Professionalizing the Early Childhood Education Field: What Does it Mean and Why Does it Matter? | Policy [M]atters, Episode 5

by Stacie Goffin and Teri Talan

Welcome to Policy [M]atters, Episode 5.

Policy [M]atters is a video chat series between Teri Talan of the McCormick Center and a guest author in early childhood policy. The chats, which began in the summer of 2015, take place and are distributed on a quarterly basis. (Want to catch up or revisit the series? Explore year one of the chats and topics here.)

Our guest author for the next year (four episodes) will be Stacie Goffin. Stacie has authored several books, including: Professionalizing Early Childhood Education As a Field of Practice: A Guide to the Next Era, Early Childhood Education for a New Era: Leading for Our Profession, and Ready or Not: Leadership Choices in Early Care and Education, which was co-authored by Valora Washington.

In episode 5, Stacie offers context on how and why the field has arrived at the topic of “professionalization.” Teri inquires about the term’s meaning. Stacie draws several parallels to other professions, such as nursing and medicine, while providing two attributes that define a profession.

The conversation then turns to the topic of whose interest is being served—children or the early childhood education workforce? Can multiple interests be served at the same time? Is talk of compensation for the early childhood workforce self-serving? Listen to the chat to hear Stacie and Teri’s take. Share your perspective in the comments section below.

What questions do you have for Teri and Stacie? What feedback do you have on the Policy [M]atters series? Share them, too, in the comments section below.

Dr. Teri Talan is the Michael W. Louis Chair at the McCormick Center and Professor of Early Childhood Education at National Louis University. She is co-author of the Program Administration ScaleBusiness Administration Scale for Family Child CareEscala de Evaluación de la Administración de Negocios, and Who’s Caring for the Kids? The Status of the Early Childhood Workforce in Illinois.

A recognized leader and author in early childhood education, Stacie Goffin has led change initiatives spanning higher education, local, state, and national organizations; organizational development; and advocacy, resulting in change for systems, policy, and practice. Stacie is a member of the McCormick Center’s Advisory Board and is a frequent presenter at the McCormick Center’s Leadership Connections national conference.




VOICEOVER: Welcome to Policy [M]atters episode 5. Policy [M]atters is a video chat series between Teri Talan of the McCormick Center, and a guest author an early childhood policy.

The chats take place and are distributed on a quarterly basis. Our guest author for the next four episodes is author Stacie Goffin.

In episode 5, Teri and Stacie discuss what professionalizing the early childhood field means and why it matters.

TERI: Hi Stacie, good morning it’s really great to have this opportunity to have you join our policy chat, from the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership. This is our second year of doing a policy chat where we have an opportunity to have a conversation with a current thought leader and author such as yourself.

For those who are tuning in, I’m Teri Talan and I’m engaged in this year-long endeavor with a colleague and friend Stacie Goffin, who is an esteemed thought leader in the field of early childhood education.

And the impetus for our conversation having to do with the professionalization of our field, of the early childhood field, has to do with… as I was thinking about it this morning really a book that Stacie wrote several years ago called “Ready or Not,” in partnership with the Valora Washington.

And it started the conversation, at least its current rendition of the conversation, about the field of early care and education, or early childhood education, coming together to define itself. And it was really instrumental in helping people think deeply about the work that they were passionate about. And so since that time, Stacie has gone further and written several other books.

This is just an opportunity for us to talk live about what it really means to professionalize the early care and education field. And I know that even saying early care and education field is like rampant with implication and nuance.

So I’m just going to ask Stacie to jump right in and share what it is that you think was so potent about “Ready or Not,” and why is this issue coming to head in today’s context?

STACIE: Thanks for that gracious introduction and I’m really delighted to be here Teri.

So I think “Ready or Not,” as well as the publications and conversations that have followed have been so potent because I think we’re at a moment in time as early childhood education has become ever more visible, and ever more an issue for a larger group of individuals, so far beyond those of us who are engaged directly in the practice and the support of early childhood education. That we have also, through the development of policies to try to bring more support to the work, has inadvertently begun to in fact define us as a field of practice.

And to define us in a way that is not necessarily consistent with how we view our field and what we think our work ought to look like. And I think additionally with the expansion in terms of programs and services that are provided, those policies, even though certainly not the intent, has further fragmented the field. And we tend to focus on that fragmentation in terms of the delivery system, in terms of policies, in terms of financing.

But where it is also really having significant impact is in the fragmentation of our practice, and then the uneven early learning experiences that children have depending upon which programs they are in.

TERI:  I want to ask you well, first of all, what do you mean when you say professionalization of our field of practice? What does that mean to you?

STACIE: That meaning for me, I believe is different than it tends to be used in the field writ large. Because we tend to use that word very generally and globally whenever we’re doing anything to help any individual in the field to become a little more knowledgeable or skillful in the work that’s they’re doing.

Where I’m coming from, is that one of the ways and I think one of the best ways or better ways we have for addressing the fragmentation in our practice, and thereby better serving children and families, because we’re more competent in the work we do, is by formally organizing ourselves as a professional field of practice.

