Keep education standards high for young learners

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When I was responsible for the Instruments Division at Stryker, the West Michigan-based Fortune 500 company, I knew we had to continually invest in our sales representatives. They must be on top of the latest technology and medical advancements. After all, they have patients and surgeons counting on our products. Stryker’s representatives need to ensure that the equipment performs at the highest level in the operating room.

After I retired and had more time for community engagement, I saw the need for high quality early education and the role business could play in supporting it. I especially felt this was true when I got involved with KC Ready 4s, a Kalamazoo County nonprofit that works to increase the quality of pre-K in our community, regardless of the family’s finances. What could be more fun than helping kids get a great start in life?

Kristyn Buhl-Lepisto, the organization’s executive director, quickly helped me realize that what we called day care when my kids were young is as focused on quality training and improvement as I was in my professional life.

Buhl-Lepisto and her colleagues understand that this is occurring because we’re always discovering more about how the brain develops. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child reports that an estimated 1 million new neural connections form every second in the first years of life. The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” also is true — it’s easier and less costly to form strong brain circuits during those early years than it is to try later.

I’ve seen the value early childhood educators bring to their roles when they have this kind of insight — when they understand how children benefit from what’s called the serve-and-return interaction between them, parents and other caregivers.

As an organization that supports and advocates for high-quality practices in the classroom, KC Ready 4s encourages its partner teachers to attain the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential from the nonprofit Council for Professional Recognition.

Recipients learn how to create a safe and healthy learning environment; support children’s social and emotional development; and build productive relationships with families. These competencies are critical to educators who are new to the field.

Approximately 32,000 early childhood educators in our state and nearly 1 million in the U.S. have earned a CDA over the credential’s 45-year history. CDA-holders have knowledge of how to put the CDA Competency Standards into practice and an understanding of why those standards help children move with success from one developmental stage to another.

I’m so impressed with this credentialing process that I’ve joined the council as a board member.

As we recover from the pandemic, we know we’re dealing with a loss of educators. KC Ready 4s reports that over 55% of programs say that staffing is their greatest challenge. It responded, in part, by providing a gratitude bonus to teachers at their partnering programs to assist with wages. Another initiative, Thriving Teachers — Thriving Children, offers health and wellness benefits such as free counseling and access to telemedicine through an employee-assistance program. 

Some may say the answer to our early education staffing issue is just to lower the standards and let anyone who passes a background check fill a spot. That’s exactly the wrong direction. We certainly would never be able to get away with that in the medical equipment field — the quality always must be high, even if there are worker shortages or delayed parts.

Now is the time to rethink how we encourage and support the certifications, pay and benefits we offer early childhood educators. We believe our approach is a great fit for our West Michigan community and we challenge others to step up with their ideas at this critical time. 

Jim Heath is board treasurer of the Council for Professional Recognition.

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