A Moment with Dr. Moore

September 22, 2021

Pathways and Pipelines: Building a Diverse ECE Workforce

The face of early childhood is rapidly changing in our nation. This year, children of color made up over half of those under five, according to the State of America’s Children 2021 report. Children of immigrant parents, who embrace a wide range of cultures and creeds, accounted for one in four of all those under age six. And projections are that our population will become even more racially and ethnically diverse. “The U.S.—and especially our youngest generation—is reaching a critical moment in racial and ethnic diversity,” said Dr. Starsky Wilson, president, and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund, which published the report. The data it contains points more than ever to the need for a diverse early childhood workforce that can deliver culturally responsive care.

The benefits of a workforce like this are already widely known. Children of color who have a teacher of their own ethnicity or race may improve their test scores, are less likely to have discipline problems and tend to have more confidence in themselves. In addition, a diverse ECE workforce and setting is good for children of all backgrounds since it exposes them to many perspectives, improves their problem-solving skills and may increase their sense of civic engagement.

In short, teachers of color help close achievement gaps for young learners of color and have advantages for children of all races. So, we need to help folks from diverse backgrounds discover careers in the early education field, as I pointed out in an op-ed this month. We need a pipeline to bring new teachers into the early childhood field and pathways by which they can get the credentials and training to advance in their profession. I had both after my aunt encouraged me to work at a Head Start Center that promptly put me in a CDA® program at a local community college. And that was the start of a career in which I have gone on to thrive.

Still, as a Black man in a mainly white, female-dominated field, I have faced challenges, so I’m committed to help others surmount roadblocks and find their path in our field. Granted, recent decades have seen an increase in teachers of color, but the pace is slow and attrition rates are high, leaving a gap between supply and demand. To fill the gulf, center directors need to take focused steps to recruit and support staff who come from the diverse communities we serve.

For example, preschool directors might partner with high schools and colleges that reflect the demographics of their early childhood classroom. It helps for the directors to work with schools whose faculty is diverse, too, and can provide role models for students. Many young people are looking for a career. So hopefully some will take the step toward a profession where their perspectives and presence are urgently needed—a message that should also come across in recruitment ads for early childhood teachers.

But recruitment is only the first step in building a diverse ECE workforce. Teachers also need to feel respected if they are to remain on the job. And they need to know they have avenues to grow in their career. A key step to retention is to cultivate a spirit of advancement, according to the global consulting firm Mercer. Its research shows that 78 percent of employees would stay at their current job if there was a clear path for growth. So, center directors should provide teachers with chances for professional development and learning: support groups for new staff, collaborative work with other teachers and mentoring by seasoned colleagues—especially other teachers of color.

Opportunities like these are most crucial for teachers of color since they tend to be employed in positions with lower credential requirements and less pay compared to their white peers. Consequently, it’s often harder for our educators of color to afford the degrees and training that would allow them to advance in their careers.

Policy makers can help by providing scholarships for early childhood teachers. Training groups and institutions of higher ed can also level the playing field by providing evening or online classes and courses in the multiple languages our early educators speak—all measures that can allow teachers of color to assume higher roles in our field.

It’s important for children to see diverse faces in leadership roles because that shapes the way they look at themselves. For many children, their enrollment in an early childhood program represents a first step into the wider world. It presents them with a mirror that reflects the way society looks at them and how they should look at themselves. So, we need to show them faces that mirror their own and inspire them to achieve. We need to pave the way for a diverse, highly skilled workforce that can guide all our nation’s young learners in finding their path ahead.

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