Raising the Bar for Early Education

May 28, 2014

Is early education and care a profession or not? The debate has dogged the field for decades. Positions taken by the workforce and organizations representing their interests seldom come to full agreement in scenarios reminiscent of the “tastes great; less filling” debates. This in-fighting, often played out between public pre-K, Head Start, and child care, does not center around the acknowledged value of the workforce’s intentions, efforts or contributions; rather, it stems from the field’s failure to consider what actually qualifies as a profession and its willingness to take it to the next level. Too often, terms such as “job,” “occupation,” and “career” are used interchangeably with “profession,” only clouding the issue.

Sociologist Byrne Horton (1944) provides an interesting lens to examine the issue. Based on an analysis of characteristics found across professions, his “Ten Criteria or Earmarks of a Genuine Profession”[i] contend, that a profession must:

  1. Satisfy an indispensable social need and be based upon well­ established and socially acceptable scientific principles.

    Even stock photos make it clear: this job is tough. But is it a "profession?"

    Even stock photos make it clear: this job is tough. But is it a “profession?”

  2. Demand adequate pre-professional and cultural training.
  3. Demand a body of specialized and systematized knowledge.
  4. Give evidence of needed skills that the general public does not possess.
  5. Have developed a scientific technique that is the result of tested experience.
  6. Require the exercise of discretion and judgment as to the time and manner of the performance of duty .
  7. Be a type of beneficial work, the result of which is not subject to standardization in terms of unit performance or time element.
  8. Have a group consciousness designed to extend scientific knowledge in technical language.
  9. Have sufficient self-impelling power to retain its members throughout life. It must not be used for a mere steppingstone to other occupations.
  10. Recognize its obligations to society by insisting that its members live up to an established and accepted code of ethics.

Other sociologists and scholars (Katz, 1985; Moore, 1970; Rich, 1984) have echoed Horton’s criteria.

Obviously, for early childhood teachers, we can check off some of the above. The commitment to expanding a scientific knowledge base for early education is burgeoning and the work addresses an indispensable social need. Based on all the criteria, however, I’d be hard-pressed to issue a resounding “Yes” if asked whether the field of early education and care currently qualifies as a profession.

Many of Horton’s criteria, particularly those addressing professional training and knowledge, are not uniformly expected, met, or enforced across our field. In a field where high school graduates lacking adequate pre-professional training or specialized knowledge work immediately and independently on par with others who have invested years in specialized training and degrees, we have a problem.  When people enter the field without knowledge and skills beyond that of the general public, we have a problem. With a track record of high attrition confirming our field’s inability to retain its members throughout life – due in part to demanding responsibilities for which they were not prepared and low compensation – we have a problem. Let’s be honest: as a result of a well-meaning effort to open a wide early education and care umbrella inviting all comers with and without qualification, our field fails to meet requisite criteria to be recognized as a profession. The lowest common denominator defines our field and as such we stumble in advancing as a profession. More important, we do a disservice to children, families, and colleagues.

A profession establishes the gate through which only qualified and competent individuals may enter to provide service. We have too many gates lacking uniform standards of quality. The NIEER 2012 State of Preschool Yearbook reported only 30 publicly-funded preschool programs in 25 states require lead teachers to have a BA; New York requires a Master’s degree. Programs in 4 states (Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, one program in Vermont) did not require lead teachers to have either a BA or specialized training in pre-K. Several state-funded pre-K programs operating in partnership with community-based child care programs permit lead teachers to have high school degrees or certificates, creating an uneven professional field within the same state or community.  Head Start has made tremendous strides in advancing the qualifications and skills of its teaching corps, surpassing ambitious targets through a combination of policy and support. Alternate pathways are made possible for para-professionals who commit to becoming professionals. Years in the field may provide valuable experience, but if not systematically approached to attain knowledge and skills well beyond those held by the general public, such experience may simply reinforce unprofessional or ineffective behaviors.

