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To Improve Early Childhood Education, Nurture Teachers

Pre-K teacher Epernay Kyles talks about the day's class activities with her students at Garrison Elementary in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, Tuesday, May 17, 2016.  (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Pre-K teacher Epernay Kyles talks about the day's class activities with her students at Garrison Elementary in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, Tuesday, May 17, 2016. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

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Two years ago, one of my former students, Christine, opened a STEM preschool on a farm in Millis, Mass. Young students collect eggs in the morning and feed the chickens and goats. They spend much of their time outdoors, regardless of weather. Shortly after the school opened, a wait list for students formed, and demand from families has been so high that Christine is busy making plans to open more schools.

Despite two decades of experience as a preschool educator and a long-held desire to open a nature-based preschool, Christine didn’t quite know how to get started in realizing her goal. She needed to design a STEM curriculum based on best practices and the latest research. She needed to create partnerships with community organizations, including the farm. She needed to learn small business skills such as accounting and marketing. Most importantly, she needed to believe she could do these things.

Christine eventually found a program where she was able to learn those skills, though she happened upon it by chance: a notice about a new leadership program sent to an email list she subscribed to. She could have easily missed it. If she had, Christine might never have launched her school. Indeed, the lack of advanced professional and leadership development pathways in the field drives talent away, in many cases long before a teacher accumulates 20 years of experience, as Christine had.

After their parents, early educators exercise the most influence on young children’s development and learning.

The problem of retaining qualified educators — one of the keys to ensuring the quality of early education programs — is severe in Massachusetts. A report released last year declared the state’s network of early care and education centers “in crisis” because of the issue. Among the many drivers of the problem, the most significant is compensation: Teachers in early education centers earn a fraction of what their peers in K-12 classrooms earn, with annual incomes around $25,000. More than a third receive public assistance to pay for basic necessities. (The challenges early education teachers face was recently the topic of a New York Times Magazine story.)

A state Senate report released last May found that it’s also difficult to keep early education programs open. In 2011, there were 11,824 such programs in Massachusetts. By 2016, 30 percent of them had closed. Turnover like this is a symptom of what economists refer to as market failure. With a few exceptions, the lack of broad public and private investment in early education has put the costs of running and improving these programs almost exclusively on parents and providers.

The long-term consequences of this are grave. From birth to age 5, children develop the foundation for lifelong success, and decades of research show that high quality early education is essential for children’s healthy development and school readiness. Most children in the U.S. under the age of 5 are cared for in child care centers, preschools, family child care, Head Start and programs in public schools. Many of these children spend between 40 and 50 hours each week in those settings and often over a period of several years. After their parents, early educators exercise the most influence on young children’s development and learning.

In Boston, we are relatively fortunate: 90 percent of our youngsters attend pre-kindergarten, a nation-leading statistic. We know not all of those programs are of high quality, a challenge Mayor Marty Walsh has said (most recently in his inaugural address) requires greater state investment. As a member of the mayor’s advisory committee on universal pre-K, I agree.

But I fear we are overlooking an obvious first step that must occur in tandem with increased public investment: more training for early educators in entrepreneurial leadership and innovation. When we fail to invest in and nurture talent in the field, we undermine any other efforts to strengthen it, including any efforts to increase compensation.

It’s hard to imagine improvements in health care or electronics manufacturing without leadership from doctors and engineers. There’s little reason to believe that we can fix the problems facing early childhood education without leadership from within.

Christine’s experience shows what’s possible with additional professional training in entrepreneurial leadership. And I can tell you, her accomplishments are not unusual. I know early educators who are advocating for policy changes on local and state commissions; implementing change at their schools to improve experiences for families; and running more profitable home-based childcare businesses. Prior to immersing themselves in leadership training all of them, like Christine, seriously considered leaving the field.

Think of what might be accomplished by scaling these individual stories of success. Early educators are our largest group of educators, comprising 30 percent of the teaching workforce from birth to post-secondary. With one-quarter of this workforce fluent in languages other than English and an estimated 40 percent comprised of women of color, early educators are also the most racially and linguistically diverse.

Their potential impact is immense: Over 2 million strong, these educators can be nation-builders, equipping and inspiring the next generation to do great things.

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Related:

Anne Douglass Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Anne Douglass is an associate professor of early care and education at UMass-Boston. Her latest book is "Leading For Change In Early Care And Education: Cultivating Leadership from Within."

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