Addressing Early Childhood Education’s Leadership Capacity Gap

Blog Post
July 6, 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.

The early childhood education (ECE) field is fortunate to have – and to have had — innumerable leaders propelling it forward by helping develop the educator workforce, improve programs and their coordination, and foster public policies. Despite these contributions, the ECE field lacks sufficient leadership capacity to advance itself as a competent and respected field of practice and to seize opportunities as they emerge at the program, policy, community, state, and national levels. The field’s leadership capacity gap has limited its ability to strengthen itself in numerous ways. Examples include finding enduring ways to strengthen effective program and classroom practices; building sustainable family child care networks; forging resilient local and regional collaborations; pursuing family-friendly state policies; increasing adequate and sustainable state funding; and gaining traction in shaping ECE’s future as a field of practice.

We are advocating for elevating leadership development as a field-wide priority — and importantly, doing so in a manner that avoids further fragmentation and brings a level of collective intentionality and coherence presently lacking. 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. Our goal in this series is to articulate the importance of fostering a common developmental trajectory for the field, with ideas for the direction of future work.

When talking about the ECE field, we are referring not only to its early childhood educators, but also to the individuals staffing the full range of programs, services, and occupations that support these educators’ ability to execute their roles and responsibilities — as well as attend to the families that ECE programs serve. Calls are escalating to address the field’s increasing complexity, expand its ability to respond to opportunities, tackle its challenges, and navigate external expectations. It’s time to recognize and prioritize leadership as an essential lever for change and ensure the ECE field has the capacity to advance its future in a more comprehensive purpose-centered, and aligned way.

ECE’s Leadership Capacity Gap

Sufficient capacity is indicated by the degree to which an individual, organization, or system functions effectively. It is created by a complex interplay among individual, organizational, and systemic capabilities.

The third edition of the Early Childhood Education Leadership Development Compendium, published in 2017, makes evident that the ECE field is not fostering these capabilities to the level needed to further its leadership capacity. For example, only a limited number of ECE-specific leadership development programs could be identified ‑ in contrast to programs of a more generic nature. Housed primarily at the state level, the purpose statements of these ECE leadership programs are highly diversified in terms of the positional roles targeted (for example, family child care providers, child care program administrators, elementary school principals, early childhood educators) and the leadership content provided (such as equity and justice, PreK-3rd grade alignment, instructional leadership, and systems change).

Although evolving in sophistication and focus since the Compendium’s first edition in 2009, the field’s leadership development programs continue to reflect the absence of an overarching field-wide thrust in service to developing ECE’s capacity to: inform its developmental trajectory; drive supportive, coherent public policies; and influence others to engage with the field’s near- and long-term needs and aspirations. Moreover, not only are these programs fragmented in intent, they also have tended not to endure, undermining the stability of the field’s leadership capacity and impeding its ability to close its leadership development gap.

These limitations reflect and exacerbate ECE’s fragmentation. The field continues to lack a shared definition of purpose and the results it strives to achieve – and to date, these valuable but limited efforts to develop leadership capacity reflect that lack of shared definition. Responding to present shortfalls and realizing ECE’s possibilities depend on formulating a leadership development infrastructure that can effect meaningful change, both for now and also for the field’s future.

Exercising Leadership

Although few question that the exercise of leadership can make a difference, a consensus definition for what it means to exercise leadership has yet to emerge. Consensus largely exists, though, that exercising leadership is a complex, collective, and often challenging endeavor. It’s also widely recognized as requiring an understanding of the nature of leadership, along with related knowledge and practice skills. Importantly, this consensus indicates that the practice and exercise of leadership can be learned.

Fully realizing this potential requires distinguishing between the exercise of leadership and the use of organizational authority. Leadership is not role-defined. Anyone, regardless of role and authority level — early childhood educators, parents, program administrators, and more — has the potential to exercise leadership. Assuming only those in high-ranking positions can be leaders narrows the pool of individuals seen as interested and capable of responding to the field’s opportunities and challenges, and undermines attempts to expand leadership capacity.

This confusion largely occurs because leadership too often is conflated with authority. Authority refers to the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience — and is typically associated with one’s organizational position. Because those of us in ECE tend to feel marginalized, we often assume we need to look “up” to those with greater authority —rather than to ourselves—to step forward and exercise leadership on behalf of children, families, and the ECE field. By overlooking the leadership abilities of those in our field across roles, programs, and levels of engagement, we inadvertently further minimize the opportunity to develop leadership abilities and the field’s overall leadership capacity.

Where Do We Start?

Current gaps in leadership development represent an important field-building opportunity. But we won’t take full advantage of this opportunity if we focus solely on adding more discrete leadership development programs. Before being able to think strategically about the field’s leadership capacity gap, we need first to articulate the leadership knowledge and skills necessary to being effective in ECE’s complex context. Our next post focuses on principles essential to growing the field’s leadership capacity.

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