Preparing Competent Early Childhood Educators: Is Higher Education Up to the Task?

Blog Post
Oct. 2, 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.

Continuing the series' discussion on higher education degrees, Tammy Mann reminds us that early childhood education is a field of practice and argues that even if compensation and status and diversity and inclusion — two of ECE's three thorny knots — were addressed, the consequences for children will be minimal unless ECE's higher education programs can be counted on to well prepare all of the field's early childhood educators.

Like Sykes, I readily acknowledge my endorsement of high standards for educational preparation as an essential ingredient for delivering high quality early care and education (ECE) to young children from birth forward. I note birth here because when not explicitly stated, the mental model that most often comes to mind is a preschool child. Our solutions focus on what happens in the year or two before formal school entry instead of truly reflecting a birth forward perspective. The preschool mental model also shapes how we think about what it means to support early learning and development and the approaches necessary for preparing those engaged in this work. How this work benefits young children, after all, is the north star of why this conversation matters.

I have been fortunate to experience ECE from many vantage points, and this has shaped my perspective on the challenges we face related to questions of preparation and education, compensation and status, and diversity and inclusion. Almost 10 years ago, I transitioned from talking about the intersection of research, practice, and policy at the national level to living this intersection’s impact in my current work leading a large community based organization. This work spans the “cradle to career continuum” and has been a real source of joy, to channel Hernandez, and at times a challenge, too, as we strive to operate within the numerous quality and accountability systems (i.e., NAEYC Accreditation, QRIS, CLASS, Head Start Performance Standards, state and local regulations) that surround our work. I could literally write a book on the exhaustion that stems from keeping up with countless rule changes and the unintended consequences too often generated for those on the frontlines of this work.

But rather than focus on all three components of the thorny issue that prompted this series, I want to focus on one that has only recently surfaced in other posts, namely those authored by Rothschild and Holloway. I believe an urgent and sharper focus on higher education is imperative if we are to transform the ECE workforce. To focus on whether or not those engaged in ECE actually want to improve or do better, as Stewart aptly notes, diverts attention from critical issues associated with how well higher education programs prepare students for the hard work of teaching that Sachs underscored for us.

Teaching is a practice-based profession, yet most higher education programs overwhelmingly focus on its theoretical underpinnings without also providing sufficient, direct learning opportunities in ECE settings so aspiring early educators can unpack how these theories shape the process of teaching across diverse populations of young learners. Additionally, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through 8 highlights recent developments in instructional science that seem especially relevant when it comes to connecting research to practice within a developmentally appropriate framework.

Preparation programs also need to sharpen their focus on helping educators develop self-awareness about explicit and implicit bias and its impact on children’s identity development. Personal commitment to self-awareness in this regard should bear the same significance as medicine’s Hippocratic Oath. Our failure to address these practice issues does little to move the needle on better outcomes for all children, especially for those living in communities beset by economic and social challenges.

An unspoken, but nonetheless real barrier in our thinking about reforming higher education centers on long-held, implicit values held about what makes for “real education and where this kind of education most likely takes place. To a certain extent, the debate over associate’s and bachelor’s degrees underscores this tension. Too many readily dismiss the idea that it’s possible to get an effective education at two-year institutions. Most see associate degrees as stepping-stones to earning a 4-year degree. While it would seem unnatural to expect someone from either of these institutions to argue against the merits of their contributions to preparing early educators, this is where a great deal of energy is currently being spent. I’d argue that we should instead be analyzing the content and structure of programs at each level, and asking in what ways they’re contributing, or not, to helping students develop the competencies needed to excel at teaching young children. I suspect if more time were spent focused on these kinds of questions, the improvements necessary for preparing and supporting infant and toddler educators, as just one example ripe for action, would readily be uncovered.

The time has come to aggressively examine the barriers that keep higher education at all levels from changing its content and approach to teacher preparation. For too long, our focus has centered on change targets such as increasing seats; intensifying the rigor of how programs and teachers are evaluated; and increasing requirements. But our more challenging change target— altering our implicit values and the preparation and support systems that result— also needs to be confronted.

My fear is that ratcheting up expectations for educators absent transformative improvements in preparation programs will only increase the difficulty of attracting motivated and talented individuals to educate and care for children during one of the most important developmental periods of their lives. Even if we fix financing, get compensation right, and ensure a diverse workforce, if the content and approach of teacher preparation hasn’t been altered, we still run the risk of too few children realizing their full potential. For me, this outcome is unacceptable.