Transforming What it Means to Teach Young Children, Birth Through Age 8

Blog Post
April 6, 2015

For many years, advocates of early education have focused on reaching children and their families. Getting more four-year-olds into pre-K, for example, has been an important and increasingly successful rallying cry. But as pre-K expansion accelerates and the science of children advances, we are at a new fork in the road. Brain science is continuously showing just how much children’s growth and development is affected by their interactions with people around them. It is time to get real about what young children, especially the most vulnerable, truly need from the teachers and other caregivers with them every day.

The early education policy and advocacy community is now turning more attention to the adults who work with young children. What kinds of skills do they possess? What are their working conditions? Do they have what it takes to support children’s growth and learning? If not, many of today's children will not have what they need to grow into successful adolescents and adults. What must be done?

This is the focus of a long-awaited report released last week by the National Academies of Science, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation.  The report was written by study director Bridget Kelly and La Rue Allen, who chaired a 19-member committee brought together by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science. (Full disclosure: I had the incredible privilege of being part of the committee.) A four-page brief is here.

At the report’s heart is the recognition that supporting the growth and development of young children from birth through age eight—including their cognitive development, their social-emotional development, and so much more—is complex and challenging work. Parents, of course, are primary in children’s development, and a forthcoming report from the Academies will examine the parenting side of early childhood. But last week’s report addresses the skills of adults who are paid for working with and teaching young children. It recognizes that helping to develop children’s bodies and minds requires much more than putting out snacks and coloring books.  Yet many parts of today’s early education system, or in many cases, its non-system, do not help adults provide much more than that.

“For too long,” the report states, “the nation has been making do with the systems and policies that are rather than envisioning the systems and policies that are needed, and committing to the strategies necessary to achieve them.”

In five parts and 571 pages, the report lays out that vision for a new era for early education. Some of that vision is displayed metaphorically as a tree, in a graphic that graces page 430.

Each chapter offers integrated science-based insights for the field to absorb and consider. Here are its 13 recommendations, which are explained in far more detail in the report itself:

Recommendation 1: Strengthen competency-based qualification requirements for all care and education professionals working with children from birth through age eight.

Recommendation 2: Develop and implement comprehensive pathways and multi-year timelines at the individual, institutional, and policy levels for transitioning to a minimum bachelor’s degree qualification requirement, with specialized knowledge and competencies, for all lead educators working with children from birth through age eight.

Recommendation 3: Strengthen practice-based qualification requirements, including a supervised induction period, for all lead educators working with children from birth through age eight.

Recommendation 4: Build an interdisciplinary foundation in higher education for child development.

Recommendation 5: Develop and enhance programs in higher education for care and education professionals.

Recommendation 6: Support the consistent quality and coherence of professional learning supports during ongoing practice for professionals working with children from birth through age eight.

Recommendation 7: Develop a new paradigm for evaluation and assessment of professional practice for those who work with children from birth through age eight.

Recommendation 8: Ensure that policies and standards that shape the professional learning of care and education leaders (elementary school principals and directors in early care and education settings) encompass the foundational knowledge and competencies needed to support high-quality practices for child development and early learning in their organizations.

Recommendation 9: Improve consistency and continuity for children from birth through age eight by strengthening collaboration and communication among professionals and systems within the care and education sector and with closely related sectors, especially health and social services.

Recommendation 10: Support workforce development with coherent funding, oversight, and policies.

Recommendation 11: Collaboratively develop and periodically update coherent guidance that is foundational across roles and settings for care and education professionals working with children from birth through age eight.

Recommendation 12: Support comprehensive state- and local-level efforts to transform the professional workforce for children from birth through age eight.

Recommendation 13: Build a better knowledge base to inform workforce development and professional learning services and systems.

“Comprehensive implementation of these recommendations will not happen overnight and will not come cheaply,” the report says. “It will require a strategic, progressive trajectory of change over time to transform the professional landscape, accompanied by significant commitment and investment of financial and other resources.”

The report synthesizes the latest findings in brain science and child development to build its case. Part II, for example, provides an update on the outdated “nature versus nurture” debate by explaining “how genes and environments work together to produce—or to protect from—illness and disorder.” It also includes many examples from new studies on what enables the development of literacy, math, social-emotional skills, and more. (The report groups children’s development into four categories: cognitive development, general learning competencies, socioemotional development, and health and physical well-being.)

Part III delves into the implications of that science for our current system, or non-system, of early care and education. It goes beyond what the American public typically considers the pre-K years, ages three to five. Instead it starts at the very beginning, with the days and months after a child is born, and it continues into the early elementary grades, through the third grade. See, for example, the flow chart Figure 5.1 (below), a theory of change for aligning early learning and K-3rd grade standards, adapted from work by Albert Wat of the National Governors Association.   

Working within a 0-8 age span is incredibly welcome to us here in the Early Education Initiative at New America, where we focus on birth-through-third-grade strategies and are often reminding policymakers not to forget the K-3 grades. It is unfair to expect that children will somehow acquire the critical skills of learning how to learn in just one year of pre-K or kindergarten without parents, caregivers, and early learning teachers paying attention to their development in the years before and the years thereafter. Ignoring the developmental stages that span early childhood’s eight formative years is a recipe for grade-to-grade backsliding, wasted resources, painful transitions, and children flailing in school.

What kinds of skills must be possessed by professionals in each of these years? Chapter 7 of the report has answers. One part identifies the knowledge and competencies that should be present in all professionals who work with young children. The larger part of the chapter focuses on the specialized knowledge needed by professionals with direct, daily or near-daily responsibilities for the care and education of these young children in child care settings and in pre-K and elementary schools, as well as principals and center directors.  See Box 7-2 and ask yourself: How do today’s educators attain these competencies?  No doubt the answer will vary wildly depending on the professionals’ working conditions, not to mention prior preparation or access to continuing education. Overcoming these disparities — made worse by entrenched fragmentation and funding inequities between settings and programs along the age span — will be among the toughest challenges for our education system in this and coming decades.

Fortunately, Part IV delves deeply into what kinds of changes will be needed and Part V provides the blueprint for how to meet that challenge with the 13 recommendations listed above. Each one gives us much to review and consider, and the report and its ideas will no doubt be part of future writing here in the Early Ed Initiative. But I'll end here with a reflection on that "tiered" tree analogy above, with branches for differentiated and specialized knowledge for different children at different ages in different settings, but with a strong “trunk” or core of fundamentals for working with children in general. It is a vision of tiered professionalism with similarities to other more mature fields, such as the medical and health profession.

It’s exciting to imagine a transformation like this taking shape. Now it is up to policymakers, educators, and the entire field of early education to make it happen.

UPDATE 4/9: You can watch video of the public briefing announcing the report here.