Restructuring ECE to Address its Thorny Knot

Blog Post
April 30, 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.

Blog #32 of Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators, written by Barbara Bowman, proposes restructuring ECE's field-wide staffing structure. She describes a structure with different roles for preschool and childcare teachers and for auxiliary roles that align with children’s and families’ needs, as well as the ECE field’s social responsibilities. She contends that while attending to the needs of all children, her approach "doubles down" on those at risk of school failure.

Goffin describes the tangle of issues facing the early care and education (ECE) field as a knot consisting of threads related to staff preparation and education, compensation and status, and diversity and inclusivity. Thirty experienced ECE professionals have already addressed these issues by presenting their perspectives. I would like to add mine.

Ideas suggested in previous blogs, for the most part, contend that early childhood teachers need more education, more diversity, and more pay, with which I agree. Yet I think the knot’s prickliest component is matching the field’s staff structure, wages, and roles to children’s and families’ needs.

A large difference in wages, education, and training currently exists among early childhood teachers, with child care teachers’ compensation often hovering just above minimum wage. In response, some advocates suggest all ECE teachers need to have the same education and receive the same pay as public school teachers, which has huge financial implications — the cost of highly educated teachers for small groups of children over a full workday is overwhelming to many families, as well as to taxpayers. Others contend limited research exists to support higher staff standards, so AA degrees and CDA® credentials and non-professional wages are sufficient. Still others favor an informal mix of training and wages with an inverse relationship between high quality and low cost. I think two principles can guide our thinking in resolving this puzzle: family diversity and differential staffing.

The starting point is family diversity. While all children and families need many of the same things, they do not all need them in the same way or at the same time. For example, working families at some point may need infant care. Yet for many families, grandmother, a relative, a friend, or neighbor nicely fills the bill. Other families need the reliability and/or safety of a center with an AA degreed or a CDA® credentialed teacher who provides an effective learning environment for small groups of children. Infants living in challenging environments (e.g., poverty or drug addiction) or with difficult conditions (e.g., severe disabilities), however, may need sophisticated services with highly trained teachers and therapists. In other words, every infant needs the care of committed adults, but not every infant needs daily care by a BA or MA level teacher for healthy development.

Envisioning A New ECE Structure with Differentiated Staffing

If my two principles were applied to pre-K, I would privilege children’s academic achievement because education is critical to our nation’s well-being and closing the achievement gap is one of its most pressing problems. To move forward, the ECE field would determine the pre-K structure that will serve most children and families. Educationally, the majority of 3- and 4-year olds primarily need socialization and precursor academic activities. The baseline could be a half-day program, using approved pre-K standards, taught by a well-educated (4 year college level) and well-trained (certified) teacher. Teachers would be responsible for a challenging curriculum and when necessary, for referring children for more education time and/or therapeutic interventions. Pre-kindergarteners, for whom the baseline is not sufficient (e.g., low income, immigrant, or special education children), would be eligible for a full day of verbal, literacy, and math curriculum and socio-emotional skills, and would have access to an expert teacher, with coaches and consultants readily available. Such add-on services are not as “far out” as it may appear; K-12 education already does this for children with disabilities, dual language learners, and children from low-income families. Inclusion mandates would continue to apply to children, and efforts to enlist a diversified pool of teachers would be increased.

Using this model, pre-K teachers, whether in centers or schools, would have 20 students in two half-day sessions and earn the same starting salary as public school teachers. Master teachers with advanced degrees and training would be available for direct service and/or consultation at a higher salary. They might also work with schools to ensure alignment between pre-K and kindergarten since follow-up is essential if pre-K gains in development and learning are to be maintained.

Pre-kindergarteners needing out-of-home care for the remainder of the day could go to licensed home care providers or attend centers with AA level or CDA teachers. They would be trained to interact with children and be competent to handle eating, toileting, napping, and constructive and creative activities, including play. Assistant teachers would be required to take organized training before their positions become permanent. These child care teachers would not be directly responsible for teaching academic skills, but would support children’s interests and skills. Their salaries would be less than preschool teachers, but commensurate with their education and responsibilities and certainly higher than minimum wage.

Being Realistic Matters

I have proposed an ECE staff structure with different roles for pre-K and child care teachers, ones that align with children’s and families’ needs and the field’s social responsibilities. This approach recognizes the needs of all children, but it doubles down on those at risk of school failure. The model assumes that education and training for the different services are aligned with educators’ responsibilities, and that their compensation is based on the complexity of their tasks and length of education and training. I acknowledge that it begs questions tied to education and training, financing, and program delivery. But ECE’s thorny knot can only be untied by first thinking realistically of ways to align children’s and families’ and communities’ needs with staff roles and responsibilities.