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Are Policymakers and Advocates Reducing or Increasing Early Childhood Education’s Inequities?

February 21, 2018
Sherri Killins Stewart
New America

Frontline childcare providers are a critical, perhaps the most critical, ingredient in ensuring a high quality, high performing early childhood education (ECE) service delivery system. Inequities impact not only children but also their families and communities and the choices available to them for supporting children’s growth and development. Policymakers, advocates, and other decision makers have an obligation to acknowledge historical and current inequities that are influencing the effectiveness of policy decisions regarding the three topics covered in this series—providers’ preparation and education, their compensation and status, and the ECE field’s diversity and inclusivity. Otherwise, the ECE field is inadvertently undermining equitable opportunities for children and the adults who work with them.    

Policymakers at all levels of government share a near universal belief that the educational level of frontline childcare providers significantly improves the quality of children’s care and education. Based on this belief, many policymakers have set ambitious goals and established programs to support providers’ completion of higher education degrees. Many state legislatures have also passed laws or created policies requiring frontline providers to complete a bachelor’s degree in order to be licensed, receive increased compensation, or advance in their positions.

However, when I was Massachusetts’ Commissioner of Early Childhood Education, frontline childcare providers shared countless stories of their struggles to meet the challenges of work, family, and school. Almost to a person, they were proud of achieving a higher education certificate or degree; yet they saw little connection between this education and their daily work. Most also said their modest pay increases did little to compensate for long hours away from family and friends.

As policymakers, advocates, and other decision makers striving to advance frontline childcare providers’ formal education, we had assumed that given the supports offered, providers would be able to seamlessly and effortlessly integrate what they were learning into their interactions with children and families. In hindsight, though, this thinking was shortsighted. We lacked understanding of frontline providers’ programmatic, personal, and professional challenges. We needed better understanding of the dynamic interactions among providers’ preparation, education, and compensation, and the ECE field’s diversity and inclusivity.

These three issues cannot be addressed in isolation. To move forward on these issues, though, we have to move beyond false perceptions.