Are Policymakers and Advocates Reducing or Increasing Early Childhood Education’s Inequities?

The third post in the series Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators

To facilitate interaction among ideas presented in Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators, Series Editor Stacie G. Goffin provides opening comments. For readers new to the series, her introduction explains the series' intent. Previous posts are archived here. 

Stewart's post expands the series' scope by honing in on policymakers' awareness and sensitivities—at all levels of government—when developing and executing policies that affect early childhood educators. Her stance opens up another perspective on Sach's proposition that we should leverage public schools as change agents on behalf of teacher competence and child outcomes. 

Frontline childcare providers are a critical, perhaps the most critical, ingredient in ensuring a high quality, high performing early childhood education (ECE) service delivery system. Inequities impact not only children but also their families and communities and the choices available to them for supporting children’s growth and development. Policymakers, advocates, and other decision makers have an obligation to acknowledge historical and current inequities that are influencing the effectiveness of policy decisions regarding the three topics covered in this series—providers’ preparation and education, their compensation and status, and the ECE field’s diversity and inclusivity. Otherwise, the ECE field is inadvertently undermining equitable opportunities for children and the adults who work with them.    

Policymakers at all levels of government share a near universal belief that the educational level of frontline childcare providers significantly improves the quality of children’s care and education. Based on this belief, many policymakers have set ambitious goals and established programs to support providers’ completion of higher education degrees. Many state legislatures have also passed laws or created policies requiring frontline providers to complete a bachelor’s degree in order to be licensed, receive increased compensation, or advance in their positions.

However, when I was Massachusetts’ Commissioner of Early Childhood Education, frontline childcare providers shared countless stories of their struggles to meet the challenges of work, family, and school. Almost to a person, they were proud of achieving a higher education certificate or degree; yet they saw little connection between this education and their daily work. Most also said their modest pay increases did little to compensate for long hours away from family and friends. 

As policymakers, advocates, and other decision makers striving to advance frontline childcare providers’ formal education, we had assumed that given the supports offered, providers would be able to seamlessly and effortlessly integrate what they were learning into their interactions with children and families. In hindsight, though, this thinking was shortsighted. We lacked understanding of frontline providers’ programmatic, personal, and professional challenges. We needed better understanding of the dynamic interactions among providers’ preparation, education, and compensation, and the ECE field’s diversity and inclusivity.

These three issues cannot be addressed in isolation. To move forward on these issues, though, we have to move beyond false perceptions.

Listed below are four questions policy, advocacy, and other decision-makers have to confront to avoid further contributing to workforce inequities and reducing the field’s diversity when deliberating policies for addressing these interlocking issues. Decision makers’ privilege often contributes to erroneous answers to the following questions.


1.     Do you think frontline child care providers intentionally are choosing not to provide children the best learning environment for stimulating their growth and learning?

To combat this perception, the ECE field, and especially front-line childcare providers, have to be engaged in developing and implementing policies, regulations, and practices that impact them. The current workforce must be recognized for the value they bring, and messaging about the poor quality they are providing needs to be curbed.

These educators are often from the communities they serve. As policymakers, we not only do a disservice to our providers, we miss out on insights that can lead to culturally and linguistically relevant policies and practices. Our usual approach has to change; we need to highlight the skills, knowledge, and abilities the ECE workforce needs and allow front line childcare providers to participate in designing the strategies to achieve them.


2.     Do you think all frontline childcare providers have the same opportunity for employment, compensation, and education and are making choices not to advance their careers?

To combat this perception, it’s necessary to understand historical and systemic barriers that prevent many in our frontline workforce from obtaining a quality basic education, higher education degree, and living wage employment. The voice of ECE’s front line providers has to be included in policy conversation so they can share their struggles and concerns, and identified barriers can be reduced.


3.     Do you think children and their families and communities all have the same opportunities?

To combat this perception, policymakers must understand and address the multiple inequities that lead to children’s and families’ poor outcomes and disparities. Frontline childcare providers’ educational attainment will not, by itself, significantly impact program quality or children’s growth and development. Issues such as unsafe or unaffordable housing, access to quality health care, food insecurity, poor transportation, and educational systems’ long-term failures create significant barriers to reducing disparities and inequities in children’s growth and development and also those experienced by families and communities. 


4.     Do you believe individuals have personal responsibility to meet requirements regardless of social context, position or history

To combat this perception, policies need to address systemic and systematic interventions so barriers experienced by African American and other diverse frontline providers can be addressed. These Interventions need to benefit the ECE workforce as a whole. They also need to include targeted strategies based on needs of specific populations such as African Americans and other groups. 

Recognizing the false dichotomy among the three issues being targeted by this series offers an important first step in creating a fairer and more equitable ECE service delivery system. Let’s turn the elephant around and see the side frontline early childhood workers see to reduce not only inequities children experience but also their families and communities!


Sherri Killins Stewart Ed.D is an Independent Consultant and the Director of Systems Alignment and Integration, BUILD Initiative. The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of her organization. 


Sherri Killins Stewart is the Director of State Systems Alignment and Integration for the BUILD Initiative and an independent consultant.