Secretary Cardona Says Back to Normal Is a ‘Low Bar’ in Early Childhood Education


Getting back to normal may be a chief goal of cities, states and ordinary people as the pandemic subsides. But when it comes to the broken state of early childhood education in the U.S., the status quo would be nothing short of an unfortunate outcome, says Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

On Tuesday, Cardona convened a virtual gathering with early childhood stakeholders and leaders to discuss topics such as the early childhood workforce, child care and pre-K, early intervention, special education services and family engagement, in hopes of informing and shaping the Education Department’s priorities around early care and education.

“We know that this upcoming year is going to be critically important,” Cardona said in opening the roundtable, “and this conversation today is going to help shape some of the work that we do in early learning.”

Joan Lombardi, a senior scholar at Georgetown University and expert on child development and social policy who joined the call, said that the pandemic has created an environment ripe for collaboration among families and early childhood educators.

“I think we’ve seen a renewed coming together of parents as teachers, and teachers, realizing that they’re in this together, and I think you can build upon that,” Lombardi said. “I can’t reinforce enough how much we need to revolutionize the K-3 system … and the child care and preschool discussion … they should be planning together in a community.”

So far, the Biden administration has proposed a plan for universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the U.S.—the outcome of which still hangs in the balance of a divided Senate. And it has temporarily expanded child tax credits, which will come in the form of monthly payments from the federal government, starting in July, to about 40 millions U.S. households with children under age 18.

Lea Austin, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California, Berkeley, referenced a Biden administration slogan as she emphasized the need to elevate the early childhood workforce. That means, for starters, improving wages and addressing racial inequities in the field.

“As we think about ‘building back better,’” Austin said, “for me, it really means having those educators who are the linchpin to early care and education quality thriving—and for these to be good jobs so that we have people clamoring to be early educators in this country.”

Today’s reality is far from that dream. Many early childhood educators are leaving their posts for jobs that pay better, offer benefits and come with more flexibility. EdSurge has reported that many early educators have left the field not only for K-12 roles, but for jobs working in retail or restaurants, where hourly pay is more generous than most child care programs offer. The CSCCE has found that the average child care worker in the U.S. makes just $11.65 per hour.

Cardona said he intended to take the feedback and ideas raised on the call and incorporate them into concrete plans for improving early care and education.

“Going back to what it was prior to March 2020 is not the goal,” he said. “That’s a low bar.”

On his “Help is Here” school reopening tour this spring, where he was often joined by educator and First Lady Jill Biden, Cardona said that he visited 11 states and noticed that even where educators and stakeholders disagreed, those that put “students at the center of the conversation” tended to be most successful. “Those places that are doing the best are the ones that understand intentional collaboration,” he said.

“Supporting the development of our young children and families should be a community effort,” he added in closing, “because when our children succeed, our communities succeed.”



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