Early childhood education is one of few issues that crosses the partisan divide. Federal Race to the Top funding encourages early childhood education funding and expansion, while liberal mayors such as Bill de Blasio and conservative governors such as Bruce Rauner all champion pre-K access.
As pre-K seats expand and are filled, the next step in ramping up early childhood education quality is defining the meaning of quality in the early childhood workforce. Catherine Main, senior lecturer and coordinator of the MEd Early Childhood Education program within the UIC College of Education, is leading statewide and national efforts to examine how to strengthen and support the early childhood workforce.
“We have spent a lot of effort and money in early childhood education focusing on the young children, but we haven’t always thought about the people working with the young children in a cohesive manner,” Main said. “Right now different systems have different competencies, standards and benchmarks for the workforce, so we need to move toward a cohesive system of competency-based qualifications for everyone working with young children and their families.”
In Illinois, Main is leading a task force funded through a grant by the McCormick Foundation to examine the Illinois early childhood workforce. The task force’s work is taking place in conjunction with national efforts led by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The NAS published a report on “Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation” and started a new program called Innovation to Incubation (i2I) composed of four statewide groups examining the workforce issue on the national level. The group is reviewing and analyzing the IOM recommendations for implementation in Illinois.
In February, Main and the Illinois team attended a series of meetings in Washington, D.C. with counterparts from Washington state, California, and the Capitol region comprising Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, starting work on a strategic plan to implement recommendations from the Transforming the Workforce report back in each state and region.
Main says the teams focused on connecting the many existing state initiatives on workforce to the IOM recommendations, but also brought to light the lack of coherent data systems and policies to study and support the current early childhood workforce. Given that the workforce is divided among traditional teachers, Head Start teachers, early childhood center employees and in-home caregivers, determining baseline metrics across these groups is challenging. In particular, these disparate groups often represent differing levels of educational attainment. For example, in Illinois, a Bachelor’s degree and a state teaching license is required for preschool educators in public schools, a bachelor’s degree only to work in Head Start centers, and a minimum of early childhood course hours in child care centers.
Main says she is excited for the possibility of developing shared competencies across Illinois for educators who work with young children, regardless of role or type of program. Teacher assistants, lead teachers and center directors could be hired and evaluated with consistency to better ensure equitable quality across the state.
By Rob Schroeder