Over the past few decades, study after study has shown the pivotal importance of early childhood education on long-term academic and social success. Despite the clear benefits of educating young children — from improved cognitive skills and higher high school graduation rates to reductions in justice system involvement — surprisingly little attention has been paid to fostering quality leadership in the field. This imbalance is an area of concern for the Casey Foundation, whose efforts to ensure a bright future for all children include a commitment to developing dynamic, results-based leaders.
According to Developing Early Childhood Leaders to Support Strong, Equitable Systems, a recent report commissioned by the New Venture Fund, the overall lack of investment in leadership development “has resulted in a small, fragmented field of programs that few people, and very few educators, access.” This inadequate investment limits the capacity of the early childhood education sector to achieve its most important results, including increasing equity and building stronger, more effective organizations and systems.
In a sparse funding landscape, where the available resources are mostly funneled toward direct service programs, what can be done to address the leadership development shortage? For answers, the report’s researchers interviewed leaders in the field to identify existing training models that have proven successful in preparing early childhood educators and administrators for leadership roles.
Researchers found that the model respondents most often identified as effective was Casey’s leadership-development approach — which, notably, was not designed with the specific needs of the early childhood sector in mind. The leaders interviewed, including past participants in the Foundation’s leadership programs, pointed out three valuable concepts in Casey’s approach:
- contextualized and applied learning, which required participants to work on a project based on their own local data;
- the cohort model, which helped participants build a network of support; and
- the geographical diversity of participants in national programs, which broadened perspectives, allowed for more candid interactions and increased the shared pool of information and resources.
In trying to move the needle at the population level, early childhood leaders benefit from Casey’s emphasis on the use of data to track progress and measure outcomes. And since meaningful change is more likely when leaders’ actions are aligned toward a shared goal, the Casey model stresses developing skills in teamwork and collaboration. The report’s respondents acknowledged that Casey focused on competencies that effective leaders should possess.
For early childhood education systems to improve and extend quality services to all children, the report finds, privately funded leadership development programs like Casey’s can no longer be a rare breed — others must rise to the challenge. By investing in training opportunities for existing and potential leaders, public- and private-sector funders alike can contribute to improving outcomes for the children and families whose futures hinge on their success.