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Why educating early childhood workers makes sense

 
 

Janet Stocks, PhD, Dean, School of Education, Trinity Washington University

We, as a society, do not pay teachers enough.  And that is particularly true for those who work with infants, toddlers, and pre-kindergarten children.  There is no doubt that societies that value educators and pay them a competitive wage attract more highly qualified teachers, and enjoy significantly better educational outcomes (case in point: Finland).

But arguing that because we do not pay early childcare workers well means that we don’t need them to be highly qualified professionals is simply ludicrous.  Solid research informs us that for every dollar spent in early care, society enjoys a 7% to 13% return on investment (see the work of James Heckman).  These benefits include higher rates of high school graduation, adult labor market participation, lower levels of incarceration, and better health.  And quality makes a big difference.  Children in early care centers with a curriculum based on developmental science (how skills build on skills), professional staff who have been educated in early childhood development and who know how to differentiate their instruction to meet the different needs of each individual child, produce significantly better long-term outcomes for the children who are fortunate enough to participate.

Early childhood education is not simply babysitting.  I sit on the Board of a bilingual early childhood center in D.C.  The center has an Early Head Start grant, which provides funds for low income families with children birth to age three.  At a recent Board meeting, we reviewed outcome data for the children in this age range.  The center is required to assess student development in five domains: social emotional, physical, language and literacy, math, and cognition.  The professional staff then must develop plans for each child, based on individual needs, to help them make progress in each of these areas.  This work takes significantly more training than it takes to babysit a child a few hours here or there, and the consequences are substantial.

In our highly partisan time, we do not seem able to have reasonable discussions about the public good.  And this is a shame.  There is no doubt that if we provided quality early care to all children, we would all reap the benefits.  But we cannot see beyond the current election cycle to understand that some investments have long-term payouts, but are worth making anyway.

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