Setbacks in early childhood development, workforce reveal underlying inequity, according to U-M study

June 18, 2021
Written By:
Jeff Karoub

Man working on laptop from home sitting on couch by Jacob Lund from Noun Project

The pandemic affected all families and early childhood education programs, but it exposed existing inequities in communities and systems, according to a new University of Michigan study.

The report from the Education Policy Initiative at U-M’s Ford School of Public Policy, the Urban Institute and early childhood experts at nine other institutions is the result of a systematic review and synthesis of the 80 most high-quality studies of the issue. The early childhood workforce, which already has notoriously high turnover, suffered more instability, hindering quality of early learning programs.

Authors say findings of the report, (PDF) “Historic Crisis, Historic Opportunity: Using Evidence to Mitigate the Effects of the COVID-19 Crisis on Young Children and Early Care and Education Program,” are particularly important to understand as children learn more in the first several years of life than at any other time.

Christina Weiland

Christina Weiland

“The crisis has exposed inequities across the early childhood education system,” said Christina Weiland, one of the authors and faculty co-director of the education initiative. “The things that keep us safe in a pandemic (like distancing) are not as conducive for learning for young children and the effects of the crisis were not born equally by families. The crisis also added immense challenges and stress for early educators—including fears about getting sick, increased financial stress and the additional work to enhance safety in in-person settings and to adapt to remote learning.”

Key findings include:

  • Remote/hybrid learning was challenging for children, families and teachers, and resulted in less learning time and lower-quality instruction.
  • Children of color, dual-language learners and children from families with low incomes appear to have been more negatively affected. Young children with special needs may not have been identified and may not have gotten the services they needed.
  • Child care centers and family child care homes experienced serious financial ramifications that made it difficult to operate. Public schools and Head Start programs experienced more stable funding and were not as affected.
  • The pandemic increased the complexity and stress of early educators’ jobs, in ways that may ultimately lead to increased turnover. Data from fall 2020 and spring 2021 in particular suggest that teachers’ commitment to both their jobs and early learning in general has decreased, and providers are struggling to hire qualified teachers.

The report shows that evidence also points to the historic opportunity afforded by the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan signed into law in March—the largest public investment in early care and education in U.S. history—as well as potential new funding from the administration’s American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan.

The report concludes with evidence-based, equity-centered recommendations for supporting early care and education settings that can help inform how state and local agencies spend new federal stimulus dollars. Among them:

  • Disruptions over the last 15 months call for acting on the best science of teaching and learning for young children. This science includes implementing effective curriculum, coaching, and professional development for teachers; making the most of the next several summers; tutoring as early as kindergarten; and hiring assistant teachers to ensure children have time in small groups and experience instruction that meets them where they are.
  • Educators can place extra weight on socio-emotional development and consider trauma-informed approaches, which can address longstanding racial disparities.
  • Online and virtual early learning posed challenges but expanded use of technology supported closer home-school connections. Continuing virtual options to connect with families will strengthen home-school connections just as offering free, technology-based learning supports will strengthen teaching and learning well beyond the pandemic.
  • Public investments must be sufficient to pay all early childhood learning workers a living wage and establish pay parity with K-12 for educators with matching qualifications. If vaccine boosters are necessary, prioritizing early educators alongside K-12 teachers will serve the ECE workforce and lessen future disruptions to teaching and learning.
  • Publicly funded early childhood education programs fared better during the crisis than private-pay programs. Expanding public funding can strengthen ECE in the short and long term, especially for programs serving infants and toddlers.