Shifting the Paradigm of ECE Professionalism

I started the new year re-reading David Kirp’s Kids First, an immodest proposal  for changing children’s trajectories in our dear U.S. of A., a country that pays lip service to mother, apple pie, and family values, but doesn’t walk the talk.  As I glided through his chapters, with their vivid descriptions of early learning settings and the professionals who staff them, I came upon the “B” word:  “Babysitting,” that is.   Kirp, of course, was referring to other people’s perceptions of the work of early childhood educators.   But talk about pushing my buttons.

In a nanosecond, I was back at the battle between Jon Corzine and Chris Christie for the governor’s seat in New Jersey.  “He’s still putting in money for universal pre-K, because he’s decided that the government should babysit for children?” huffed the Republican challenger, now state CEO, captured for posterity, in a Corzine ad, on You Tube.  And I still hadn’t recovered from Iowa caucus winner Rick Santorum’s rant last summer. “They want your children from the womb so they can indoctrinate your children,” he railed at the public library in Perry.  Note the redundancy—italics mine—lest we miss his point, aimed right at the proverbial gut.

It’s no secret that the work of caring for and educating our youngest children is devalued.  [Check out “(Not) Valuing Care: A Review of Recent Popular Economic Reports on Early Ed in the U.S.,”  by Cornell professor Mildred Warner, who explores the role of human services in economic development.]  Historically relegated to mothers, perennial objects of love and scorn, ECE work is a Rorschach test for America’s mightily mixed feelings about women, children, gender equity, and the role of government in the oh-so-intimate realm of the family.  Combine those feelings with the evidence—the majority of women with children under five in the workforce, the dizzying pace of brain development in the earliest years,  the incontrovertible knowledge that school readiness begins in infancy —and you’ve got one combustible mix.

I know, I know, we’ve evolved with all of this; we can point to bucket loads of progress, as I routinely do.  But even as the Committee for Economic Development, the Partnership for Economic Success (now part of America’s Promise Alliance), and the indefatigable James Heckman continue to drive home the tremendous economic benefits of ECE, and the federal government boosts system-building in the early end of the ed spectrum, we keep butting up against all this deep, ugly stuff.

I just tuned into a recent conversation about professionalism on BAM Radio Network  with ECE teacher educators and authors Stephanie Feeney and Sue Martin, and the Hechinger Report’s Sarah Garland.  “There are many who claim that the early childhood field—especially where caregiving is concerned—does not meet the criteria for professionalism,” declared moderator Rae Pica.  Feeney’s answer speaks volumes about the disconnect between the reality of early childhood education and external perceptions of the work. “Well I claim that,” she said.  But, here are the broader, arguably more relevant, questions she posed: Do we serve society? Do we do important work? Does this work require knowledge and skills?  Feeney answers all of those question in the affirmative, of course.  And her conclusion?  “We must behave as professionals, whether or not we are regarded by society as professionals.”

Teacher quality, effectiveness, and accountability are—for better and for worse—the hot-button issues of education reform today.  As federal funding continues to bring early childhood educators into the inner circle, these issues cannot be pushed aside.  In the quest for quality and better outcomes, ECE professionals are, and will continue to be, under greater scrutiny.  But for far too long, early childhood educators have internalized the value judgments of others.  It’s more than time to shift the paradigm—to define yourselves and your work on your own terms, and to insert your knowledge and voices into the larger arena of education reform. 

To start, think about joining the conversation at the New America Foundation, Watching Teachers Work: Using Data from Classroom Observations to Improve Teaching, on January 26.   This is a case of ECE leading the way, strutting its stuff, and an opportunity to inform the contentious debates about teacher evaluation—coming your way, soon.

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