Bank Street Releases Occasional Paper Series #51

The new Bank Street Occasional Paper Series #51—”Reconceptualizing Quality Early Care and Education with Equity at the Center”—launched today to explore new ways of defining “quality” in early care and education, suggesting how educators and policymakers can leverage culturally, linguistically, and disability-inclusive practices to create meaningful educational experiences for all children.

In the Q&A below, guest editors Mark Nagasawa, director, and Cristina Medellin-Paz, associate director, Straus Center for Young Children & Families, Bank Street College of Education, offer a closer look at this issue’s theme and how the challenges that permeate the early care and education field might be addressed to create a more just, equitable learning landscape.

Q: How does this issue redefine or expand on the conventional understanding of “quality” in early care and education?

A: Typically, people think of a “quality early childhood program” as something “you know when you see it.” Because of this kind of subjectivity, over the past 40 years or so there has been a big push to create objective criteria and measurements of quality. This includes elements like class sizes, adult-to-child ratios, early childhood educators’ formal education, and rating scales that look at things like how classrooms are organized, what kinds of materials they have, and, more recently, how the teachers interact with children. These are things that could be important, or they can be missing the point.

Implicit in all of this work to define quality is a recognition that teachers are key to “high-quality” programs. But, despite this fact, who teachers are, how they think about their practice, and how their development can be nurtured have been strangely marginalized questions. If we are being truthful, early childhood educators, the vast majority of whom identify as women, are seen as important only in service to children. A system that rests upon this misogynistic assumption cannot truly value children. This is why Issue 51’s focus on the concept of “ethical encounters” in early childhood education (ECE) is so important. This idea speaks to relational ethics and the reality, as Bank Street has long held, that humans develop through their interactions with each other. This is why Occasional Paper Series (OPS) 51 maintains that any consideration of “quality” in ECE must begin by valuing early childhood educators.  

Q: In your introduction, you reference “deeply held assumptions about the universality of childhood and how these shape the standardization of practices in early childhood settings around the world.” What are some of these assumptions?

A: People often think that all children are the same, saying things like “My 3-year old just won’t wear her shoes.”. There is some truth to these observations, but they get overgeneralized to apply to all children, everywhere, regardless of their circumstances. Human development is a far more complex, dynamic set of bio-psycho-social processes than “ages and stages.” There are things about 3-year-olds in New York City and Bogotá that are similar, but universalist assumptions erase the meaningful differences and richness that growing up in these different cultural and linguistic settings suggests. 

Q: What is needed from educators, policymakers, families, and communities to be able to integrate culturally, linguistically, and disabilities-affirming approaches into mainstream educational practices?

A: This is a complicated question, however, we think it begins with the quality of how we reflect on these practices. This has to be more than self-reflection. This praxis is far too much for any of us to figure out alone. We need colleagues to act as sounding boards and to call us out and back in when we inevitably make mistakes. This collaborative reflection also has to extend beyond one-to-one interactions between teachers and children. We must understand how classrooms are microcosms of society’s good and bad qualities, how programs’ and schools’ organizational functioning affects interpersonal interactions, and, critically important, how policy systems can be developmentally nurturing or harmful. This is why we introduce the idea of “competent systems” in Issue 51. 

Professionals, from teachers to policy makers, need to attend to the quality of their interactions with each other, families, and community members as they ask, Who am I listening to and who am I ignoring? What am I doing to reach out to families I don’t know and what more could I do? What am I doing as a program leader to create spaces for teachers and parents to interact as people (all parents or just some of them)? What am I as a policy maker doing to help my colleagues in the field be whole and present for children and families? Am I truly interested in how policy decisions are experienced on the ground? Reflective practice must be system-wide.

Q: How do you envision the future of early childhood education evolving based on the insights and recommendations presented in this issue?

A: The original idea for OPS 51 was that notions of quality have been so narrow amongst researchers, education publishers, and others from the ECE field  who hold universalist assumptions that what children “need” are just “natural.” We believed then, as now, that one barrier to rethinking quality is a lack of awareness that alternatives exist. Our aim was to shed a little light on alternative practices, knowing full well that OPS 51 can only be a beginning. 

While this collection only showcases a handful of practices, if these few examples were more widespread and systemically supported, we hypothesize that there would be ripple effects on some of the most vexing issues facing ECE: teacher well-being and turnover, racially disproportionate punishment in preschools, segregation of children with disabilities, and a profession disengaged from the policy decisions that affect them. This is not to suggest that the practices illustrated in OPS 51 will directly fix all of these problems but rather the understanding that interpersonal interactions are at the root of systemic solutions.   

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this issue?

A: We hope that readers, many of whom may initially wonder how OPS 51 is about quality in ECE, will come away thinking, Oh, we do that. I wish we did that. And We can do that. Our hope is that our colleagues in this issue inspire more early childhood  educators to sing “songs of themselves” (and of others) and that more scholars will focus on using their positional privileges to amplify the too often hidden voices, perspectives, and practice wisdom that is alive in classrooms and programs across the US and world.

Read the full issue of Occasional Paper Series #51