Crisis in early education and care demands action
Give workers at seat at the policy-planning table
IF THERE WAS ever any doubt that the state’s system of early education and care for very young children was on the brink of crisis with far-reaching consequences, the COVID-19 pandemic has erased it. Congresswoman Katherine Clark, whose bill to invest $50 billion in the sector was passed by the House of Representatives in July, recently said that a COVID-19-related lack of access to child care was “holding our economy hostage.”
Her observation is borne out by testimony collected in September by the state’s Commission on the Status of Women. Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of women reported that COVID-19-related changes to child care arrangements had affected their ability to work. Included in this group were early care and education business owners themselves, who explained that if their own children could not attend school then they could not keep their businesses open. One reported that she was on the verge of losing her child care center, which had been serving her community for 17 years.
Solutions such as Congresswoman Clark’s bill, which treats child care and early education programs as an essential public good requiring public investment, are key to ensuring that the sector doesn’t collapse under the weight of urgent needs from young families and their employers. Given the complex problems facing the field and early educators’ expertise and innovative approaches to problems of practice, it’s also important to center early educators in the policy making process.
A widescale survey of the state’s early education workforce—completed just months before the pandemic forced the temporary suspension of child care programs in Massachusetts—has yielded information about the educators of very young children in Massachusetts that we rarely see highlighted in media reports about the sector. For example, leaders in the workforce are drawing on deep experience to do their work. Over half of family child care providers and 67 percent of the directors of child care centers have more than 16 years’ experience in the field.
As we might expect, however, alongside this wealth of experience is the reality that the average age of center directors and family child care providers is 51. One in five of those surveyed said that they were planning for retirement, creating a silver tsunami of departures in coming years. Federal funding for the field should include investment in leadership programs to train the next generation, and just as the health care sector designs its own pathways for accreditation and advancement, so too should the early education sector.
One change that many early educators have called for is a significant expansion of opportunities for professional learning and development. It takes great skill to engage groups of very young children in ways that promote healthy development, learning, and safety. The education and training required to do this work, combined with low pay and minimal benefits, doesn’t just create barriers to entry, it also creates pathways to exit. When early childhood educators, who spend their days actively promoting creative thinking in their interactions with young children, cannot get paid planning time or access to ongoing training, their jobs become unnecessarily more difficult. Indeed, the workforce survey found that most (81 percent) providers of family child care and nearly half (49 percent) of center educators do not have any paid planning time.
A second significant strength of the workforce is its racial and linguistic diversity, making it one of the few sectors whose professionals reflect the diversity of the population at large. Despite this, racial and linguistic disparities in pay and advancement persist. Among those holding the most highly compensated positions in the field, such as center directors, only 5 percent identify as Hispanic/Latinx, four percent as black or African American, and 1 percent as Asian. By contrast, among those earning lower rates of compensation, such as family child care providers and those teaching in child care centers, nearly half (47 percent) identify as Hispanic/Latinx, 22 percent identify as black or African American, and 9 percent as Asian.
Another change we might expect to see if early educators were at the policy planning table is an expansion of leadership development opportunities to all educators. Many of the early childhood education leadership development programs across the country are designed for current program directors. A recent report on early care and education leadership development programs found that most programs unintentionally reinforce existing inequities by limiting their availability to center directors and other administrative leaders. As a result, a majority of black, African American, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian educators now working in the field cannot access these programs. This not only creates barriers to advancement into more highly compensated leadership positions but diminishes the capacity of educators of color to serve as role models and influencers as leaders in this vital field.Congresswoman Clark’s $50 billion bailout is desperately needed. What is also needed is a commitment to ensuring that early educators themselves have a say in early education policy reform moving forward.
Anne Douglass, PhD is professor of early care and education at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the founding executive director of the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation. Christa Kelleher, PhD, is research and policy director at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School. They are co-authors of The Massachusetts Early Education and Care Workforce Survey 2019.