Barbara A. Willer: Taking a Position on Early Childhood Education - Early Learning Nation

Barbara A. Willer: Taking a Position on Early Childhood Education

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

Among the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) many roles: Bringing together a range of professions – and perspectives – to reach consensus on important issues affecting early childhood education. What are these position statements, and how do they get created? NAEYC Senior Advisor Barbara Willer explains.


Chris Riback:                 Barbara, welcome to the studio. Thanks for coming by.

Barbara Willer:             Thank you. It’s great to see the studio in the midst of the conference center.

Chris Riback:                 And it’s great to be at the conference. How is it going so far? Congratulations.

Barbara Willer:             Thank you. It’s a wonderful event. This is one of our largest events in years and the excitement is palpable. It looks like it’s working out to be a great meeting and I’m thrilled to be here.

Chris Riback:                 Let’s dive into NAEYC and the position statements. What are they, and why do they matter?

Barbara Willer:             Position statements are a way that NAEYC, as an organization, takes stands on issues that can be controversial, but brings together lots of different experts who are knowledgeable about different perspectives, may not always agree on an issue, but to come together and to reach consensus about an important issue affecting early childhood education. Position statements really guide everything else that we do.

Barbara Willer:             Right now we’ve just adopted a position on advancing equity in early childhood education.

Chris Riback:                 Yes.

Barbara Willer:             You see that throughout this conference, but we’re really committed to making that permeate every aspect of our work. We’re also working on a new revision of our developmentally-appropriate practice position statement, which is probably the flagship position for the association. That’s another important aspect, is making sure that the position statements are regularly revised so that they can reflect current research and current practice.

Chris Riback:                 And updated. I want to ask you about both of those positions in both of those areas, the inequity and the developmentally appropriate. First, quick follow-up on the hashing it out. You and I both know how those things can happen sometimes.

Barbara Willer:             Right.

Chris Riback:                 Particularly when you’re looking for consensus. On the one hand they can be contentious, on the other hand sometimes those types of things can get watered down. Do the positions, given the role of NAEYC, how do you balance accommodating a wide range of views with the fact that you got to stand for something?

Barbara Willer:             Exactly. That is the balance, and in some ways I think that’s also a balance that early childhood educators and program administrators often need to do. Certainly in policy, wouldn’t that be great if we could find that balance and be willing to bring diverse perspectives together to listen and to take into account what is there that I can say yes, I can support that. It may not be my favorite point of view, but I can support it, and then move forward.

Chris Riback:                 Well, let me tell you, if you can pull that off, I think there may be a role for you in congress.

Barbara Willer:             Yes.

Chris Riback:                 At the very least you can write a book on that.

Barbara Willer:             Well, I would love it if policy makers would take our position statement on advancing equity and use some of those principles. I think they might find them very useful.

Chris Riback:                 I’m sure that you would. I’m not going to touch that, by the way. Let’s talk about advancing equity and let’s talk about equity in particular. What is it? How does one know it when one sees it?

Barbara Willer:             One of the definitions that we really rely on in equity is that there are no differences in opportunity and achievement on the basis of physical characteristics or other dimensions that really have no meaning in terms of determining opportunity, or should have no meaning.

Chris Riback:                 What one looks like, where one comes from, what one’s physical ability are, what one’s-

Barbara Willer:             The language one speaks.

Chris Riback:                 Language, yes.

Barbara Willer:             That these are things that should not be determinants, and yet they are because of a history, in this country in particular, of privilege that have been afforded to some and not others. That’s had lasting consequences that has really resulted in inequitable learning opportunities.

Chris Riback:                 I want to ask you about another positioning statement and the one that you said was being worked on, that you are revising. The NAEYC position statement on developmentally-appropriate practice, 2020. You’re making revisions. Where are you now, where are you going to, why are revisions needed?

Barbara Willer:             This is the foundational document for the early childhood profession that really sets a framework for what our expectations for practice by professionals. It was first adopted in the mid-1980s, shortly after we began our accreditation system for early childhood programs. One of the reasons the position statement was adopted was that as we began accrediting early learning programs, the criteria that were used frequently referenced developmentally-appropriate practice. As we started making site visits, we quickly learned that there were many different interpretations of what that meant or what that looked like.

Chris Riback:                 Probably both parts, probably developmentally and appropriate.

Barbara Willer:             Right, exactly. So we really needed to come to consensus to spell that out. So it’s been a really important statement, but frankly, it’s also had many concerns that it was too focused on normative views of development that primarily reflected the dominant culture of white, English-speaking, middle class professionals who frankly have done most of the research in this area. So over time we have worked to try to make sure that … In 1996, when the statement was revised, we added important concepts about understanding the importance of the cultural context for children’s development.

Barbara Willer:             What we say now about this latest revision that we expect the board to adopt in spring of 2020, is that in many ways the principles are exactly the same and yet profound changes needed. The profound change that’s needed is understanding what we need, how as educators and the broader community, to really focus on what are the strengths that each and every child brings to the learning process and how might my biases be affecting my ability to see and draw on those strengths in order to provide the best opportunity for joyful learning for each and every child.

Chris Riback:                 The so-called traditional definition of talent or capability is being rewritten. I guess just to close this out, it sort of proves that education is not static, doesn’t it?

Barbara Willer:             Absolutely. These are lessons that children need to learn as citizens of a dynamic, changing world. Being able to get along with each other, have the skills for inquiry, observation, and working together, those are skills that are laid in the foundation of early childhood and will serve people well throughout their lives.

Chris Riback:                 I was going to say, lessons for children, perhaps also lessons for adults.

Barbara Willer:             Very much so.

Chris Riback:                 Barbara, thank you. Thank you for coming by the studio.

Barbara Willer:             Thanks, it’s been great to talk to you.


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