A number of factors contribute to workforce development and quality professional practice for any professional role. Preparation programs, training, mentoring and coaching, and in-service professional development are all critical direct mechanisms for developing and sustaining the knowledge and competencies of professionals. Various other mechanisms can also contribute to ensuring that the early care and education workforce has what it needs to deliver quality practice that will foster continuous progress in the development and early learning of children from birth through age 8. This report uses the term “professional learning” to describe all opportunities to gain and reinforce necessary knowledge and competencies for quality professional practice.
In addition, other systemic or contextual factors are important to support quality practice, and in many cases are influenced or controlled by stakeholders other than the professionals themselves or the systems that provide them with education and training. These factors include the practice environment, such as working conditions, staffing structures, staff-to-child ratios; the availability of resources such as curricular materials and instructional tools, resources for conducting child assessments, and supplies; policies that affect professional requirements; opportunities for professional advancement; systems for evaluation and ongoing quality improvement; and the status and well-being of the professionals, encompassing, for example, incentives that attract and retain teachers, perceptions of the profession, compensation, and stressors and the availability of supportive services to help manage them.
It is important that these factors work collectively toward the ultimate
aim of ensuring sustained, positive outcomes for children, illustrated in Figure 8-1. Part of these factors working collectively as professional learning and workforce development is that they be mutually driven by the science of child development, and be supported through coherent systems of evaluation and assessment that contribute to continuous quality improvement.
There are several challenges to a comprehensive discussion of professional learning for care and education professionals who work with young children. As will be discussed in the chapters that follow, these challenges highlight some of the fundamental barriers to and opportunities for improving professional learning in this field. Educators who work with children from birth through age 8 encompass a variety of professional roles, there are a variety of entry points to the field, and individuals may follow a variety of pathways to an ultimate professional role in caring for and educating young children. These entry points and pathways vary both by professional role and by the state and local contexts in which individuals work. Professional learning also can occur in a number of different types of settings—for example, in higher education institutions (community colleges, 4-year colleges and universities, graduate schools), in community-based organizations that provide training, and during ongoing practice in the workplace. Support for professional learning also can occur through many different systems, including ones not designed primarily to serve as pathways to education or professional development—for example, program accreditation standards and quality assurance programs. Some of these professional learning opportunities are centered on the practitioner, while others are centered on the program or setting but have components that affect the practitioner or the quality of practice. Professional learning opportunities also vary in their duration: some are time-limited (one-time or periodic), while others are ongoing. For some opportunities, access is practitioner-driven (the practitioner chooses to pursue the activity), while others are dependent on other systems/settings (e.g., what the workplace requires or makes available).
There are large variations in the quantity, quality, and types of professional learning experiences across professional roles working with children from birth through age 8. Furthermore, professional learning currently occurs in fragmented systems that have differing infrastructure and use differing tools and approaches. Professional learning lacks consistency and coordination across types of professional learning supports and across educators who work in different roles and age ranges within the birth through age 8 continuum—this despite the strong rationale for providing children with consistency and continuity in learning experiences as described in Chapter 5. This report puts forth a concept of “professional learning” that is both broader and more cohesive than the siloed ways in which these activities often are implemented in the care and education sector. This concept
FIGURE 8-1 Factors that contribute to quality professional practice and ultimately to improving child outcomes.
encompasses all of the activities that contribute to developing and sustaining quality professional practice and draws attention to common features of high-quality professional learning that contribute to quality practice. These features include
- clarity of purpose;
- content based in the foundations of the science of child development and early learning;
- approaches based on the science of adult learning;
- emphasis on applying theory to practice, including field- and practice-based professional learning experiences;
- alignment with professional standards and guidelines;
- accountability for the quality of professional learning; and
- affordability and equitable access to professional learning, including adequate funding and financing.
Some aspects of professional learning and practice need to be tailored to specific professional roles—for example, educators of infants and toddlers will need to develop certain competencies more fully than educators of older children, who likewise will need to master their own specific instructional strategies. Early intervention specialists or other professionals providing consulting services will need to develop in depth different competencies from those needed by their colleagues who are classroom educators. Yet specialization need not inherently produce or reinforce fragmentation. In fact, such specificity needs to be developed in the context of the shared foundation of child development and early learning. For example, all professionals need to know the basics of how to foster language and literacy development over time even as they learn to apply different instructional practices that are specific to their professional roles and the age range with which they work.
Based on the shared foundation of child development and early learning, all educators need to develop core competencies to move children along a continuous trajectory of learning and developmental goals. Greater consistency and commonality can result from aligning around a shared knowledge base, establishing shared expectations, using common tools where appropriate, building greater mutual understanding of language and terminology across professional roles and professional learning systems, and participating together in some aspects of professional learning. As discussed further in Part V of this report, embracing a broader and more unified concept of professional learning will facilitate a process of coming together across types of professional learning support and across settings and professional roles to arrive at improved consistency and commonality in care and education for children from birth through age 8.