In Early Childhood Education for a New Era: Leading for Our Profession, Stacie Goffin portrays early education and care as a field of practice where reform is driven by external and internal forces, arguing that we need to assume responsibility for elevating and accelerating internal change. Speaking at the Maryland Department of Education Research Forum (January 2014), she warned “(v)oluntary strategies (are) not leading to practitioners collectively capable of competent practice” and that change must come from the “inside out.” I agree. As a profession, we must hold ourselves to high standards of excellence and accountability, not justifications for mediocrity. The gauntlet has been thrown.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the need for adequate resources to elevate early education and care as a profession. Each of Horton’s 10 criteria has an associated price tag if an indispensable social need is to be addressed by knowledgeable, skillful, effective professionals who remain committed and supported throughout their professional lives. Parents cannot be expected to carry the full price any more than we can expect the children. As columnist Thomas Friedman said in a recent interview, “If we will the end, we must also will the means.” States, communities, business, and the federal government need to step up.

Certainly, we are further along the path to being recognized and valued as a profession, but now is not the time to rest. Until the field of early education and care comes to agreement on criteria for its “profession” and commits to meeting exemplary standards differentiating it from a “job” or “occupation,” we are destined to be viewed by the public as a lesser profession and reap commensurate benefits. It’s time for us to raise the bar.

– Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow

[i] B. J. Horton. (1944). Ten criteria or earmarks of a genuine profession. Scientific Monthly, (58), p. 164.

Readiness and Opportunity Gaps in Early Education, 60 Years After Brown v. Board of Ed

May 19, 2014

Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal, and marking a major step forward in the Civil Rights movement. Yet 60 years later, equal access to high quality education remains a significant issue, and nowhere more so than in the preschool years.

A new report posted at the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) describes readiness and opportunity gaps in access to high quality early education, reporting that access to quality “is highly unequal, despite the extent to which public policy at federal and state levels targets disadvantaged children. In part, this is because targeted programs too often are not high quality. Also, targeting is not as effective in reaching disadvantaged populations as policymakers naively assume.”kids learning 3

“Inequality of opportunity for good early education is a particular concern for African American, Hispanic, and non-English-speaking children,” conclude the authors, Milagros Nores and Steve Barnett (NIEER and CEELO). The brief includes a description of readiness gaps at kindergarten, opportunity gaps in early education that may contribute to the kindergarten readiness gap, access to care arrangements for young children, and the impact of state pre-K policy on child outcomes.

NIEER has covered promoting access to quality preschool for Black children in our blog, and in a paper on Equity and Excellence for African American children, and the National Journal recently featured an article on discrimination starting as early as preschool.

In discussing this anniversary, President Obama has no
that “Brown v. Board of Education shifted the legal and moral compass of our Nation,” yet  “the hope and promise of Brown remains unfulfilled” in education. Preschool, especially high quality preschool supported by states, could provide a strong opportunity to begin fulfilling that promise before children even start kindergarten.

Fact Checker–Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

May 16, 2014

Apparently oblivious to irony, Chester “Checker” Finn attacked the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), NIEER, and the State of Preschool Yearbook last week in a blog titled “Now you’re entitled to your own facts, too.” His blog relies heavily on innuendo and insinuation, topped off by outright error, to try to kill the messenger in advance of the message. It seems Checker has lost his way when it comes to evaluating research and really does believe that he is entitled to his own facts. In this post, I review the facts to set the record straight.

The key facts are these: NIEER is a research unit of Rutgers–the State University of New Jersey; the NCES contract with Rutgers/NIEER for data collection on state pre-K is perfectly legitimate and the contracting process was completely above board; the data we collected for NCES are entirely trustworthy (see the report); and, NCES did not pay for NIEER to put out an independent report of our own. Checker cites not one fact that supports his claims to the contrary. He does, however, engage in considerable name-calling–his blog is replete with terms like “Chicken Little,” and “hotbeds of passionate advocacy” (slightly racy that one: students interested in a career in survey research should know it is not all that exciting). Let’s look at his claims and the facts in more detail.

When attacking NIEER as an advocacy organization, Checker recommends that readers read NIEER’s vision statement to see if NIEER “looks like a neutral source of factual data.” Please do. You will find that NIEER seeks to provide “independent, research-based advice and technical assistance to policymakers, journalists, researchers, and educators.” We “monitor and evaluate national and state progress toward early educational excellence.” NIEER also “conducts and communicates research to support high-quality, effective early childhood education for all young children.” Keeping in mind that parents are a child’s first and most important teachers, the only specific features of early education endorsed by our vision statement are that it be “high-quality,” “effective,” and informed by research. Beyond the shared vision that our research should support good early learning experiences for children from birth through age 8, NIEER does not as an organization have “a” view. As NIEER is a unit of Rutgers, every researcher at NIEER has the academic freedom to express her or his own views, and responsibility for the views in each publication ultimately resides with the authors.

