ECE’s Quintessential Equity Challenge

Blog Post
April 2, 2019

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.

Several series' authors have spoken to the topic of higher education as it revolves around the preparation and education strand of ECE's thorny knot. Aisha Ray expands on the commentary to date. In particular, she underscores children's achievement gaps as a central issue and then goes on to identify questions requiring answers if institutions of higher education are to adequately prepare early childhood educators for their role and responsibility.

The calculus typically applied when linking workforce diversity, increased wages, and early childhood education (ECE) program quality assumes that addressing these factors will reap significant improvements in children’s educational achievement, especially for those furthest from opportunity. From my perspective, the persistence of the achievement gap is the single greatest educational challenge for early childhood educators and those who prepare them. It is the quintessential equity issue of our field.

The field’s institutional and structural contributions to the achievement gap’s persistence are multifactorial (e.g., poor quality programs, inadequate workforce preparation, deficit perspectives). If we’re to deliver on the promise that untying ECE’s thorny knot will result in children’s improved educational outcomes and an ebbing achievement gap, the field’s fragmented, uneven, and problematic professional development landscape must be addressed.

A Thorny Challenge Awaits Us

The majority of my career has focused on preparing the ECE workforce in institutions of higher education (IHEs), including research on professional development systems, racial equity and diversity, and consulting with states’ ECE leadership to improve state professional preparation systems. Drawing from these experiences, I’d argue that states presently lack ECE professional development systems that are sufficiently rigorous, robust, flexible, creative, accountable, available, and affordable to all sectors of the workforce. As Wat noted, the field lacks scalable exemplary programs and widely available coherent career pathways that link to portable credentials (e.g., C.D.A., A.A., B.A., professional certificates) that, in turn, facilitate our workforce’s progression toward career goals. We have a long way to go to prepare the over one million individuals working in center-based and licensed home settings, or the over 900,000 who work in unlicensed settings. To channel Sykes, this presents a knotty and wicked problem within a still larger knotty and wicked problem.

Mann, Holloway, Rothschild, and Queen raise legitimate concerns regarding higher education’s ability to effectively prepare those educating young children, including those of color and those in poverty. Can the daunting realities of ECE higher education be addressed and overcome, including lack of big, ambitious reform efforts; entrenched faculty; insufficient student and faculty diversity; uninspiring curricula; unexamined “whiteness” and explicit/implicit bias; course content heavy on theory versus implications for practice; and issues of affordability and access? For me the critical questions that link workforce preparation, compensation, quality, diversity, and child outcomes are these: Are ECE preparation programs able to address the demands of a pre-service and in-service workforce responsible for the developmental and educational needs of culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse children, those in poverty, and those furthest from opportunity whose educational success may be most threatened by what we do and do not do in the preparation of the ECE workforce? If not, why not and how do we create the preparation programs our nation, workforce, children and families deserve?

Here are seven critical questions our field needs to address in relation to workforce preparation, complex diversity, equity, and IHEs if we are to address and overcome these daunting realities.

  1. Is there a research-based understanding of the relevance, depth of treatment, and coherence of course content, of faculty expertise, and of practice experiences provided in IHEs preparing the ECE workforce?
  2. Has the field sufficiently defined the competencies related to knowledge, skills, and personal capacities the ECE workforce, at all levels and in all settings, must have to successfully support the development of young children furthest from opportunity and close the achievement gap?
  3. Are IHEs able to provide adult learners with high quality practice experiences in settings with culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse children and families, and the reflective supervision opportunities necessary to improve practice?
  4. To what extent are IHEs preparing early childhood educators to understand theory, research, and best practice strategies for bilingual, multilingual, and bi-dialectic English speakers?
  5. How deeply do ECE workforce preparation programs address culture, equity, entrenched ‘whiteness’ and racialization as unique factors in child development, practice, pedagogy, instruction, and the achievement gap? Are we in our treatment of culture, racialization, and equity reinforcing stereotypes and biases about specific groups? Are early childhood educators supported to address explicit and implicit bias in their work with children and families? Are educators helped to develop strong anti-racist/anti-bias practice?
  6. Is there sufficient support for both faculty and innovative program development related to reforming or creating new ECE preparation approaches or programs (including credentials, pathways, curricula, practice experiences, increasing faculty diversity) that are grounded in equity and can effectively educate an increasingly diverse workforce?
  7. What are the institutional and systemic factors within IHEs and their ECE departments and programs that must be addressed to bring about substantial change, reform, and revolution in ECE workforce preparation so that children and families furthest from opportunity will benefit from highly competent early learning programs and educators equipped to close the achievement gap?

These questions make evident that unwinding the intertwining knotty problems of compensation, quality, diversity, and preparation will demand sustained effort from all of us. Yet given the stakes, we have no choice but to try and do so.

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