for us to raise the bar.

– Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow

[i] B. J. Horton. (1944). Ten criteria or earmarks of a genuine profession. Scientific Monthly, (58), p. 164.


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