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Getting the Workforce Priorities Right – Putting Equal Focus on Directors

The Brief

We are missing the mark if we exclusively focus on degree requirements for teachers and ignore the role and preparedness of directors and managers.

In a recent blog, “Moving Beyond the Degree Debate”, we urged the early care and education field to move beyond the debate over degrees and focus on the root cause of the shortfalls of our workforce: a lack of funding. This lack of funding prevents the field from supporting the workforce in attaining higher levels of education. Early educators who nonetheless find a way to attain higher education and higher credentials are met with a system unable to compensate them commensurate with those experiences. The truth is, the current shortfalls in funding prevent us from paying for degrees and other critical professional development activities like practice-based coaching and early childhood mental health consultation, and often stand in the way of paying teachers what they are worth. In fact, the median wage of child care providers is so low that they are eligible for food stamps, or SNAP, in every single state in the country.

As we move forward to secure adequate funding to prop up our workforce and support our children, are we asking the right questions about workforce education and compensation? Is it time to rethink the priorities? If we only focus on teachers and providers, we miss an entire group of people in the profession who in many cases, dictate what teachers and providers do and how they do it?early childhood program directors and managers.

Having both managed early childhood programs in the past and been responsible for overseeing them, I feel secure in saying that quality begins at the top. Leadership matters. Good early childhood teachers do not stay when directors are weak, just as good public-school teachers are unlikely to stay when schools’ principals are weak. I have yet to see a strong program with a weak leader.

Research from the National Academies of Sciences supports these observations. Their 2015 report Transforming the Workforce for Children from Birth through Age 8 addressed the critical role of leadership in early childhood programs and noted the important role it plays in all aspects of a program- from recruitment and evaluation of teachers and selection of curricula and evaluation tools, to business management, and health and safety practices. The report states that the importance of program leadership is “unequivocal.” Still, their research found that “education and certification requirements are inconsistent across states, credentialing is largely voluntary and the current standards and expectations are insufficient for the knowledge and competencies needed for instructional leadership in learning environments for young children.”

According to a report released by the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership, the vast majority of public school principals are required to have a graduate degree in educational leadership and teaching experience. Juxtapose that against early childhood where only one state, New Jersey, requires directors of early childhood centers to have even a bachelor’s degree. In fact, only five states (Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island) and the District of Columbia require an associate degree for child care directors working in a licensed setting.

We are missing the mark if we exclusively focus on degree requirements for teachers and ignore the role and preparedness of directors and managers. We know that a director’s ability to recruit and retain highly skilled teachers is directly related to their own skills and knowledge. A director’s level of formal education is a strong predictor of overall program quality. Directors with higher levels of education and program administration skills are more likely to support the professional development of their teaching staff and achieve center accreditation

Managing early childhood programs is challenging and requires skills beyond an understanding of child development, which few programs directors come to the position with. Though approximately 90 percent of directors of early childhood education programs have been classroom teachers, only one in five report that they actively pursued an administrative position. This mismatch in skills results in many program administrators entering the work ill-prepared for their new roles. According to one study, only 27 percent of directors stated that they were well prepared for their new administrative role and half found the transition to be overwhelming. Another study found that most new directors acknowledge that they are least prepared for the challenges of fiscal management.

So what do we do about this issue? Once again, states should consider the lessons learned from the military child care system. In the Military Child Care Act of 1989, Congress not only required the Defense Department to implement a training program for all child care employees, but required at least one training and curriculum specialist with the appropriate credentials and experience be hired for each center. The department went on to require that training and curriculum specialists and all program directors, both for child development centers and family child care systems, have at least a bachelor’s degree in early childhood or a related field.

We could also look more seriously at apprenticeships as a way to improve management and leadership skills. In our recent report, A Bipartisan Case for Early Childhood Development, we called for the Department of Labor to develop a child care apprenticeship program that focuses on improving the competency and skills of child care program managers and directors and provides a pathway for child care directors to obtain higher skill levels in the areas of business and human resource management.

Because of the robust association between the quality of administrative practices and the quality of the staff and of children’s learning environments, directors and leaders must be a more integral part of the professional development conversation. Now is the time to build the necessary skills for both directors and teachers. As the military’s child care system demonstrates, one without the other is shortsighted and will not enable us to achieve our goals: competent directors, competent teachers, and safe and healthy children, who are learning and ready to excel in school and beyond.

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