The last few years were especially rough on Illinois institutions. The budget impasse in Springfield only served to set more than one campus on a downward financial spiral, public as well as private, four- as well as two-year. While most managed to check the slide, none did so without making significant cuts or postponing plans for growth initiatives. With each passing month, certain losses are becoming all the more obvious: tenure-track and long-term contract faculty lines. Based on anecdotal reports shared during recent statewide early childhood teacher educator meetings, it appears that our field has been particularly hard hit by layoffs, retirements, and contract nonrenewals. What once were programs or departments staffed by at least two or three full-time faculty are now ‘solo shows’ with a ‘costarring cast’ of adjunct faculty. Unofficial reports by faculty still in their positions indicate that some are concerned about keeping their ECE programs open, given campus pressures for improved revenue performance. How, exactly, our postsecondary ECE teacher preparation profession ‘got here’ is unclear, as is ‘where’ this observed phenomenon will take us. We must endeavor to understand our situation, if we’re to find a way to counter what appear to be external as well as internal forces resulting in the same outcome: The disappearance of the ECE teacher educator from colleges and universities around our state.
When environmental scientists detect an unexpected decline in a species’ population, they join forces to study its prelude to extinction before it’s too late to reverse. Among the many factors they investigate is the actual extent of the species’ loss. They also examine polluting, or harmful invasions of the species’ habitat. They look broadly at other aspects of the species’ context—predatory-prey relations; physical loss of habitat; invasion by bacteria or viruses; and change in the ambient climate. By examining these factors separately and then together, scientists aim to determine whether and how they cascade to forecast doom. They use these separate studies in toto to guide them in constructing connected ways to head off further loss and prevent ultimate extinction.
Inspired by the work of these environmental scientists, my long-time colleague, professor emerita Dr. Antonia Potenza of Roosevelt University, and I have planned a prelude-to-extinction type study of Illinois’ postsecondary ECE landscape. We will start collecting survey data from programs in early 2019. We also will conduct focus groups and interviews with teacher educators, current and retired. We hope to do the same with campus administrators and other relevant personnel identified by the study participants. Our goal is to complete the bulk of the work in time for the opening of the new academic year in August.
Among our many questions are those related to mapping the current condition of programs at two- and four-year campuses, AAS and AA as well as bachelor’s and graduate-level degrees. In addition to basic demographic information (e.g., number of full-time and part-time faculty), we seek to apprehend the nature of the work being done by ECE faculty (e.g., course load, service, research and scholarship, partnerships), and how that has changed over the last five years in particular. Through focused conversations in small groups and one-on-one across the state, we also aim to limn the pressures affecting current ECE program faculty decision-making (e.g., course enrollment minimums, employer demands, funding limitations). Since this is a study—a matter of asking questions in order to more deeply understand what’s happening, what’s at stake—we won’t be asking participants for solutions. Our main goal is simple: Learn what our ECE colleagues are experiencing, and to what degree. Ideally, through our work we’ll be able to ascertain which factors most influence or otherwise affect Illinois teacher educators’ ability to keep their programs vibrant and working at true, as well as necessary, capacity.
We realize that for some reading this post, our premise may not seem relevant or accurate. We’ve learned from a small sampling that not all campuses are experiencing significant enrollment drops or increases in non-completers. These data are as relevant and critical for mapping the entire landscape as are those describing the breadth and depth of campus program mergers and reformulations, for example. As we’ve learned from the environmental scientists’ studies, it’s all relevant in unearthing the dynamism at play.
We sincerely hope you’ll be willing to participate in the activities of our study, and will respond to our various solicitations to become involved. Please know that we will collect data anonymously when requested, and maintain strict confidentiality protocols throughout. We recognize that for some, certain data may not shareable. We respect individuals’ needs, yet trust that everyone will appreciate the core purpose of our work: Guiding our collective Illinois ECE profession in keeping our system of education and training in place, as well as attuned to workforce realities.
Please let us know your preliminary thoughts, and if you’d be interested in helping us reach out to teacher educator colleagues in all counties and regions. Feel free to contact me directly via email@example.com or (773) 325-7591. We hope to see you at upcoming ECE meetings and events, where we’ll be glad to informally share further plans and logistics. Thank you in advance for your consideration.
Marie Donovan, ED.D., chairs the Early Childhood Education Program at DePaul University in Chicago. Her teaching focuses on early literacy and the literature used to foster children’s language development. She advocates for postsecondary education faculty with the Board of Higher Education and legislators around the state. Her research focuses on career pathways and vocational education, as well as teachers’ professional development.