This latest Pre-to-3 column looks at an effort to define what it means to be an early-childhood education professional. Past installments can be found here.
Over the past few decades, policymakers, parents and educators have grown to understand how a child’s early experiences influence later success in school and life. And in theory, they widely support efforts to make sure children spend their time before kindergarten with caregivers and teachers who are well trained and understand how to promote learning and healthy development.
But how does an effort launched by National Association for the Young Children (NAEYC) to define what it actually means to be an early-childhood education professional affect K-12 administrators?
For one, many elementary schools include pre-K programs, and depending on how the program is paid for — Head Start? district-run? state-funded? — the teachers in those programs might not be receiving the same pay and benefits as the kindergarten teachers down the hall. That disparity might lead to some tension among staff members and hinder efforts to get teachers across P-3 to collaborate.
Those gaps are even wider between preschool teachers in schools and those in community-based programs, which is also relevant for school leaders, suggests Kristie Kauerz, a professor and the director of the National P-3 Center at the University of Washington's College of Education.
“There's a moral imperative here,” she says. “If principals value the entire continuum, and recognize the invaluable contributions made by teachers prior to kindergarten, they should advocate for 0-5 teachers.”
Child-care providers, preschool teachers and others working with young children enter the early-childhood education field in a variety of ways, live in states with varying training requirements and work for programs that have different educational expectations for teachers.
In some states, for example, one 3-year-old might attend a child-care center that doesn’t require a lead teacher to have even a two-year degree, while another 3-year-old might attend a school-based preschool program across the street that requires teachers to have four-year degrees and be fully certified.
Wages in the field are low, many providers live below the poverty line and a recent paper from the American Enterprise Institute shows that early childhood is one of the fields in which an associate degree alone is not a stepping stone to the middle class. Low pay also leads to high turnover rates, which researchers have found to hinder the stable relationships that young children need to learn.
The Power to the Profession initiative is in part a response to a 2015 Institute of Medicine and National Research Council report that calls for those working with children birth through 8 to have greater access to professional development learning and have “pathways” that help them achieve a bachelor’s degree.
While the early-childhood landscape is quite different from the nation’s K-12 system, NAEYC CEO Rhian Evans Allvin says, “it’s important that we keep the child in the center of the conversation,” and adds, “The science is clear. To capitalize on what happens in these first eight years of life you have to have a defined set of knowledge, skills and competencies.”
The Power to the Profession task force includes higher education leaders, and representatives from different types of early-childhood programs, such as Head Start and family child-care homes, but it also involves the teachers unions and L. Earl Franks, head of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. The effort “aims to establish a shared framework of career pathways, knowledge and competencies, qualifications, standards, and compensation that unifies the entire profession,” according to the website.
The group’s full agenda won’t be released for another year, but in early 2018, Allvin expects to release the results of a survey of K-3 teachers to better understand how they identify with the early-childhood education field.
Kauerz adds that there is a lot that K-3 teachers can learn from early-childhood educators about developmentally appropriate practice, “whole-child assessment” and the classroom environment. That’s what’s been happening, for example, in the Warren City (OH) Schools, where under Superintendent Steve Chiaro’s leadership, the district has been adding preschool classes in all of its elementary schools and providing professional development for kindergarten teachers on early-childhood teaching practices. Each of the four PK-8 schools in the district also has a principal just in charge of PK-2. Since the district began implementing the changes, enrollment has increased and attendance in the early grades has improved, leaders say.
“It's not just elementary principals who should care,” Kauerz says, “it's the entire P-20 education continuum, the public, and policymakers.”