Next Steps: Increasing ECE’s Leadership Capacity

Blog Post
July 20, 2020

The early childhood education field has been working diligently to advance itself as a competent and respected field of practice. To maximize these efforts, it needs to build leadership capacity. Because of insufficient leadership capacity, the field is less able to either create or seize opportunities at the program, community, state, and national levels. This three-part series argues the importance of elevating leadership development as a field-wide priority — and importantly, doing so in a manner that prevents further fragmentation and brings the level of intentionality and coherence needed to move forward. This series’ three blog posts spotlight the ECE field’s leadership capacity gap, elaborate on what it means to exercise leadership, and identify ways to grow the field’s collective leadership capacity.

Early childhood education (ECE) needs practitioners and policymakers who have the knowledge and skills to navigate both the field’s adaptive challenges and its technical problems. To date, ECE’s leadership development programs have not attended to this distinction, developed system-wide leadership capacity, or promoted systemic coherence. As we think about an ECE system for an evolving future, we believe a host of leadership skills will need to be developed, with an eye toward bringing a level of intentionality and coherence presently lacking.

As the field moves forward to narrow its leadership capacity gap, it’s important to promote leadership skills in a manner that builds the field’s coherence. This requires engaging in the adaptive work of answering the central question of “leadership for what purpose?”, addressing the scope of leadership needed to move the field forward — and from there, working collaboratively to fashion a coherent system of leadership development.

To narrow the field’s leadership capacity gap, that system should begin by:

  • Broadening the target of the field’s leadership development programs to include early childhood educators who directly interact with young children. Too often, educators in this role are the targets rather than the instigators of change. The Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation is an example of a multi-faceted leadership development program that targets early childhood educators.
  • Expanding early childhood educator and program administrator preparation that fosters the exercise of leadership. Teaching young children is skilled work, as is running an ECE program. The pipeline for preparing talented educators and administrators already is inadequate to the need, in large part because low compensation creates a disincentive for institutions of higher education to support their preparation. Federal and state agencies with oversight of early childhood educators should place greater emphasis on developing their leadership skills.
  • Ensuring ongoing leadership development opportunities. Effectively resolving adaptive challenges is a lifelong skill, and one that needs continuing development. Current preparation and professional development systems need to be reshaped so stronger emphasis continues to be placed on leadership skills. Some national initiatives already existing in this space to promote ECE leadership development could be expanded.
  • Developing faculty and professional development providers to be proficient at teaching leadership in ECE’s context. Instruction on the practice of leadership is itself a skill, and thus far it has been inadequately cultivated. The necessary preparation and professional development can only occur when talented specialists are available to deliver them.
  • Expanding and coordinating with national membership organizations that seek to inform policymakers about ECE and bring greater focus on the knowledge and skills needed to deal with ECE’s adaptive challenges. Many of the national membership organizations – including the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislators, the Education Commission of the States, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and the Council of Chief State School Officers — have ECE-focused programs. While to date many of their efforts have targeted brain science and the ECE policy landscape, future efforts could include a greater focus on leadership skills needed to deal with ECE’s adaptive challenges and technical problems. This action step should include policymakers with broad oversight responsibility for ECE – such as governor’s staff, legislators, and agency heads from education and human services agencies – and also those who work full time managing ECE funding streams, such as state pre-K directors or child care administrators.
  • Executing local strategies to support and engage policymakers in exercising leadership on behalf of ECE. In addition to national role-based organizations, state and local initiatives have emerged that focus on extending the ECE knowledge and leadership of people in positions of authority in their communities. Moreover, local initiatives— ­ if intentionally designed to do so — can help practitioners and program-level administrators learn to exercise leadership in the policy arena.
  • Incorporating varied clinical/ practical experiences. These experiences are central to moving from learning about leadership to learning how to exercise leadership in practice. In light of the ubiquitous presence of equity issues, it’s essential that practitioners of leadership have been equipped to confront them.

Beyond these action steps, a broad range of additional leadership knowledge and skills will need to be nurtured to close the field’s leadership capacity gap. These include understanding change theories, systems change, alliance building, collaboration, advocacy, power dynamics, organizing for coherence, and more. Ensuring these are built into leadership development programs—and the system being created in the process—is both a design and execution challenge and one that will require capacity beyond what presently exists if it is to be addressed.

For all of the roles identified above, we want to acknowledge that low pay in the ECE field is a major impediment to reducing its leadership capacity gap. When salaries are inadequate to attract and retain skilled practitioners, investments in building their leadership skills will likely have only short-lived impact. Consequently, those in whom the field has invested need to be compensated at a level to retain them in their present and future roles.

So how will any of this happen, especially in a post-COVID environment? In some ways COVID-19 is forcing the ECE field and state policy leaders to confront gaps in the ECE system, particularly the inadequate funding for child care. The pandemic has threatened not only ECE practitioners, but also the infrastructure that supports them, particularly higher education. While the field is understandably largely in preservation mode right now, interested organizations, ECE thought leaders and others already are thinking about how to use this crisis to develop a better system. Embedding leadership development in that better system is an important strategy.

At the same time, more than half of states are using federal Preschool Development Grants to implement their strategic plans – with a focus on strengthening supports for practitioners that could include leadership development. While insufficient to addressing its leadership development capacity gap, the ECE field should take advantage of the policy opportunities resulting from the growing number of states already thinking about the ECE system of the future.

Prioritizing leadership development can help to redirect the field’s attention to building the capacity needed for advancing ECE’s future as a competent, respected, and supported field of practice. By reorienting its leadership preparation programs and ongoing leadership development support, the field can accelerate its long-term success and realize its promise to the children and families it serves.

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