Elliot’s Provocations unpacks current events in the early learning world and explores how we can chart a path to a future where all children can flourish. Regarding the title, if you’re not steeped in early childhood education (ECE) lingo, a “provocation” is the field’s term—taken from the Reggio-Emilia philosophy of early education—for offering someone the opportunity to engage with an idea.
We hope this monthly column does that: provocations are certainly not answers, but we hope Elliot’s Provocations helps you pause and consider concepts in a different way.
For my last column of the year, I want to touch on a less-discussed but not-unimportant question: what in the heck should we call the care and education of children during the first five years of their life? Is it child care? Is it early childhood education? Is it something else?
It may be obvious, but words and frames matter. They elicit responses in people’s minds that can prime them to support or reject certain ideas. For instance, some experts believe the switch from focusing on LGBTQ+ domestic partner benefits and other legal elements, to the core emotional appeal that “love is love” helped spark one of the most dramatic shifts in public opinion in recent U.S. history.
I’m of two minds when it comes to the early childhood question. So, I thought it might be fun to stylize those minds and use them to explore the debate. The goal here isn’t to offer the right answer—again: I don’t know what the right answer is, if there is one!—but to help draw out the underlying tensions and further conversation. So, with your indulgence, I give you: Carol and Ed (get it?)
Carol and Ed: A Socratic Semantic Debate
Carol: Look, Ed, I think you’re a swell guy, but the fact is this sector is about child care. We are caring for children — wherever, whenever. There’s a learning component, for sure, but it’s more than that: it’s about relationships and nurturing these children to have the maximum human development possible. See, this is going to be a quick debate!
Ed: OK Carol, I hear you—and I think you’re swell, too—but let me poke a hole in your case before I get to mine. Do child care needs end at school entry?
Carol: No, of course not. There are before-school, after-school and summer needs.
Ed: Right. Well, the term “child care” doesn’t specify that. So right away it’s confusing to the lay public! Early childhood education, on the other hand, is clean and crisp. It says what it is.
Carol: That’s not the slam dunk you think it is. Watch this: early child care. Voila!
Ed: “Early child care” is… clunky.
Carol: It’s literally shorter than early childhood education! And anyways, early childhood education sounds so… formal. Most people don’t think of sending their one-year-old to school.
Ed: I’ll grant that, but education doesn’t have to mean school. You can get education at an in-home early childhood program, too.
Carol: Now who’s using confusing terms?
Ed: I mean, sure, it’s not perfect. But let’s talk about what we’re talking about: we need a term that is widely understood and also conveys ideas which will build public and political support, right?
Ed: OK, well, between ‘care’ and ‘education,’ which one is a constitutional right in every state and a fully publicly-funded system that gets $700 billion a year, and which one is seen as welfare and is constantly fighting for scraps?
Carol: That’s not fair! Care has been systemically devalued for centuries, coded as “women’s work” so that the economic system could hum along without having to pay for home labor. And that’s before getting into the deeply racist history of domestic work, such as the way that enslaved Black women were forced to care for their enslavers’ children, or how even after emancipation many were exploited and underpaid as “mammies.” Even the earliest so-called ‘early childhood education’ programs—aka nursery schools—were deliberately cast as something different from child care programs because the latter felt too ‘poor.’ So you’ll forgive America for having questionable ideas about the value of care. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or can’t reclaim the concept.
Ed: No one’s arguing care hasn’t been given short shrift. It’s atrocious. But from a practical standpoint, if the two choices are to try and revitalize a poorly-treated concept or take advantage of a robust one, why wouldn’t we go with the latter? We’re having a hard enough time getting care occupations—child care, elder care, care for individuals with disabilities—up to even a living wage. You really think we can get Americans to suddenly agree that care should be publicly funded as a middle-class profession? K-12 teachers should get paid more, but at least they make a solid salary with benefits! Meanwhile, public pre-K programs are the only universal(ish) early childhood programs that have won major support and funding, even in red states. That’s because, as sociologist Sandra Levitsky has written, they ride the education current. That was a decision based on communications research. Why not relax into the water?
Carol: I’ll tell you why, it’s because “early childhood education” has some big problems. Do we really want to march the school system back to the first few years of life? How is that developmentally appropriate? And it completely takes parents out of the equation. Levitsky also writes — let’s see, I’ve got the quote here, “while considerable public discourse has focused on the educational development of three- and four-year-olds, the needs of working parents with babies are rarely mentioned at all. Perhaps more insidiously, the logic of ‘social investment,’ which drove the political shift from child care to early childhood education, generally construes children as a ‘good investment’ in ways that implicitly suggest that women are not.”
Ed: Look, there were some missteps in pushing down too much direct academic instruction into pre-K in the late aughts, I’ll grant that. But play is making a comeback! And most systems are mixed-delivery now.