In Figure 8-2, the four grey boxes categorize types of professional learning supports. Although they are depicted in separate boxes, it is important to note that the elements within these boxes interact or overlap with one another. For example, formal coursework can be designed to lead to qualification for a license or credential. Continuing education requirements often are fulfilled through coursework and trainings. For simplicity’s sake, this figure does not depict the various ways in which the elements interact.
The arrows linking “Professional Learning Processes” and the categories of professional learning supports indicate that various processes (e.g., supportive supervision, mentoring, reflective practice) can occur through many of the professional learning supports. The interaction between these processes and learning supports influences quality practice. This graphic makes no judgment on which supports or processes improve practice more than others.
Some of these elements typically are thought of as part of professional learning, often with a framing of “preparation” as learning that takes place before entering practice and “professional development” as learning that takes place for practicing professionals. Other elements, such as program quality assurance systems and peer networks, may not be considered in an integrated way as part of the system of supports for professional learning. These elements are included here because they can contribute directly to the quality of professional practice, and therefore represent an opportunity to expand the concept of professional learning to a comprehensive and more coordinated system.
Figure 8-2 intentionally does not categorize these supports by the settings in which they are delivered or the entities that provide them. These are essential factors that influence how changes in the professional learning system are implemented, but a setting-based schematic also can reinforce barriers or silos based on the current systems infrastructure. Therefore, these factors were set aside for the purpose of starting with a neutral conceptualization of all the potential professional learning mechanisms.
Also absent from Figure 8-2 is a sequencing of these supports. Intentionally designed sequencing is important to quality within some professional learning components that are designed to build a knowledge base and set of competencies in a sequenced manner. More broadly, however, many professionals pursue different professional learning supports in a nonlinear fashion, and it may not be necessary or feasible to represent or prescribe a single best sequence. For example, many teachers at a childcare center may pursue coursework toward a degree concurrently with active practice, often after many years of experience during which they participated in in-service professional learning supports. On the other hand, many elementary school teachers may take a more linear path of pursuing degree-related coursework
FIGURE 8-2 Professional learning supports to ensure quality practice in the workforce for children birth through age 8.
before starting practice, while others may complete degrees in other fields and transition into preparing for a teaching license at a later stage.
The arrow across the top of Figure 8-2 emphasizes that the availability of these supports alone is not sufficient to contribute to quality practice; the supports also need to be of high quality themselves, both well designed and implemented well. Elements of high quality include, for example, that supports develop both knowledge (e.g., child development, subject-matter content, pedagogical content knowledge—see Chapter 6) and the requisite professional competencies (see Chapter 7); that they incorporate instructional best practices for adult learning; and that they acknowledge the need for shared knowledge and competencies across professional roles and across the birth through age 8 age spectrum, thus promoting cross-age, cross-role, and cross-sector learning opportunities. In reality, there is wide variability in the content and quality of these professional learning supports.
Perspectives from the Field
Barriers to professional learning include
- lack of time to pursue professional learning;
- lack of funds to pay for professional learning;
- lack of a professional community, especially in settings outside of school systems—an isolated feeling that is present especially in early childhood settings outside of school systems, particularly small organizations;
- staff turnover and the need to constantly retrain; and
- lack of availability of professional learning activities, especially in rural and resource-constrained areas and for specialized training.
See Appendix C for additional highlights from interviews.
The availability of professional learning supports and the degree to which they are accessed vary greatly across professional roles (e.g., a family childcare provider receives different types and amounts of support than a kindergarten teacher) and across programs or settings (e.g., the experience of professionals in a Head Start program differs from that of professionals in an elementary school). The availability of and access to these supports also vary greatly from place to place. Thus, the supports in Figure 8-2 depict a combination of the current state for some professional roles in some
places and the “universe” of what could be available for other professional roles.
Conclusions About Factors That Affect Quality Practice
A range of factors affect quality practice, including the quality of the care and education environment; working conditions; the knowledge and competencies of the practicing professionals (and the professional learning supports that contribute to their acquisition); the well-being of the workforce; workplace policies; and local, state, and federal policies.
Currently, professional learning for educators of children from birth through age 8 typically takes place in a fragmented, nonsystematic way, with different quantities and types of activities in different settings and systems. Greater consistency and commonality can result from aligning around a shared knowledge base, establishing shared expectations, using common tools where appropriate, building greater mutual understanding of language and terminology across professional roles and professional learning systems, and participating together in some aspects of professional learning. Despite the challenges of doing so, all of the components that contribute to professional learning need to be consolidated in a more comprehensive system of learning supports that are designed, implemented, and provided or accessed in intentional sequences over time to contribute collectively to improving the quality of professional practice.