It isn’t the 1950s anymore. The reality before and, presumably, after the pandemic, is that parents are outside of home for a good part of the day. So what about the kids? The hours young children—all of them—spend in formal or informal care ought to be conducive to their development, but that’s not how it usually works.
Social and economic currents have left us with a ramshackle, unsustainable system. “The way it’s organized now doesn’t make sense,” explains Emily Sharrock, associate vice president of the Bank Street Education Center. Together with Courtney Parkerson, consultant with the organization’s Birth-to-Three Policy Initiative, she has written a new paper describing pay as “the obvious but elusive lever to sustainably improving the quality of child care in this country.”
Bank Street’s Four Levers to Enhance Infant/Toddler Care and Education
● Deepening expertise across the system
● Increasing compensation and access to comprehensive benefits for infant/toddler educators
● Strengthening systems that support infant/toddler care
● Generating public will to make needed investments and systemic changes
“Increasing compensation is not only key to quality improvement,” Sharrock and Parkerson write, “It’s essential to building an equity-centered system that values the lives and work of early childhood educators, who are disproportionately women of color.”
Parkerson and Sharrock’s paper isn’t just about pay. Strengthening the expertise of the workforce is critical. Residency or apprenticeship programs are proven ways of helping junior staff and those new to the profession to learn—and earn—on the job. Sharrock describes it as “rebuilding the talent pool.”
Founded in 1916 as the Bureau of Educational Experiments, Bank Street has been a force for children’s and teacher development for more than a century. Located in New York City, Bank Street’s graduate school and children’s programs are known for a longstanding focus on and expertise in early childhood, and for ways to support the development of teachers, schools and communities to realize each learner’s full potential. The organization has recently become a voice in the national education policy landscape. Its new Birth-to-Three Policy Initiative is grounded in neuroscience proving that learning, in fact, starts at birth.
Bank Street’s team is working on behalf of young children, families and the caregivers who support them. The paper’s authors describe it as educator development rooted in practice, under the guidance of an experienced coach. Acknowledging the economic and personal stress that plague the workforce (and discourage many from participating), they argue the enterprise of child development will never be sustainable until educators achieve a living wage and, eventually, pay parity with K-12 teachers.
So how much would this all cost? When you include comprehensive benefits for all birth-to-three educators nationwide, it comes to $40.2 billion per year. The paper juxtaposes this figure with $591 billion spent on compensation and benefits for K-12 public school teachers.
“It’s not only possible,” affirms Sharrock. “It’s essential.”
With a new administration coming in and a growing recognition of historical factors that unduly burden women of color, this may be the time to pump up the volume. The paper notes that “public support for investment in child care is the highest it has ever been.” Furthermore, disruption and, indeed, chaos wrought by the pandemic could usher in new dynamics that make child care a more attractive career option than working in a big box retail store.
“We have to persuade government to subsidize the system,” says Sharrock. She cites the EarlyLearn NYC initiative as an example of how it can happen. Bank Street has supported the city’s Department of Education by providing professional learning that will lead to a Child Development Associate credential for all child care providers working in the EarlyLearn networks.
Making space for early childhood education in federal, state and municipal budgets takes time—think years, not months—and a diverse coalition of stakeholders. One reliable way to build organizational muscle is through papers like Parkerson and Sharrock’s. “By developing proof points,” explains Parkerson, “we can generate public will.” Ultimately, they hope that people regard the sector as infrastructure so that it can be scaled up—and scaled up at a high quality.
In surveys, education almost always comes near the top of voter priorities. Increasingly, voters of all parties are prioritizing investment in child care or early education on par with K-12 schools. (See recent data from the First Five Years Fund.) “Imagine,” says Parkerson, “a future where communities value and invest in learning experiences for children from birth through age five in the same way they do for their K-12 schools.”
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.