Why did NCES contract with NIEER to collect survey data on state pre-K?  The straightforward answer is because these data are valuable and would not have been collected otherwise. Data collection efforts that seek to make their results available to everyone at no cost encounter a classic free-rider problem that typically is solved through government support. So when NCES approached us about funding the data collection, we were delighted. NCES not only provides a disinterested funding source, their independent review process also strengthens the survey, and NCES funding enabled us for the first time to prepare a public use data set that will be accessible to anyone through the NCES website soon.

Given the capacity we had developed over a decade to collect the data, NCES concluded that it would be more efficient to fund NIEER to collect the data than to conduct the survey themselves, and that our readiness to do so would prevent an interruption in the data series. The contracting process was public, and followed standard procedures, including an extensive public comment period. I encourage everyone to read the official notice as well as all of the public comments and NCES responses, rather than just accept what Checker says.

The 2012-2013 state pre-K survey, data, and report for NCES meet all standards and guidelines set forth in the most currently available publication of the NCES Statistical Standards, and amendments implemented since that time. These products were subject to an extensive and rigorous NCES review process. In addition, it is noteworthy that the source of the survey data is state government, and the data collection process requires that states verify the accuracy of their responses as we have reported them before they are published.

Checker can’t point to any errors in the NCES report.  He faults the NCES report because it “doesn’t say anything about how many [statewide pre-school programs] are skimpy offerings … with little or no curriculum and scant evidence of learning outcomes” and “doesn’t say anything about whether whatever short-term gains they manage to produce are sustained….”   And, rightly so, as such NCES reports are supposed to focus on the data collected without commentary, and the survey data do not support Checker’s claims. In sum, he is complaining that the NCES report is “reprehensible” because it sticks to the facts and does not promote his advocacy agenda by making claims that cannot be substantiated with the data in the report.

Finally, I turn to NIEER’s own The State of Preschool Yearbook 2013, which Checker falsely claims was funded by NCES. It was not. If he had read it, he would know that, but he chose to criticize the report before it was published. As it is ours, we can go beyond the tightly limited NCES report. We still do not make unsubstantiated claims, but we can cite other data to contextualize the results, list states in rank order for enrollment and funding, compare state policies to benchmarks and each other, examine change over an entire decade, raise questions, and offer policy recommendations.

If Checker had read our Yearbook, he also would know that our report does not (as he suggests) give states an easy pass, equate their programs with the Perry Preschool or other exemplary models, or fail to express a concern for observable classroom quality and effectiveness. Here are 3 examples from the Executive Summary:

  • More than half a million children, or 41 percent of nationwide enrollment, were served in programs that met fewer than half of the quality standards benchmarks.
  • It is possible that most children served by state pre-K attend programs where funding per child is inadequate to fund a quality early education.
  • States should collect data on the quality of teaching practices in their pre-K classrooms from a sufficient sample to assess how frequently good quality is provided, and to assess the strengths and weaknesses of current services.

As John Adams observed, “facts are stubborn things.” No one is entitled to mislead others or make up their own facts, but as we have found to our dismay some will try. That is precisely why NIEER collects and disseminates data to bring greater transparency and accountability to public policy, and to provide a common factual basis for policy debates regardless of one’s position on the issues. – Steve Barnett, NIEER Director

2013 State Preschool Yearbook Finds Need for Renewed Investment

May 13, 2014

Today NIEER released its 2013 State Preschool Yearbookat CentroNía/DC Bilingual Public Charter School in D.C. This newest installment of the Yearbook series covers policies, enrollment, and funding for state-funded pre-K programs in the 2012-2013 school year. Joining NIEER Director Steve Barnett at the event were Myrna Peralta, President/CEO of CentroNía; Roberto Rodriguez of the White House Domestic Policy Council; and Rob Dugger of ReadyNation/America’s Edge

Yearbook 2013

Click for the full report.

