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Preschool Matters Today

Let’s Focus Less on ‘Leaders’ and More on Leadership


January 10, 2018
Anne L. Douglass and Stacie G. Goffin

Many of us tend to think of leadership as a formal position with a job title, such as school principal or center director. A recent NIEER news item focusing on a new Early Childhood Clearinghouse report, “Closing the Leadership Gap: 2017 Status Report on Early Childhood Program Leadership in the United States,” is a good example. In calling attention to the report, NIEER writes that past efforts to collect data on the early childhood education (ECE) workforce have “overlooked the field’s leaders”—center directors, principals, and family childcare providers.

It’s true that our workforce is often characterized as teachers, as if program administrators don’t exist. But when we talk about closing the leadership gap in ECE and limit ourselves to those who hold what typically are labeled as leadership roles, we are capping ECE’s potential.

Let’s still talk about administrators and directors, and be sure to include them in efforts to advance ECE’s workforce. But let’s also expand our understanding of and definitions for leadership. Without this shift, the leadership gap in our field is unlikely to change.

Leadership is a process for influencing positive change in ECE. Leaders in our field are not solely defined by their roles. They include frontline workers such as educators, center directors, and family child care providers alike—individuals who improve children’s and families’ lives and influence ECE’s capacity to deliver on its promise.

Leadership is not a job title. It’s something we do.

Multi-level, relational, and entrepreneurial leadership drives success within and across sectors, from business, military, health, and the public sector. Research in the K-12 education and social innovation sectors demonstrates that educator leadership can dramatically improve children’s learning, and educator leadership has the potential to reap similarly dramatic benefits in ECE. We have been inspired by what early educators can do when someone believes in their ideas, expertise, and capacity to improve ECE. This is why we need to re-envision what we mean by leadership and its development.

By confusing leadership with authority and focusing only on administrative positions, we are in danger of losing sight of the need for leadership development opportunities at every level of the ECE workforce, including higher education. Last November, one of us published a suggested list of guiding questions for the field to consider as it makes decisions that will impact the future of ECE.

Whether or not a change will “[e]levate the specialized knowledge, stature, and status of ECE teachers” is one of the recommendations to keep in mind. As we grapple with how to move ECE forward, we must recognize, embrace, and facilitate the leadership potential of ECE practitioners who possess unique expertise and knowledge from their daily interactions and relationships with young children and families. And we must ensure that change in ECE is driven by the real experts—early childhood educators.

Ultimately, our goals for ECE should expand beyond fixing uneven quality, low compensation, and talent retention. We should also be striving to create something new, different, and better for young children and the ECE workforce.

None of this is to suggest that we don’t have much to learn from the recent report about current demographic and educational data of our center directors, principals, and family childcare providers. Thanks to the Early Childhood Clearinghouse report, we now know that only nine of 40 administrator credentials require a minimum of an associate’s degree and only five states plus the District of Columbia require an associate’s degree of licensed child care directors. Of the degree programs available in early childhood education, there are 27 times more such programs designed for principals than center- or home-based directors and administrators.

As both of us have recently written, these uneven requirements are holding the field back. But the need to accelerate improvement and innovation in ECE is an equally urgent problem, and we will be much better off in the long run if our efforts recognize the leadership capacity of the entire ECE workforce. Organizational and systems change is most effective when it is driven by those who will be most affected by the change rather than by external forces.

We have found that early childhood educators who receive leadership training remain invested in ECE. Rather than leaving the field, they take on new responsibilities by starting their own early childhood education programs and schools, implementing innovative change at existing ones, advocating for policy and systems change, and advancing scholarship in the field. Once the power of this kind of entrepreneurial leadership is unleashed, ECE’s achievable possibilities are nearly endless.

Anne Douglass, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Early Care and Education at UMass Boston, and the founding executive director of the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation. Her latest book, Leading For Change In Early Care And Education: Cultivating Leadership from Within, was published in September.

Stacie Goffin is the Principal of the Goffin Strategy Group which develops early childhood education’s ability to offer effective programs and services to young children through leadership, capacity, and systems development. She has published several seminal publications that are propelling ECE toward becoming a recognized profession.