This guest post comes from Abbie Lieberman, policy analyst at New America.
Last month, the federal government passed an omnibus spending bill to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, and it contained welcome news for early education stakeholders. Federal programs like the Child Care and Development Block Grant and Head Start, which expand access to early education and care, saw meaningful boosts. However, there is a long way to go to ensure that all young children, birth through age 8, have access to opportunities that set them on the path for success in kindergarten and beyond.
But there is no need to wait on the federal government to give the green light; much of the work that remains can be accomplished at the state level. States have an essential role in ensuring that all children, especially the most vulnerable, have access to high-quality early education. To help policymakers outline priorities and next steps, they can refer to three recently published resources on strengthening the quality of and access to early education:
- Initiatives From Preschool to Third Grade, Education Commission of the States
- Top 10 Early Childhood Ideas for States in 2018, Center for American Progress (CAP)
- A Fair Start: Ensuring all Students Are Ready to Learn, National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL)
One policy area that stands out in all three is strengthening the early childhood workforce. There is a great deal of research showing that access to early care and education impacts children’s success, but realizing this promise depends on the quality of services. A well-prepared and supported workforce is an essential component of quality, and many of the policy recommendations put forth in these reports depends on a skilled workforce.
Both Education Commission of the States and NCSL explain the importance of P-3 teachers having a strong understanding of child development and early learning. Education Commission of the States points to broad licensing structures as a potential barrier. Pennsylvania, for example, recently created a P-4 license and a 4-8 license to minimize overlap between grades and to tailor content to children’s development. NCSL suggests states develop an early childhood education credential or certification for teacher and principals working with P-3 students.
Both Education Commission of the States and NCSL explain that leaders are often responsible for hiring, supporting and evaluating staff who work directly with young students, and thus need to know what teaching and learning should look like in the early years. New America’s 50-state scan presents an overview of how states are currently supporting early education leaders and offers recommendations for more targeted preparation and professional learning.
CAP’s recommendations focus more on educators and caregivers of children from birth to age five. These educators need similar knowledge and competencies to those working in the early grades, but they have unique challenges. Their qualification requirements vary dramatically — they may not be required to have any relevant formal education or training — and their compensation levels are significantly lower. Low wages make it challenging to pursue higher education and to recruit and retain well-prepared educators. Both CAP and NCSL offer recommendations for ways to address compensation, which will likely require substantial public investment.
It’s an election year, and with 36 upcoming gubernatorial races, there is an opportunity for state policymakers to set priorities around early education. After all, a strong majority of voters across party lines support investing in early education and care. As young children learn through their interactions with adults, it’s important that meaningful reform in early education include the workforce.