Early Childhood Education: Then and Now

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Back in the ’80s, I edited a magazine called Early Childhood News. It was aimed at owners and operators of day care centers (as we called them back then), though there was content that was of interest to employees as well.

Times have changed. But how much? A lot of what concerned early childhood educators back them reverberates through the field today, although sometimes in slightly altered form. Here’s what the experts are saying now.

Abysmal Economics. Back in the ’80s, child care worker pay was a big concern, as was the cost of child care. Government subsidies to child care centers and workers seemed like the answer but went nowhere aside from Head Start. Many mom-and-pop child care centers popped up in homes around the country, a good number of them unlicensed; they were the only kind many parents could afford. As low as teacher pay was in accredited centers, professional child care was out of reach for the poor and even for large parts of the middle class.

Not a lot has changed. Government being largely unresponsive on the subject, and child care tax credits making little actual difference, parents began to turn to employers as sources of care. Alas, only a few forward-thinking companies provided any on-site care for their employees’ children. The Baby Boomers were aging out of the parenting years and, as good a benefit as it seemed, child care in the workplace never took hold.

One thing that hasn’t changed as child care workers morphed into early childhood educators is the fact that salaries remain so low that such work cannot provide a living wage. NPR had this to say about salaries for a typical worker:

Why would she teach preschool when she could make a heck of a lot more money teaching kindergarten? … In some places, we pay early childhood teachers less than fast-food workers, less than tree trimmers. As a country, we’ve acknowledged the importance of early learning and yet, when you look at what we pay those educators, it doesn’t add up.

This despite the fact that preschool teachers are increasingly well educated – NPR reports that 24 state preschool programs require a bachelor’s degree for the main teacher in the classroom and 45 percent of preschool teachers working with children ages 3-5 have a bachelor’s degree. Even in a credentialed center with educated teachers, salaries still put early childhood workers below the poverty line.

Still, parents find it difficult to pay for child care. Care.com’s 2018 Cost of Care Survey reports that:

One in three families (33 percent) now spend 20 percent or more of their annual household income on child care. Seven in 10 families report paying rates higher than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ definition of affordable care, while nearly one in five families spends a quarter or more of their household income on child care.

Yet child care is a service that few can do without:

American families will go to great lengths to pay for child care. In fact, 26 percent would put themselves in debt or further debt to pay for child care, and parents report they’ve saved less money (54 percent) and made major budget cuts (41 percent) to pay for the rising cost of care.

Even family planning is affected. The same study finds that “one in three families (33 percent) say the cost of child care influenced their family planning, in that they either waited longer to have children or had fewer children than they would have liked because of child care costs.”

Education versus play. The term “child care” seems to be fading out in favor of “early childhood education.” Along with that change comes an increasing focus on academics.

While it is true that many children come to kindergarten unready to learn, a debate still rages about what the role of the child care center is – early education versus play. “Academic” centers abound, to the extent that some of them appear to be mini-kindergartens. Some parents apparently eat this up, perhaps thinking that for the to-them-exorbitant price of child care, their children had better be learning something.

PBS, in a focus on teachers, had this to say:

“Most kindergarten teachers will tell you what they really value is the opportunity to teach kids when they show up at school prepared and ready to learn. It’s not so much that teachers value that the kindergartner can read or write. They value that the children enjoy learning, have a set of experiences that got them used to a classroom setting, and know how to engage adults and kids in another setting,” [Dr. Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia] says.

Play-centered environments have their champions as providing that kind of readiness. They say that play-centered learning is more than mere play. In play-centered (or as they often say, “child-centered”) environments, children can learn not merely socialization skills, but preparation for learning without all the academic trappings. Preschools that feature exploratory science equipment (such as water tables and sand tables), well-stocked libraries of good-quality children’s literature (and story time to go with it), art areas, and other manipulatives and play centers are actually imparting valuable lessons about the way the world works. The NEA is a particular champion of play-centered care.

These two trends, the economics of child care and the push-pull between academics and play, are likely to continue. Absent better salaries for both workers and parents, early education centers will have to choose between offering learning and play if they cannot convince the public that they are two sides of the same coin.

 

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