Unifying, Defining, and Owning the Profession

By Jacqueline Jones, PhD, President/CEO, The Foundation for Child Development

The past 10 years have seen unprecedented federal, state and local attention to the education and healthy development of young children. Government resources have been targeted to support such efforts as home visiting programs, high-quality preschool, research on the effectiveness of early learning and development programs, and teacher professional development. Yet there remains wide variability in the funding levels for these programs, the program components, and the competencies required of the early care and education professionals who are charged with program implementation.

In April of 2015 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation. This consensus study outlines the current science of child development, proposes a set of competencies for lead teachers who work with children across the age range of birth to 8 years, and provides a set of recommendations for achieving a unified workforce. I served as a member of the committee that drafted the report. The IOM report provides the field of early care and education with the scientific foundation to support a demand for rigorous teacher preparation, ongoing professional learning, and reasonable compensation for professionals in early learning and development programs.

This is a watershed moment because, at present, the requirements for lead teachers in early learning and development settings vary widely from state to state (and program-to-program within states), ranging from a high school diploma to a BA with a specified certification. At the heart of this variability is the fact that there is no nationally agreed upon set of competencies that define what early care and education professionals should know and be able to do. But who should make this determination? What body should define the professional field? This moment requires a level of cooperation and informed leadership that has not been the norm in early care and education. The fight for resources to improve the quality of and access to effective programs has resulted in a somewhat fractious community that is often divided by elements such as setting, age ranges, and domain of learning and development. The hard work of defining the profession requires leadership that can promote a united coalition of the major early care and education professional and membership organizations. How this work happens may be as important as the product of the effort. This is not a task for local, state, or federal government. It is not a time to look to Washington or to state and local government to create the vision and take the leadership to define the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that early care and education professionals should possess. Rather, this is a unique moment when the field has the opportunity to make a significant leap forward by using the IOM report’s synthesis of the current science and the proposed recommendations to finally define itself, demand appropriate compensation, and outline the critical elements for professional monitoring and accountability systems. If the profession will not own these elements, each reigning political perspective will continue to frame its own notions of early care and education–rather than having the science of child development serve as the consistent core of the field and as its unifying factor.

Local, state, and federal policy makers still have an important role. Government support will be needed to increase funding for implementing high-quality programs, support research, and facilitate greater coordination across its own programs. However, this work should be guided by professional standards that are developed and agreed upon by the field of early care and education. Unifying, defining, and owning the field of early care and education will not be an easy task. The need for real leadership has never been greater, but that leadership must come from within.


  1. The issues that have been highlighted in this article pertaining to the early childhood sector in the US are the exact same issues that pertain to the early childhood sector in Ireland. In seeking to address the issues, members and staff of the National Childhood Network have worked in recent months to consider and propose the knowledge and competencies required to work within the sector today. It will interesting to see if agreement can be reached between the various stakeholders in Ireland and how these might compare with those agreed in the US.

  2. Thank you, Jacqueline, for your work on the IOM study and the clear charge to our field that you lay out here.
    To my ECE colleagues, please join the conversations that have been started and use the guidebook, Professionalizing Early Childhood Education as a Field of Practice: A Guide to the Next Era by Stacie Goffin as a resource for hosting and facilitating conversations in your communities. We have such important work to do!

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