Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators: A Discussion

Blog Post
March 23, 2020

The entangled issues that touch early education—preparation and education, compensation and status, and workforce diversity and inclusivity—are growing increasingly fraught. Experts in the field have long been pulling on the different threads of this Gordian knot to suit their own interests, making it tighter and harder to disentangle.

New America explored each of these interwoven issues in an 18-month blog series, Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Educators. The series’ popularity inspired its transformation into a compendium, which featured six new authors' introductory remarks and divided the 31 essays into five overarching themes. The compendium was released on March 10th, with a coinciding event that invited practitioners and series authors to extend the conversation and find solutions that can help us move beyond the false choices in early education’s thorny knot.

The event was split between two panels. The first convened six essay authors to reflect on themes and ideas brought forward in the compendium. The second panel featured the compendiums’ introductory and closing essay authors, as well as two early education providers, to expand on the initial discussion and consider solutions.

One of the themes that resounded through both panels was the importance of shifting power dynamics in early education to elevate educators as decision-making partners in the field. Ariel Ford, deputy administrator in the City of Chattanooga’s Office of Early Learning, ruminated on the many ways in which educators’ voices are ignored through bureaucratic structures. “How are the systems that we’ve set up, licensing, QRIS, higher ed, designed to make invisible the voice of educators?” Ford asked. She also cast blame on those who listen, gathering educators’ voices in surveys and focus groups, but fail to implement educators’ ideas in policy.

Kristie Kauerz, an associate clinical professor at University of Colorado Denver, reinforced the importance of educator voice but emphasized the role of policy specialists as key partners who bring their own knowledge and talents. Kauerz explained, “We do have a large cadre of policy leaders... intermediaries, who probably need their own training, leadership attention, policy advocacy skills, policy development skills, that can be enacted in inclusive, equity-focused ways.” She implored the audience and her co-panelists to “reflect on the extent to which we elevate only the early childhood teachers’ voice in these conversations versus also finding ways to elevate the policy-savvy and the equity-based policy-savvy of some of these workforce-based intermediaries.”

Albert Wat, senior policy director at the Alliance for Early Success, reflected on Kauerz’ assertion. “How do I as a policy professional partner meaningfully, authentically, and in an ongoing way with educators? I think that takes a bit of a different muscle than what those of us who went through policy school, for example, or even on the job, exercise.” Wat continued, “A lot of us, in order to move forward and advance the profession, are going to have to give up some of our power and work against some of our self interest.”

To begin shifting power and encouraging educator agency, Linda Hassan Anderson, president and CEO of NIA Associates, Inc., recommended expanding equitable access to the conversation, suggesting that the compendium and its ideas be translated into multiple languages and available in multiple formats. Ford encouraged policy makers to listen and follow through on the guidance that educators provide. Wat advocated for greater outreach to educators, developing ongoing relationships between policy intermediaries and practitioners, and providing educators with background knowledge in policy to promote their full participation in the conversation.

The role of higher education was another common theme throughout both panels. Rebecca Kantor, dean of the School of Education & Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver, highlighted the obligations of institutions of higher education to truly meet students’ needs. “We really need to be as absolutely flexible and self-sacrificing as institutions as we can be in order to let people build a degree as opposed to earning a degree, to make progress in a degree pathway.” Kantor urged a change in program design “around issues of access,” smoothing transitions to ease transferability of credit between institutions and credentials, and bridging the silos of professional development and degrees.

Marjorie Kostelnik, a professor of Child, Youth and Family Studies at University of Nebraska Lincoln, emphasized the need for greater collaboration in higher education. “Divides come about because of territory, access to resources, power, status within the institution, and how we allocate status,” Kostelnik explained. “We need to be saying in higher ed, ‘What is the vision? What is it that we’re trying to build? What is it we’re trying to achieve? And how can we do it together?’”

Esteban Morales, educational director at CentroNía Institute, highlighted the need for higher education programs to better prepare early educators to connect the science of learning and child development with classroom practice. He reasoned that educators should be able to explain how a child playing peek-a-boo is demonstrating “conservation of content,” which will be crucial for when they learn subtraction in elementary school. Morales also cited the need for well-prepared administrators who help marry “theory with practice,” explaining, “You need an instructional leader that will be able to foster intentional planning in that center and really scaffold how this assessment, how those indicators of quality, are translated into a real classroom.”

At the conclusion of each panel, authors and practitioners reflected on ways to move beyond the ensnared issues and loosen the tensions in early education. Kantor endorsed stronger partnerships between higher education, the professional development community, and primary stakeholders, noting, “It’s really time to address the fragmentation… and that’s not going to happen if we’re not sitting at the same table.” Wat extolled the need for “public will and the public revenue” in order to “lift the floor” to a living wage for early educators. Morales promoted a “unified voice and more consensus”around terms like school readiness, a key goal of early education, and advocated that the field develop the “same vision for what it means to be ready.”

The work of disentangling early education’s thorniest issues continues. We encourage you to watch the recording from the event and explore Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators—A Compendium to form your own opinions on the enduring debate.

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