This year’s report found states still struggling to recover from the economic downturn that did so much damage to preschool programs in the previous year. As Barnett noted, “Our nation has emerged from the recession, but preschool-age children are being left to suffer its effects. A year ago, our data showed a half-billion-dollar cut in funding for state pre-K and stalled enrollment. For 2012-2013, we find that enrollment is down and funding per child, while up slightly, remains stalled at near-historic lows.”

Particularly of concern, the report found that:

  • In 2012-2013, enrollment decreased by about 9,000 4-year-olds from the prior year across the 40 states plus D.C.[1] that offer pre-K. This is the first enrollment decrease nationally NIEER has observed.
  • Slightly more than 1.3 million children attended state-funded pre-K, 1.1 million of them at age 4, accounting for four percent of 3-year-olds and 28 percent of 4-year-olds.
  • On the plus side, 20 states increased enrollment while 11 states reduced enrollment.
  • One program improved against NIEER’s Quality Standards Benchmarks, while two fell back.
  • Also good news, for the first time, every state-funded pre-K program had comprehensive early learning standards. This is first of the quality standards benchmarks to be met by all.
  • Four states, plus one of Louisiana’s three programs, met all 10 benchmarks for state pre-K quality standards, the same as in the previous year. This remains down from the peak of five states in 2010-11. Weak program standards persist in too many states, including lax standards for teacher qualifications in 23 programs and no limits on class size and/or teacher child ratio in a few large states–California, Florida and Texas.
  • Total state funding for pre-K programs increased by $30 million in real dollars, about a 1 percent increase.
  • State pre-K funding per child increased by $36 (inflation-adjusted) from the previous year, to $4,026.
  • Only 15 states could be verified as providing enough per-child funding to meet all 10 benchmarks for quality standards. As only 19 percent of the children enrolled in state-funded pre-K attend those programs, it seems likely that most children served by state pre-K attend programs where funding per child is inadequate to provide a quality education.

Dugger, whose organization supports the business case for early childhood education, put the report’s findings in context to America’s economic future. “The most important product the American economy produces are ready-for-life 18-year-olds,” he said. “The US cannot retain organic growth….unless it invests in its children in the early years.”

NIEER Director Steve Barnett & Roberto Rodriguez of the White House Domestic Policy Council read to children at CentroNía/DC Bilingual Public Charter School .

NIEER Director Steve Barnett & Roberto Rodriguez of the White House Domestic Policy Council read to children at CentroNía/DC Bilingual Public Charter School .

Rodriguez, of the Domestic Policy Council, highlighted federal/state partnership efforts underway, including $250 million for preschool development grants as well as $500 million to build Early Head Start/Child Care partnerships. He called increased investment in early childhood education “one of the most important things we can do as a country,” and called on governors, mayors, philanthropists, and policymakers to work together to prioritize this investment.

The report covers the most recently completed school year, 2012-2013. Trends may be looking up since then. Many states have recently made pre-K a priority in the time since that school year ended, with new initiatives passing in Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont, just this month and a doubling of state pre-K investment in Alabama over the last two years. New York provides a particular model for state-local collaboration, as leaders at all levels of government came together to prioritize early learning. These stories are a cause for optimism, and action: “If ever there were a time for leaders at the local, state, and national levels to unite in their efforts to provide high-quality preschool education to our next generation, this is it,” Barnett said.

Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, called for just such participation on a media call discussing the Yearbook. “We just need Congress to catch up and pay attention to what is happening in the real world,” he said. Duncan added:

“Today, nationally, as the NIEER Yearbook shows, fewer than 30 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschool programs, and 10 states still do not offer it at all. Sadly, we’re 25th among industrialized countries in enrollment of 4-year-olds in early learning. If we’re going to lead in the global economy, we must do better – in countries like Germany and Japan, more than 95 percent of 4-year olds are enrolled in early childhood education. Quality early education can be a game-changer for the kids who need the most support.  It’s good for them and their families, and for our country’s long-term economic success.  Ultimately, it’s an investment in our collective future.”

The full Yearbook report can be found at here, along with state-specific information pages. Join the conversation on Twitter by tweeting @PreschoolToday and using the hashtag #YB2013.


[1] For the sake of comparison, the District of Columbia will be referred to as a “state” throughout this report. Hence, a total of 41 states provide state-funded pre-K.

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