“Right now, if you major in early childhood, the projections are you will have the lowest lifetime earnings of any college graduate. We have to flip that on its head.”
Interview with Marcy Whitebook
Director & Senior Researcher
Center for the Study of Child Care Employment
Institute for Research on Labor and Employment
by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks
Marcy Whitebook, Ph.D., joined the Institute and established the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment in 1999, as a researcher focusing on issues of employment in settings for young children, the relationship between good jobs and the quality of services available to children and families, and appropriate and accessible professional preparation for teachers. The Center recently published a brief, Early Childhood Higher Education: Taking Stock Across the States.
Steven: How did you begin your career in early learning?
Marcy: Well, I was a Head Start volunteer. The first two summers of Head Start I was still in high school, and I loved it. Then when I finished college, I had been thinking a lot about development and I didn’t major in development in college, but I was thinking a lot about poverty and development and the role of women and women going back to work. So I thought, well good childcare, which is what we called it then (the 1970s when I graduated from college), is sort of the key to a lot of this. We can help children get off to a good start – we didn’t have that language then. We can help women work and also be connected to their children and their families. It just seemed to me like this was a good place to put my energy. I decided I’m going to be a teacher – we called them nursery school teachers then – and I thought that’s what I’m going to do so that’s how I got started.
My first job was in a childcare center and basically I didn’t have to have any qualifications. They just were like whoa, you worked in Head Start. Great! Can you come work here? And it became obvious to me very quickly in that experience that I did not know what I was doing. I was like “Wow, this is hard.” I knew how to clean kids’ faces, but I thought this seems complicated. The kids seem similar but different. How do I really do this? And I had some good mentors, people who were trained. Then, I went to school. I thought “oh I’m going to take classes” because this is complicated and everybody thinks it’s easy. The more I got into it I realized the more complicated it was and the more I needed to understand about development, how children develop similarly and differently and then what was the right way to provide experiences for children that help them go to wherever the next place was. But very early on I went “Gee, we’re not getting any money for doing this.” My other friends were going to enter the medical profession or to do different things. And I’m thinking this is ridiculous how little we are paid, but I was also really upset by how we didn’t have time to plan, there was a lot of turnover, and all the things that became my career really. We weren’t being treated like teachers of older children, and that was problematic for doing the job well. I figured that out pretty early in the experience, and because I was a young person with a goal of making the world a better place, I thought okay we’re going to fix this.
Steven: Can you talk about how teacher preparation and support for that early childhood education workforce is important for early learning?
Marcy: I think the IOM report has done a really good job of saying that the different requirements we have for people doing this work masks the complexity and sort of makes people think that anybody can do it. But I think that throughout human history, people have taken care of children and we can all take care of children in some basic way. That’s why we still have the human species right? But when you’re with a group of children, you have to be making many judgments and assessments and decisions all day long in terms of are children developing normally and, if there’re not? Is development proceeding in a normal progression? Are they developing more slowly in this area or that area or is there something gone array here? So you have to have a basic understanding of development in order to be able to figure out what the children in your group need. But then just because you have a group of three year olds or a group of two year olds or you might have a mixed group of three and four year olds, even though they are in the same chronological age, in those early years of development, there is a wide range of normal in terms of some kids talk really early and some kids talk a little later. The language development will be okay even if they start putting together words at a different point and the same thing with some of the motor development. So it’s also figuring when you have a group of children, where are all the kids on the developmental trajectory and how do I make sure that the learning I’m trying to facilitate touches them where they are. How do you do that for a whole group of people? It’s really complicated right? And you’re also addressing issues around social-emotional development as well as cognitive development and motor development. So you have to be thinking on multiple levels at the same time and thinking about and thinking about how any one activity or learning experience addresses those multiple levels.
