Our Insights

Reimagining ECE’s Approach to Change

This article draws from the authors’ new book Ready or Not: Early Care and Education’s Leadership Choices —12 Years Later.

Why has early childhood education (ECE) not yet achieved its desired level of impact? As authors, we’ve tried to tackle this question because since publication in 2007 of Ready or Not: Leadership Choices in Early Care and Education, little has changed in terms of the ECE field’s ability to help optimize children’s early learning and development. “Why?” we asked ourselves as we explored the field’s evolution during the ensuing 12 years. “Why is this so?” we asked, given the field’s increasingly sophisticated knowledge base, expanded public and private interest in ECE’s potential, and increased public and private investments.

While we’ve yet to arrive at a definitive answer to our questions, we’ve some conjectures and invite you to join with us in their exploration. In the absence of deeply exploring our lead question, we believe ECE is bypassing an opportunity to assess its limitations when it comes to effecting field-wide change and developing the knowledge and skills needed to confront its challenges.

Three conjectures, in particular, are helping us to make sense of ECE’s current predicament and to identify consequences resulting from lack of attention to a question hindering not only the field’s impact but also impairing its public image. Our contention is that these consequences are depressing ECE’s development as a field of practice, thwarting its intentions related to equity issues, and undermining efforts to develop a competent, well-respected ECE workforce. When grouped together, it’s hard to ignore the extent to which they help us understand why a desired level of impact has yet to be achieved despite the headwinds propelling the ECE field forward.

To a Hammer, Everything Is a Nail

During the past 12 years, the ECE field has expanded its focus beyond access and affordability, program quality, and staff compensation. Now it’s also tackling lack of alignment between and among discrete early childhood and ECE policies, insufficient coherence and coordination between and among the field’s program sectors, and inadequate preparation of early childhood educators. After identifying problems associated with each of these concerns, the field has aggressively developed a multitude of ambitious infrastructure-focused initiatives for fixing them.

For sure, progress has resulted from these discrete fixes. But in the absence of bringing systemic thinking, adaptive leadership, and field-wide capacity development to bear, these efforts have fallen short of their ambitions, with the unintended consequence of intensifying the field’s challenges, complexifying ECE’s systemic inadequacies, and lessening the field’s cohesion. In other words, the field’s current “fix it” approach to its challenges, despite intentions to the contrary, is not creating the systemic cohesion desired.

Eating Our Own: Vested Interests Now Extend Beyond ECE’s Program Sectors

We would suggest that the unanticipated consequences we’re identifying result from the field’s lack of clarity regarding its purpose and insufficient attention to its collective responsibilities to children regardless of program sector. Neglecting these field-wide issues has resulted in the ECE field becoming increasingly fragmented, complicated to understand and repair, and powered by external change agents such as philanthropists, civic leadership, and state and federal policy makers.

The result is a field overcrowded with private and publicly supported national initiatives, state department projects attempting to coordinate and strengthen efforts that earmark children’s school readiness, and an explosion of professional development opportunities for ECE practitioners that are of unknown effectiveness. It shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that competition within the ECE field between and among its initiatives is escalating.

Energies are being directed to promoting the successful execution and evaluations of these initiatives at national, state, and local levels. In the process, ECE’s field-wide leadership capacity is increasingly splintered, and the field’s limited resources are being both stretched and diluted, marginalizing the field’s ability to rectify field-wide needs such as equitable access to higher education, increased compensation aligned with staff qualifications, and strong ECE programs not just for some children but for all. Consequently, to thrive, organization and agency executives and staff are having to attend to their vested self-interests rather than coming together as a collective to address the field’s overarching systemic and adaptive needs — needs that involve greater risk because of their ambiguity, complexity, uncertainty, and messiness. Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, initiatives past and present, despite their apparent clarity of purpose and execution, are too often letting us down and unintentionally accelerating ECE’s developmental inertia.

Where’s the Power to the People?

Despite growing recognition of and attention to the ECE workforce, the voices of early childhood educators are largely absent from the decisions and execution of the burgeoning number of national, state, and local initiatives referenced above. At best, they are given opportunities to react to ideas under consideration. More often, though, they are the targets of these efforts, neither their initiators not their co-creators.

Yet ECE cannot cohere as a field of practice without engaging with the early childhood educators who directly interact with young children with the explicit intent to foster early learning and development. It cannot flourish as a competent field of practice nor can it step forward to assume responsibility for its practices, much less public accountability, unless early childhood educators are brought to the forefront as change agents whose practice and leadership expertise is compatible with what’s expected from them.

Typically, we authors find the term empowerment a turn-off since, as is often glibly expressed, the power to step forward exists within each of us. However, answering the question of “Why has ECE not yet achieved its desired level of impact?” requires us to acknowledge how the field has, in fact, disempowered its educators — and in this instance we’re not referring to the compensation issue, though systemically, it’s certainly a part of the puzzle.

ECE’s most visible change efforts too often are populated and directed by national, state, and local organizations whose executives often bring limited on-the-ground experience as classroom educators or as practitioners engaged with the field’s infrastructure activities. More often than not, the field’s change initiatives turn to decision-making/power structures that position those primarily being impacted as reactors rather than as partners, and certainly not as drivers for change.

Reassessing ECE’s Approach to Change

As a field, ECE heavily relies upon a problem-solving, fix-it approach to its challenges. And even though the phrase “system building” is ubiquitous, systemic thinking is rarely paired with it. Nor is adaptive work, which is essential to effecting systems change. As a result, the ECE field’s development is being impeded.

ECE is a field of such potential. But for its potential to be realized, those of us embedded in it need to acknowledge the unintended consequences of its preferred technical and hierarchical approach to change. If our collective ambitions for ECE as a field of practice are to be realized, our customary approach to change needs to be reimagined.



Stacie Goffin is principal of the Goffin Strategy Group. It promotes effective programs and services for young children through leadership, capacity, and systems development. Goffin is the author of several seminal publications, including Ready or Not: Leadership Choices in Early Care and Education (with Valora Washington); Early Childhood Education for a New Era: Leading for Our Profession; and the recently released Professionalizing Early Childhood Education as a Field of Practice: A Guide to the Next Era (Redleaf Press, 2015). She also is the series editor for Moving Beyond False Choices, a New America blog series.

Valora Washington is chief executive officer of the Council for Professional Recognition and founder of the CAYL Institute in Massachusetts.


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, conducts and disseminates independent research and analysis to inform early childhood education policy.