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Let’s Be Honest: It’s About Sexism, Classism, and Racism


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.

Maurice Sykes urges us to delve deeper to understand why the issues of preparation and education, compensation and status, and diversity and inclusion have become so pronounced and entangled with one another that they form a thorny knot. According to Sykes, we need to be more forthright with one another about the causes — by not doing so, we are blocking our ability to have honest conversations, lift up new possibilities, and effect meaningful change.

To avoid being misinterpreted or perceived as resisting efforts to raise the academic bar for early childhood educators, let me state from the onset that I support efforts to elevate early childhood educators’ competencies prior to entry into the early childhood education (ECE) workforce. And yes, equal pay should be in place for equal work. But if we want to reach this end point, we have to be willing to confront the real barriers blocking attempts to create a well educated, compensated, and diversified workforce.

I designed and operated a program known as “Project Headway” for 15 years. It assisted early childhood educators make headway in their careers by moving from the CDA Credential® to the AA degree and beyond. Its enrollees were similar to those typically referenced in conversations as the “diverse workforce” when discussing early childhood education workforce development.   

Yet, contrary to routinely cited  statistics, we boasted 80% workforce retention and graduation rates. Our success can be credited to our not viewing or profiling participants as “first generation, minority, low income females dependent on a monthly wage close to or below the poverty line supporting families” — or by extension, as too tired and too poor to go to night college, which to this day remains the predominant higher education approach for women in the ECE workforce.

Rather than using a lens of pathology, we viewed enrollees as capable, competent, resourceful learners, some of whom, by dint of the birth lottery, had lived in poor neighborhoods, attended inferior schools and, consequently, needed a good practitioner- based ECE higher education program.

Like others whose  blogs  have preceded mine, we recognized that advancing these women’s formal education required attention not only to their academic lives but also to their work and personal lives. But here’s how we differed: We engaged with their plight as an issue of social justice. While we saw increasing their academic preparation as a way of improving their work and personal life circumstances, we, more importantly, saw it as improving their abilities to change the life trajectory of the children they taught.

The time has come to alter the narrative we hold regarding teacher credentialing and teacher compensation that presumes adults’ career advancement is our end goal. To the contrary: our focus should be on improving young children’s schooling and life outcomes.

Every child needs and deserves a highly qualified, highly effective, and highly competent early childhood educator. This is the reason why we should care about early childhood educators’ competencies and compensation.

So, now a cautionary note is needed as we continue exploring issues of teacher preparation, teacher compensation, and a diverse and inclusive workforce: Views that verge, at best, on paternalistic, and, at worst, racist overtones must be shunned.  And if we want to avoid this unsavory impulse, two essential questions have to be probed:

1) 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?

2) Remember my reference to night colleges? This venerable American institution historically has catapulted low-income men and women out of poverty and their working class standing and into middle class professional status. People of color have successfully moved from sharecropper to PhDs. So what is all of the hullabaloo surrounding recommendations to move people of color from CDA to AA to BA and beyond?

The change literature is replete with references to  three types of “messes” that motivate an organization to change. There is the Hot Mess and the Holy Mess—both of which can be addressed through a solid, strategic planning process. The third is the Wicked Mess. It requires a systems thinking approach.

ECE has a wicked mess on its hands. Demanding immediate attention are answers to still two more questions: “Who’s going to fix this conundrum?” and “Who’s going to pay for it?”

Initiating a systems change approach requires dives below ECE’s systemic façade to detect trends, patterns, and behaviors that can help explain ECE’s present performance. We also should be probing what prevents the ECE system from changing. After all, it’s not as if the issues we’re exploring are newly identified.

By diving beneath the surface of ECE’s issues re teacher preparation and education, and status and compensation, I suspect we’d find lurking below sexism, classism, and racism. If honest with ourselves and with each other, we’d acknowledge that these three realities are integral to mapping and addressing barriers blocking development of a diverse and professionalized ECE workforce. Frankly, it’s our only hope for addressing this wicked mess.