You know when I first started it was more theory than science right. A lot of the things we thought were true have turned out to be true, but how do you understand what’s the theory about what’s going on and what’s the science about what’s going on? And then pedagogically what are the ways to engage children that are age-appropriate and it’s different? What you do with a group of four year olds is not the same as what you do with a group of two year olds so I think that education does not necessarily make you good at all those things, but it lays a foundation of knowledge that helps you to guide the development of your skills and practice so you can get good at doing that. So it’s the same thing as a doctor or a lawyer. They have to master a lot of knowledge, but then how good they are at this when they are thinking on their feet when they see someone in front of them and can they weave that knowledge and take those skills they’ve practiced and apply them in the right moment. So to me education is not the only part of it but it’s absolutely the cornerstone of that.
I also think that these higher ed inventories – we’ve now done inventories in seven states – show that in our higher education programs, the opportunities for field-based practice and field-based experiences that really help people strengthen their skills and taking that knowledge and applying it, are really uneven. They are uneven by age and by child. We provide a lot more field-based learning in teacher preparation for teachers who are working with children in kindergarten and older than we do for those working with younger children. Even in terms of the content of our education, we tend to focus more on older children than on infants and toddlers. It does seem like its somewhat responsive to state certification; if you have a P-3 system, you’re more likely to include rigorous content for preschoolers, but our higher education programs have not caught up with what we’re saying we need and what IOM is saying in the zero to eight period. Yes, people can specialize by age group, but we need a base of knowledge and practice for everybody. So there’s work to do there to bring us into the 21st century on that.
Steven: Can you talk a little bit about why the President’s proposal to provide high-quality early learning and development programs for all children is important for our country and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?
Marcy: I think that by elevating early learning at the national level the President has really helped to raise this as an issue that the country’s talking about, and I think that through that leadership there’s been a growing recognition on the part of Americans how important this is. Of course it’s been bolstered by a lot that was already going on in the states and then with the Early Learning Challenge Grants and Preschool Development Grants, there’s been a lot of action and emphasis at the state level. I think by shining a spotlight on the issue and giving resources, that’s really helped for us to see movement. Earlier this year, the President said no one should be daycare-poor. We still have a long way to go because the system we have is that most of the funding for early childhood is at the federal level in contrast to K-12, which is mostly state-funded. We still don’t have enough money in the system to make sure that even just all the children living in low-income families have access to affordable services. We’re a long way from that. We’re serving a fraction of the children and so we still have a system where the parent’s ability to pay has a lot to do with what kind of experience the children have and it’s not necessarily equitable. We have this system that’s been packed together with different intents over the years that in most states you have multiple sets of qualifications for people working with children in the same age group depending on the funding and the purpose of the program that the children end up being in. It’s a little bit the luck of the draw and not really equitable for people.
Although we’ve identified early childhood as a strategy for educational reform and for addressing the effects of poverty, the truth is that early childhood jobs for many people create poverty, and they really challenged the people doing them and their families. Because of the lack of resources that really impacts the quality of care. So I think that what the president’s effort has pointed out is that we need a new way of investing in a comprehensive way for early learning in the United States. It’s going to take time, but I think his administration set the stage hopefully for another administration moving us closer to having a system of early education and care that really provides and is equitable and affordable for families, high-quality, and becomes a really good 21st century job. I think the big challenge is that because the system doesn’t have enough resources in it, it’s almost like we can’t talk about these jobs. We’re telling people to get an education, but they don’t get much of a premium for that education. We can’t fix the jobs because we still have so many children to serve. And I think that we have to recognize that fixing the jobs and serving children well are the same problem. If we can make it more affordable for families and we can improve the jobs, we’re then creating a win-win-win for everybody. The families do better, kids will do better, and the people, who choose this work, will do better and will be able to meet their responsibilities. With more support, the people, who have invested in their education and training, will flock to these jobs.
These are not jobs that are going to be traded offshore. We’re not going to lose early childhood jobs, and it’s a win for their families. I think the challenge is really getting people to see that the work of caring for and educating young children should be a sought after 21st century job that it can be a middle-class job that can attract people who’ve invested in their education and training. Right now, if you major in early childhood, the projections are you will have the lowest lifetime earnings of any college graduate. We have to flip that on its head. We need a strategy for changing the jobs so we can really change the services and for realizing that this could be an incredibly attractive 21st century job.