Keeping it real and optimistic: Will attaining Bachelor degrees bring rainbows across the sky?


Hooray for fantastic and lofty goals focused on early childhood educators attaining four-year degrees that enhance and challenge their joyful work with children and their families! … But then, BANG! Rainbows don’t appear across the sky because we hit the wall and reality of our nation. While the horizon recedes, though, the dream remains … albeit only a dream.

My  esteemed colleagues and friends eloquently — and with incredible conviction and determination — make the case for higher academic preparation for the thousands of women who daily work with children. Yes, early childhood education’s (ECE) progress and advancement demonstrate ways to move forward. Yes, mandates and initiatives have spurred successful models that support early childhood educators’ academic advancement. Yes, if we could only be Norway!

As a steadfast optimist, I have profound appreciation for the leaders and pioneers who have challenged and pushed our thinking toward ECE becoming a professionally prepared work force. Although each step along the way has been a struggle, new possibilities emerge and higher levels of educator competence are achieved. In turn, awareness of the inherent benefits of our work with young children and their families has increased. I extend my gratitude to those who’ve made the case for early childhood educators’ further academic advancement. As optimists, they recognize we don’t live in a perfect world, but our efforts can still improve the status quo.

Yet, doubt and cynicism unavoidably intrudes into our positive thinking because our aspirations are starkly restrained by economics. Even superficial discussions of economic class differences can feel “unpleasant“; yet, to a great degree, economics define the reality and circumstances across our nation’s communities. Families must, for the most part, make child development choices based on economics; their employment is based on economics; their return to school to earn a degree is based on economics, and alas, program quality is defined by economics, too.

I, too, long for Scandinavian-like models where political, economic, and public will create conditions that promote equity and access for all families – from prenatal care, maternity leave, to enviable early childhood education program options. For a much more limited American model, we’ve begun estimating a price tag of about  $140 billion a year – a financial figure unlikely to be embraced by our politicians.

No longer can the pretension exist that our country is an idyllic colorful mosaic, melting pot, or mixed salad. Even so, my optimism is elevated by the fact that the dynamics of community life are nourished by family interactions and encounters with the women who work with, take care of, and teach our nation’s young children.

Based on a core belief that education makes a significant difference to individuals and families, it has become the beacon of the American experience.  As  Jamal Berry’s blog notes, many in our early childhood workforce begin their ECE career journey by volunteering in a classroom. For others, obtaining a degree represents a symbolic victory earned by becoming the first in their family to attend college. For immigrant women, obtaining a degree can fulfill the American dream of getting a college education.

It is blood, sweat, and tears to return to school as an adult —especially if it involves taking a math class seven times! As Sue Russell’s  blog points out, the overwhelming message from the women I’m describing centers on “actualization, transformation, and profound appreciation,“ affirming their commitment to children and their families.

But those for whom these results are not realistic must still be considered part of ECE. They cannot — should not — be left behind. As a field of practice and as part of human focused organizations, it is a matter of respect and decency to support and include workers with a range of heart capacity, academic foundations, and joyful commitment to young children. ECE’s on-going professional development efforts must continue to integrate diversity of talents, skills, and abilities.

It often is said that if you want to see the face of America in 20 years, look at children in a kindergarten classroom. These children represent the new and next America, and their families and teachers are part of this picture. Preserving a sense of hope in our nation will take collective intelligence, compassion, energy, and a belief in dreams and rainbows. Let’s not give oxygen to a culture of have and have-nots. Let’s respect those doing great work wherever they are in their ladder of learning. Let’s collaborate, support, and be vigilant with institutions of higher learning regarding how ECE degree and non-degree programs address the aspirations and needs of adult learners.

But unrealistic expectations of academic uniformity can only turn to dark clouds and unwelcome storms. Our faith needs to be placed in human potential. Optimism for the future is best based on the progress and respect of individuals doing work that is meaningful and important.  Although we must move forward cautiously, we should never renege on the belief that genuine optimism can carry our profession forward.