Thursday, April 19, 2012

What is ECE Most Afraid Of?

A quiet, unassuming discussion group on the LinkedIn Zero to Three Discussion forum highlights an  interesting divide between providers that points to some very different views of what the field of Early Learning should look like, and how providers view themselves.  The discussion about how ECE can attract well-educated professionals to the field turned towards how low pay keeps people from staying in the field and colleges from recommending their students to go into ECE.  However, there are those (few admittedly on this discussion group) who do not see pay as the issue, and point to the fact that they went into the field because they love children, not for the pay.

This brings me back to my early days in the field when I started working with my local Worthy Wage campaign, and people would say to me that if I really loved children I wouldn't ask for more pay and others said they didn't want anyone to think that they were just in it for the money.  And that is the greatest fear of some of those in the field- that if they ask for a living (or, God forbid, a professional) wage they will be viewed as being selfish.  And no one wants to be seen as selfish so the field perpetuates a sense of martyrdom within itself by focusing on affordability at the expense of wages for the professionals who provide direct services to children.

And while it is absolutely essential that the people in this field love children does that mean that they should be martyrs who sacrifice their standard of living? And does relying on people who see themselves this way really meet the needs of children and their families? It is time for ECE to reflect on these issues within our programs and in the larger Early Learning community.  This is not just an exercise in the hypothetical though, how ECE providers view themselves will determine how the rest of society sees the field and ultimately what the field evolves into.   

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Are Tuition Rates Too Low to Fund Quality?

Traditionally, child rearing has been viewed as a personal responsibility, and, as such, funding for Early Learning programs has come from parents through tuition with some subsidies for low-income families from the government and foundations. Since many families have limited resources, tuition has been seen as needing to stay low relative to the actual costs of running a high quality program.  Focusing on keeping tuition affordable has been a reasonable effort considering the little support that ECE receives from the larger society, and the amount that tuition can take from the average families budget.  This amount can range between 7 and 29 percent depending on the parents level of income.  This makes the choices parents make when choosing child care difficult, and leads many to choose to low quality, unlicensed care.

In response. many Early Learning programs do not raise tuition (sometimes for years) to keep parents from leaving for low cost alternatives. Unfortunately, the impact of low tuition has often been at the expense of quality, including recruiting and retaining well-educated staff.  When programs cannot afford to pay staff a living wage, not to mention a professional wage, staff are less committed to their profession, have less education, and are more likely to leave from something with better pay.

In addition, low tuition impacts a program's ability to purchase materials to promote learning, replace materials that have become broken, hire support staff, or promote teacher's professional development.  Director's end up spending their time cleaning, cooking, or working in the classroom which leaves them unable to prepare for staff meetings or in-services, develop a strategic plan, apply for grants, mentor staff, or recruit volunteers.   
All of these consequences negatively impact the quality of care that children receive by minimizing the use and understanding of best practices, reducing teacher's ability to be responsive to children's needs, preventing children from forming strong relationships with their teachers, and the lack of  support from other professionals to foster the entire child's development.  Director's often report feeling that they cannot keep up- let alone make gains to improve quality.  It is a situation comparable to Sisyphus who was condemned to roll a stone up a hill only to have it roll back down once he reached the top.

Even when directors understand the impact of inadequate tuition, they and their programs choose to keep it below the cost of quality in an effort to meet parent's needs and to keep parents as partners.  However, parents need a high quality, stable, educational environment for their child and that can only be sustained with adequate funding. 

As Tony Robbins said "By changing nothing, nothing changes" and funding will not increase unless ECE professionals demand it.  It is time for Early Learning programs to charge the true costs of quality care as all other industries do.  It will be a difficult conversation to have with parents, but it is up to ECE professionals to help parents understand the costs involved, how it benefits their children, and to engage their support in working towards a system that funds quality.