Is the Cart Being Put Before the Horse?

Blog Post
Sept. 4, 2018

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

In his reflection on the series' first five blogs, Albert Wat cautiously put forward the possibility that early childhood education was moving toward a consensus regarding the merit of degreed early childhood educators. Doucet's blog delves into the limitations of this point of view and brings even cautious optimism into question.

For seven years, my family hosted a group family daycare in our New York City apartment. The primary caregiver had been our son’s favorite at the group family daycare that ours replaced. In the 13 years we have known her, Violette (a pseudonym) has been the favorite of countless children in our neighborhood. She is kind, warm, and effusive, to be sure, but my observations suggest that what makes her a baby whisperer is her ability to really see each child. Without their needing to say a word, Violette intuitively connects to children’s emotional temperature and responds to their needs, whether it’s a comforting hug, reassuring smile, playful banter, or curiosity about a block structure. Yet Violette did not finish high school, and her emails to parents are grammatically incorrect. But given the choice between Violette and a caregiver with a college diploma, I would choose Violette every time.

This is not because I don’t understand the benefits early childhood educators gain from research-based knowledge about child development and learning, acquiring pedagogical skills through mentoring by experienced practitioners, and the sense of pride and accomplishment that follows degree completion. Sue Russell, Tracy Ehlert, and Jamal Berry have all elaborated on these benefits. Empirically, though, the evidence is lacking when it comes to taking these benefits to scale.

Russell referenced a meta-analysis that makes a strong case for higher levels of education as significantly correlated with higher quality care and education in early childhood education (ECE). To my knowledge, though, a randomized control trial has not been conducted of early childhood educators without Bachelor’s degrees and an experimental group that has been put through a B.A. program who are tested pre- and post- program to determine whether their knowledge or skills in educating or caring for young children improved as a result of the degree. In contrast, a robust body of evidence from Bob Pianta’s lab at the University of Virginia has shown that emotional support forms the foundation for effective teacher-child relationships during the preschool years that, in turn, influence lifelong learning and achievement. So I believe that equivocating these evidence-based traits with a degree is based on faulty reasoning.

I also concur with Marica Cox Mitchell’s argument that “advancing ECE as a profession requires creating a stable 1.0 version, inclusive of compensation, before building towards more visionary versions.” The political will to pay early childhood educators a living wage must be a top priority—not having frontline care providers, typically women of color and working poor folks, pursue degrees in hope of validating their worth. To do otherwise, I’d argue, is putting the cart before the horse.

You see, the thorns I can’t get out of my side when considering ECE’s thorny knot are the seeming taken-for-granted assumptions about what a B.A. actually means when we are talking about what early childhood educators need to know and be able to do to serve children well. These concerns are not mine alone. Sherri Killins Stewart shared that the frontline child care providers with whom she worked “were proud of achieving a higher education certificate or degree; yet they saw little connection between this education and their daily work.” Further, Amy Rothschild, Sally Holloway, and Laura Bornfreund point to problems of consistency, relevance, and access in teacher preparation programs; Rothschild goes so far as to ask us to consider what the letters B.A. and M.Ed. really mean. These authors, in addition to Berry, also point to the question of competencies and aptitudes as telling us a lot more about how an educator will perform in a classroom than the letters behind her or his name. Luis Hernandez put it this way: “ As a field of practice and as part of human focused organizations, it is a matter of respect and decency to support and include workers with a range of heart capacity, academic foundations, and joyful commitment to young children.” I agree.

It also is important to consider questions about the economic returns provided by Bachelor’s degrees. According to a 2014 article in The Economist, “…not all degrees are equally useful. And given how much they cost—a residential four-year degree can set you back as much as $60,000 a year—many students end up worse off than if they had started working at 18.” Although small-scale or state-level programs have worked to provide scholarships and other support for early childhood educators seeking Bachelor’s degrees, the issue of scale has been an obstacle to igniting change.

More common are the experiences shared by the educators with whom Stewart worked: “Most also said their modest pay increases did little to compensate for long hours away from family and friends.” Plus as Maurice Sykes asks, “Why should we encourage women of color to enhance their educational portfolio only to be consigned to a low-wage, low-status job where they will be paid 84 cents for every dollar their white, female counterparts earn?” Underlining Sykes’ point is a piece out of the Brookings Social Media Memo series, Black women are earning more college degrees, but that alone won’t close race gaps, which points out, “an undergraduate degree is not a wealth generator for Black Americans.”

In their posts for this series, both Josephine Queen and Jessica Sager get real about the obstacles and roadblocks family child care providers face with respect to furthering their education within the sanctioned walls of institutions of higher education. Our beloved caregiver Violette would have to overcome these hurdles and more given her age, prior education, lack of experience in U.S. schools as a first generation immigrant, and her identity as a Black woman. And the children of my neighborhood would have to miss out on one of the most gifted caregivers I have ever met.

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