Centering equity: leading for equity in early learning

Center director and principal preparation programs should focus on the importance of leadership in creating equitable programs, services, and interactions.

by Thelma Wong

(Originally published October 22, 2019, by New America)

Early learning program leaders from across the state stream into a large training room. Their focus: prepare themselves to promote equitable program and system practices that lead to strong outcomes for children who have been marginalized by the early learning and education systems. Soft chatter, affirming nods, and the sounds of thought meeting paper create a quiet anticipation as they respond to a set of prompts centered on hiring discrimination myths and facts. This is a carefully crafted activity for leaders to analyze their own program policies and to reflect on the ways they and others have experienced those policies. From within a supportive community of practice environment, these early childhood leaders will complete a policy and practice inventory. Then, each leader will use the results to engage colleagues within the community of practice, as well as their staff and families, in answering questions about power, representation, and their own roles as leaders in perpetuating or disrupting the societal inequities that are mirrored in their early learning programs.

The early learning field benefits from the important research and lessons gathered across K-12 contexts, particularly in its pursuit of more equitable systems, policies, and practices. One important takeaway is clear: leaders matter. Their influence is second only to teachers (among school-related factors) in their impact on child progress and learning. The effect of leadership is greatest in schools where the learning needs of students are most acute. Knowing the centrality of leaders in the early learning space, center director and principal preparation programs should focus on the importance of leadership in creating equitable programs, services, and interactions on behalf of young children, families, and education professionals.

So where do we begin?

Local, equity-focused leadership efforts exist in the early learning space, seeding the environment for momentum and continued study of this important topic. For example, in the last year, the Illinois Early Learning Council adopted a definition of racial equity, and the Illinois State Board of Education and the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development are implementing a demonstration project providing racial equity training to Preschool Development Grant-Expansion Grant program administrators.

Julia Zhu, the Community Systems Policy Director for the Illinois Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, and her team are on a mission to ensure that administrators and leaders have the concrete tools they need to disrupt racial inequities and pave the way for new approaches to leadership in early learning. Through an intensive training, coaching, and peer community of practice facilitated by School Readiness Consulting, leaders are focused on equitable hiring practices that lead to a more diverse early education workforce and understanding family engagement, curriculum instruction, and assessment using an equity framework. The demonstration will be evaluated in an effort to understand what lessons local leaders can share with the state about preparing leaders to continually build individual awareness and skills around equity in early learning, while at the same time push their own organizations forward towards more equitable policies and practices.

Another example of locally-oriented leadership efforts to tackle the complex issues of inequity in early learning systems is the Thrive Washington Community of Practice for Racial Equity. An ongoing effort that began with over 100 local leaders from throughout Washington, the community of practice invites these leaders to participate in a state-wide community of practice and also provides tools and resources to other local communities for initiating their own community of practice on racial equity. Through compelling reading, discussions, and the development of a theory of change and action plan, the Thrive Community of Practice provides a template to local leaders for how to take up the work of racial equity in their own communities.

And what’s next?

While these efforts are innovative examples across different contexts, there is much work to do to identify more diverse leaders for assuming leadership in local early learning contexts and to prepare leaders to enact their own leadership in ways that create more equitable policies and programming.

Program leaders must ask themselves how diversity is reflected in their own programs and ensure that spaces are created to draw upon more perspectives and experiences. As Cecelia Alvarado, a life-long advocate for equity in education, put it, “You have to value the perspectives of others to ask the question of who belongs at the table. Representation is about how we live as a society. How do we live so separated from one another? Our country is incredibly diverse but we choose NOT to interact.” Leaders in early learning have to choose differently.