Friday, September 22, 2023

We Could be Using Our Power to Demand Evidence-Based Childhoods for All

Woodland Park is a first-come-first-served school. This means that the first families in line when registration opens are the ones who get in, the only exception being that our charter allows us to move alumni families to the front of the line.

When I first started teaching, this was a literal line. The 40 or so cooperative preschools that operate under the auspices of North Seattle College would set up tables in a large room on the designated morning, then the doors would be thrown open at 9 a.m. and the race was on. Generally, we would have filled our 65 spots by 9:30. In more recent years, the process has moved online, but it is still something of a cut-throat affair as people sit with their phones dialing over and over until they get through.

We were a popular preschool, meaning that we would wind up with a waiting list that we shared with our sister schools. For most of my two decades with the North Seattle system, there was always a spot somewhere for a family interested in coop, just not always in their first choice school. This continues to be true because half day programs that require hours a week of parent involvement, including in the classroom, isn’t for everyone.

Most American families are looking for full-day, drop-off preschool or daycare and in recent years that has become increasingly scarce. Right across the country there are too many children from the spots available. This has long been a problem, but with some 10 percent of centers closing permanently during the pandemic and the nationwide “worker shortage,” the situation has gotten much worse. 

From a purely economic point of view, it’s a miracle that more preschools and child care programs didn’t succumb. I mean, it’s never been a particularly profitable business for entrepreneurial-minded people. From a purely economic point of view, I’m often shocked that anyone remains in the profession. These are among the lowest paid jobs that require a college degree with the average annual salary of a little over $30,000, which is the equivalent of a minimum wage job, without benefits, in many places. With tuitions so high that they severely strain the budgets of even upper middle class families, it’s no wonder that US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen calls ours “a textbook example of a broken market.”

Of course, none of us got into this profession to get rich. For most of us, teaching and caring is more a calling than a vocation. Most of us would still do it even if we were paid less. We would do it even if our working conditions were worse. We would show up every day no matter what. We do it for the children. We do it for the families. And yes, we do it because there is nothing more richly rewarding when you consider non-economic measures.

It’s wonderful, but it’s also a problem. It’s this attitude, I believe, that makes it possible for us to continue to be underpaid and underappreciated. It’s this attitude that causes us to succumb to the pressure to engage in developmentally inappropriate practices like formal literacy instruction for three-year-olds. We know that young children should be playing, but I can’t tell you how often educators have agreed with me only to  complain that “the parents” demand preschool academics, so they have no choice but to accommodate them. Really? Maybe we need to be saying, “I will not harm your child.”

As “broken” as things are, we find ourselves in a position of power. I know that’s an uncomfortable place to be for many of us. We don’t, generally speaking, seek power, nor are we eager to wield it, but here we are. We are in a position, each of us, to use this power to empower the next generation.

If the world learned anything from the pandemic it’s that preschools and child care are the foundations of our economy. That’s right, the principle project of every civilization that has ever existed is to care for the children. If that doesn’t happen, then nothing else happens. When parents don’t have a safe, loving place for their children, they stay home from work. When they stay home from work, the economy grinds to a halt. When we accommodate the system by accepting low and lower pay, we are, in essence, carrying the entire system on our backs. I used to ask people to perform the mental experiment of imagining what would happen to the world if we all went on strike. The pandemic forced us to more or less try that experiment in the real world.

But as we know, most of us aren’t in this for the money, although I think we all can agree that we deserve to earn at least as much as public school teachers. We’re not asking to get rich; we’re asking for a living wage. Collectively, right now, we have the power to demand this. 

Where will the money come from? That’s the kind of question that caring people ask because we fear that it will have to come from the families who are already struggling. It’s also not a question for us to answer. We are preschool teachers and caregivers. What we do is foundational, not just to the economy, but civilization itself. Fixing a “broken market” is a job for economists and policymakers. But I will mention that as a non-economist it certainly seems like employers, especially big employers, should be the ones stepping up. We’re in an era of extremely high corporate profits. Shouldn’t that be where the money comes from? I mean, without us, their enterprises simply can’t function.

More importantly, however, I want to see us using our power to bring play back into the center of the lives of young children. One of the most bizarre things about our “broken” profession is that those few young people who are still enrolling in early childhood university programs are being taught the latest evidence-based, developmentally-appropriate practices, only to graduate into a real world where most schools simply, harmfully, do the opposite. According to psychologist and researcher Peter Gray, we have never seen such high levels of anxiety and depression in our young children and much of that can be directly linked to the dramatic decline in childhood play over the past couple generations. We have the power to reverse this. We have the power to say, “I’ll do this job, but only if we are going to do what is best for young children according to the evidence.” 

We could be using our power to demand evidence-based childhoods for all. We could be doing that right now.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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