Carol: By “most systems,” we’re excluding California — you know, the biggest state in the union, that would be the 40th-largest nation in the world if it was its own country? — which is currently pursuing a school-only version of pre-K? And, while we’re at it, you still haven’t answered: does “early childhood education” mean just pre-K or does it mean infants and toddlers too? Does it mean service hours outside the school day and school year?
Ed: It’s all education…
Carol: Uh-huh, I can hear the conviction in your voice just as much as I can see the continued artificial split between preschoolers and infants/toddlers. That’s what an education frame gets you. Know what else it gets you?
Ed: Better polls? More funding?
Carol: Ha-ha. No, it gets you credentialization. There are costs to adopting the education frame. Our education system treats degrees as synonyms for skills, which is a position with a very questionable research backing. You can try to create policy backstops like substituting experience for degrees, but the fact is that you’re assuming a high risk of unintentionally discriminating against family child care providers, to say nothing of stay-at-home parents and relative caregivers. Parents and kids need a pluralistic system that meets their dynamic needs and preferences. I’m just not sure ‘early childhood education’ gets us there. I say the price is too high to pay.
[At this point, a third voice enters the conversation: Trey (get it??)]
Trey: Ed, Carol, you both make excellent points, and this is such an important debate! May I suggest an alternative that incorporates both perspectives?
Ed and Carol (looking at each other warily): Go ahead…
Trey: Why not adopt both-and terminology? Many other nations call it Early Childhood Care and Education, or Early Childhood Education and Care. I personally like the simple Early Care and Education. It even has the same ECE acronym some people are already familiar with!
Ed: Do they call it that, though? I mean, I understand that’s what the official government documents might say, but do parents go around saying “oh, I had such a stressful time this morning getting my kid off to his early care and education center?”
Carol: Well, to be fair, do U.S. parents say “oh, I had such a stressful time this morning getting my kid off to his early childhood education center?”
Ed: No, they say “preschool” or the dreaded D word —
Carol: Don’t say it…
Trey: Uh-oh, he’s gonna say it…
Ed: Day care.
Ed: Here’s the problem. Day care sucks as a term. It’s not even accurate, since there are overnight programs. But it sticks because it is a simple one-word term that conveys a clear meaning. Same reason France uses crèche and Germany uses kita. I’m actually fine with early care and education, but no one’s going to use that popularly. So, if we don’t want day care to dominate, we should just take “preschool” and apply it everywhere and to all ages. A center-based preschool. A church preschool. A family preschool.
Trey: OK, but I can already see Carol’s mouth opening to object. Can I try one other thought? What if we followed the U.K.’s lead and just called them “the early years”? That way the focus is on child development during that age period, not about any given setting.
Carol: I mean, I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it? It’s kinda bland. And it’s unspecific: aren’t things like pediatrics part of “the early years” too?
Ed: Yeah, I’m with you there.
Trey: Well at least I got you to agree about something!
[The debate in my head transitions to closing statements]
Ed: I am certainly sympathetic toward the need to massively improve how we value care in this country. The fact is, however, that if we want to have a rights-based system with universal access, the most efficient route is through fully embracing the phraseology of early childhood education and preschool. The body politic and politicians alike can easily understand the idea that if we publicly support K-12 education, and if learning begins at birth, we need to publicly support early childhood education as well. And it’s not just about political expediency! This is demanding work, and educators should be treated as the skilled professionals they are. That suggests a name and qualifications framework to match. Putting these educators on the same level as elementary school educators is only proper. The sooner we stop wishing the world to be as we want it to be and accepting the world as it is, the sooner we can reach our common goals for early childhood. Thank you.
Carol: My respected opponent has fallen into the trap of rhetorically assuming that care work is not as inherently “skilled” as education work. This is precisely the problem! A comprehensive birth-to-five system of care cannot be sliced and diced like this without losing the structural integrity of the whole. The top-line goal of this sector should not be school readiness, the top-line goal should be human development. Good child care not only helps kids develop the foundations of academic skills, it supports entire families: it allows parents to find the work-care balance that they prefer, have the family size they prefer, live where they prefer, be financially stable, have sources of community and parenting support… all of which helps young kids to flourish, by the way! There are countless examples of terms shifting in the public mind, or professions like nursing finding a new prominence. I don’t think it will be simple to elevate child care to the level of respect and compensation it deserves, but if ever there was a fight worth fighting, this is one. And, let’s remember, we were one skittish Senator—or, arguably, one North Carolina 2020 Senate candidate choosing to not, y’know, have an affair—from having hundreds of billions of dollars flowing into child care as we speak. Care matters. We should say so, right in the name.
Trey (quietly): I still think we should call it early care and education.
Elliot Haspel is a nationally-recognized child & family policy expert and commentator, with a specialty in early childhood and education issues. He is the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It, and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita. Elliot has appeared on television as an analyst, including on The PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, and his writings have appeared in a wide variety of top publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. Elliot holds an B.A. in History from the University of Virginia and an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.