And so although there are variations across professions such as medicine, or nursing, or physical therapy, or occupational therapy, even though they’re variations depending upon their history, as well as upon the socio-political context of their work, and the specifics of their practice, there are certain criteria, or attributes that define professions regardless of their variations, and how they came to be, and what their work is about.

And a critical one that… or two critical pieces, I guess, that I would bring forward are attributes in that regard, is that’s very contrary currently to the way in which we function as a field, is one if people have to be prepared prior to practice. A lot of the preparation work we do is while people are already in the field, and therefore often being placed at a disadvantage because they haven’t had the opportunity to be prepared for the task.

And we’re increasingly aware of the complexity of teaching, and in fact, that preparation really does make a difference because of the key role played by teachers. And that preparation is also associated with a very clear set of expectations regarding competencies of the knowledge and skills and dispositions that the individuals in the profession need to know and be able to do. And really
crucially around that knowledge base, the field is self-managed, self-regulated, self-governing. So rather than having others telling us what it is we need to know and what our practice ought to look
like, professions are self-governing.

Medicine, for example, does not go to the government and say, “tell us what letters of the alphabet children should be learning when they’re in pre-k.”

TERI:  So in my introduction of you Stacie, I should have also mentioned that you were on my doctoral committee.

One of the things in my program that I learned to question, was the idea of whose interests are being served. And so I kind of want to use that as a frame.

When we think about the professionalization of our field of practice, whose interests are being served, because I’ve heard you now in what you’ve said so far, have two interests being served. Clearly, one, unifying what children and families are experiencing. So regardless of who funds the program their child or if they’re involved with the practice, has some uniformity and consistent quality so that would seem to be the interest served has to do with children and families.

But then when you talk about a self-governance role that seems to me that now we’re talking about the interests of those who are doing the work. And is that a conflict, and in terms of professionalizing our field, does it matter? Can we have multiple interests being served? what’s your take on that?

STACIE: So that’s a good question, I think it’s the first time I’ve been asked it in that way. And so one of the defining attributes or another defining attribute of a profession, is that they are in service to a social good.

TERI: Okay.

STACIE: So if you’re talking about medicine, which can include nursing, as well as you know, physicians. It’s for the health right? And well-being of the individuals that they’re working with.

So in our case, which is really matters around the self-interest of children and families, it’s not just consistent early learning experiences, it’s the consistency of those experiences that in fact are beneficial to Children’s Learning and Development. And that’s the ultimate interest if you will.

Getting to that interest, though, depends upon, in the case of an early childhood education program, the competency of teachers who are interacting with them. So the self-governing piece of it is ensuring that the knowledge base that is available both through science and best practice, is made available to children and their families in society writ large, is well served. And so one of the things that’s supposed to be occurring in professions is in fact that you’re avoiding those conflicts of interests, and when they occur, because that would be a break, if you will, in the code of ethics, then there are mechanisms in place to move those individuals from the practice.

TERI: So going back to my question about whose interests are being served. Even though professionalizing the field is in the interests of those practitioners, because ultimately, they are creating better jobs, with clear standards, better working conditions, and enhanced compensation.

The messaging and the motivation is really around this public good that you’re describing. You know, I think it’s an important point because oftentimes when people talk about professionalization in a negative way, they want to characterize it as self-serving. And oftentimes people are afraid to really make the argument about compensation as it relates to professionalization because it’s viewed in this way as somehow self-serving.

So I think it’s important to get it out on the table, that even having increased compensation, is in the service of having a more stable workforce, that’s able to really be not depressed, able to stay in the field because they can support themselves, as well as provide this valuable service. You know, so like I’ve been struggling somewhat with some of those arguments, and some of those issues, and some of the resistance.

STACIE: For me the starting point is the child and ensuring that children’s… and this has been a value, I think a long-standing value that we can trace back to the beginnings of fields history, is about creating the conditions for children to fulfill their potential and to be effective members in society.

Organizing as a profession is a means to an end. And in the process of creating that means, then we have the opportunity to do a lot of what you are describing in the sense of then creating a more competent, consistently competent, workforce.

And because of that specialized knowledge, which is one of the things we’re gonna have to get better at articulating, this society grants us, if you will, the privilege and responsibility of being self-governing. It’s one of the variables, if you will, or attributes that distinguishes a profession from other occupations. A profession is an occupation, but it’s a particular form of, if you will, of an occupation in terms of how it’s structured.

And so I think when we’re looking at issues of then working conditions and comparable professional compensation, and the recognition, if you will, for the value that we bring. It’s all in service to better serving children and families. And of course I want the field to be recognized, I’m passionate around the field. It matters only though because when we optimize our own development and our own practice, then we will be better able to serve Children and Families.

VOICEOVER: Thanks to Stacie for joining us, and thanks to you for watching. What do you want to hear about in the next episode, and what feedback do you have on the Policy [M]atters series?Tell us in the comment section below.

Until next time!