EARLY EDUCATORS’ SKILLS, KNOWLEDGE, AND WELL-BEING are inseparable from the quality of children’s early learning experiences, yet our system of preparing, supporting, and rewarding early educators in the United States remains largely ineffective, inefficient, and inequitable. While a major goal of early childhood services has been to relieve poverty among children, many of these same efforts continue to generate poverty in the early care and education (ECE) workforce, who are predominantly female, ethnically and racially diverse, and often have children of their own. Inadequate levels of public financing and heavy reliance on families to cover the costs of ECE services render professional pay for early educators unattainable.
As stated in Transforming the Financing of Early Care and Education, a consensus report issued by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine in 2018: “The deficiencies in the current system are hurtful to all children and families in need of ECE options and the adults who are ECE practitioners and educators — who are themselves often in extreme economic distress.” Acknowledging that “for too long the nation has been making do with ECE policies and systems that were known to be broken,” the report calls for a new national financing structure for early care and education. The report establishes a broad consensus among researchers, policymakers, and practitioners that ECE for children from birth to kindergarten entry should be funded as a public good, equivalent to K-12; it then provides a national cost model illustrating the steps needed to meet the reforms envisioned by the 2015 report, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation and makes additional recommendations to support the workforce and to provide affordable services for parents. With the National Academies’ 2018 report, the conversation has finally shifted.
To date, however, most efforts to improve both access and quality have amounted to no more than tinkering around the edges. Most of the recent conversation about reform has focused on “transforming the workforce” by transforming early educators themselves via human capital development (education, training, professional development). This conversation has not focused on the root issue: the need to transform early childhood jobs and finance the wider ECE system in which early educators practice in order to improve access and quality.
In the two years since our the Index was released, there have been notable, but uneven, strides in improving the education and training levels of the ECE workforce. As in the past, efforts to link these improvements to policies and resources that address teachers’ economic well-being have been largely optional, selective, and temporary. They have not translated evenly to federal policies or funding priorities across programs, nor have they necessarily prompted state actions. Furthermore, the current system reflects gender, class, racial, and cultural inequities that exist across U.S. institutions, and it breeds inequities that directly reflect policy and resource decisions in the early childhood field. The time is long overdue to move from the question of why our nation must improve early childhood jobs to a focus on how to make it happen.