Over the past several years, the Early Childhood profession has been fraught with competing priorities and contradictory, conflicting assumptions.
Identification of the need and demand
There is an increasing acknowledgement, on the federal level, of the foundational importance of quality early childhood programming to academic success and quality of life. This is evidenced by the increasing number of dollars made available to states for quality early childhood programming and by the increasing number of reports such as Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation, published in 2015 by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) which discuss the critical need for well prepared early childhood professionals.
The IOM Report, for example, recommends that the Early Childhood Workforce be better prepared not just for the 3-5 year old population, but for the 0-3 population as well.
The State of Illinois acknowledges this need and recommendation through its implementation of ExceleRate which rewards child care centers with a higher per child reimbursement rate for program staff with higher levels of credentials.
For early childhood teachers working in Illinois public schools, the state has developed and put into place revised standards for teacher preparation programs which are aligned with the Common Core, New Generation Science and Revised Social Studies discipline specific standards, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Standards. Early Childhood teacher preparation programs must also align with the Illinois Professional Teaching Standards (ITPS) and become entitled institutions with Illinois the Gateways Credentialing system by 2017, adding another set of standards for alignment. The state also requires programs to include an emphasis on the teaching of children with special needs, children who are learning English, the preparation of the 0-3 workforce and on content area literacy/reading.
There is also a nationwide effort to improve the quality of the teaching force, and accountability for that quality through increased candidate assessment, including performance assessment of candidates, the documentation of and accountability for practice in the field, post-graduation.
These all represent important initiatives targeted at raising the quality of the early childhood workforce. The Illinois preschool expansion program supported by the Early Childhood Challenge grant (RttT) is targeted to open 2600 new slots for children possibly requiring up to 130 licensed early childhood teachers.
Identification of competing priorities and faulty assumptions and conflicts
There is also an increasingly strong and valid initiative to cut the cost of higher education. Students leave their degree programs with too much debt. In the Early Childhood Profession, graduates enter low salaried positions making it more difficult for them to pay off the debt.
Yet practitioners living on salaries at or slightly above the poverty level are expected to acquire additional and higher-level credentials without the financial and social supports required to accomplish those goals. While the provision of tuition and fees is helpful, if a center is not provided staffing supports that allow practitioners to leave early to attend class and complete critical field experiences, the expenditure in tuition and fees is money being thrown away. Additionally, higher education institutions need the resources to provide targeted students supports such as individualized advising and state test preparation.
At the same time that the demand for better qualified candidates and increasing and accountability has occurred, the support for higher education has shrunk. In Illinois it has become non-existent.
The lack of higher education funding in the State of Illinois has resulted not only in a loss of student financial aid and faculty paying out of pocket for teaching supplies, but in deep structural compromises to the goals more qualified teacher candidates and increased accountability.
As state appropriations shrink, tenure-track faculty are not replaced when they leave or retire. This results in teaching over-loads, in professional courses being taught by faculty outside the discipline, further resulting in a reduction in scholarly activity and professional involvement critical do doing the work identified above as needed.
Experts believe that early childhood has unique and research supported sets of knowledge and pedagogical practices. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that administrators and policy makers do not believe the research. Do they really believe that teachers of children ages 0-8 need knowledge and pedagogy experts? Can they really ignore the brain and learning research, including recent longitudinal studies which document the need for high quality programming for children from birth? Or are we still operating with the pervasive belief that children do not really count until they get to first grade. How can a highly qualified workforce be prepared when candidates are being taught by faculty with no early childhood expertise?
It feels like the climate change argument in the political arena.
Meeting the demand for highly qualified early childhood professionals is now being choked at the university level as well as at the practitioner level.