Greater Good Blog

Improving Early Childhood Education through Investments in Leadership Development

Gwen Walden and Helen Goldberg
Improving Early Childhood Education through Investments in Leadership Development

Strong leaders are critical to achieving many of the ECE sector’s top priorities—providing quality education to young children, increasing equity, and strengthening organizations and systems—yet a lack of investment in leadership development means that few can access training.

Over the last 20 years, a large body of research has been amassed indicating that quality early childhood education is critical for the long-term health of communities: Effective interventions in the early years pay dividends in school, workplace, health, and community outcomes for decades to come and represent highly strategic philanthropic investments.

Recognizing this potential, many public- and private-sector entities have expanded their support for early childhood efforts in the last decade. As the sector seeks simultaneously to scale up and continuously enhance its impact, however, one of the roadblocks it faces is leadership development. Effective leaders are needed both to deliver quality early childhood education at scale and to help address sector-wide priorities related to increasing equity and strengthening systems. Yet leadership development in the Early Childhood Education (ECE) sector is significantly underfunded.

The New Venture Fund, with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, recently commissioned Arabella’s ECE team to review and analyze leadership development within the formal ECE sector across the United States (and with a special focus on California). The resulting report, “Developing Early Childhood Leaders to Support Strong, Equitable Systems,” examines current challenges and opportunities in the field related to leadership development.

Among the report’s main findings:

  • Investing in leaders helps strengthen organizations and systems: Capable leaders help build the strong, stable institutions and systems necessary to provide quality ECE to children and their families. Importantly, strong leaders also contribute to equity in the ECE workforce and for children and improve child and community outcomes.
  • Leadership development opportunities are scarce and scattered: A lack of sustained resources for leadership development has resulted in a small, fragmented field of programs that few people, and very few educators, access—and this has implications for educational quality, organizational and system health, and equity. The main barriers to a healthy leadership ecosystem are resource-related: there is little funding for programs and compensation for participants.
  • Effective leaders share common competencies: The ECE sector understands what makes a leader effective. Many organizations and researchers have identified a small set of leadership competencies, which we have organized into five categories: 1) content and pedagogy, 2) operational and management, 3) team and interpersonal, 4) individual, and 5) policy and community. Existing effective leadership development programs focus on developing at least some of these five competencies.
  • Effective leadership training includes both formal and informal opportunities that are contextualized and provided over time: The sector also understands how to build those effective leaders. To develop strong leaders, the ECE sector needs to offer both formal and informal training opportunities that contextualize learning, build leaders’ networks, and are accessible to all promising leaders, especially the mostly low-income women of color who work in ECE but are not advancing to decision-making roles. A handful of effective programs exist today, and top programs share two important similarities: an applied/contextualized learning opportunity or project, and an extended timeline of six months to three years during which participants can practice and apply what they are learning.
  • Leadership development is an important strategy for funders interested in making ECE systems higher-quality and more equitable: While a small number of public and private funders support ECE leadership development, need outstrips supply. The result is an opportunity for funders who want to support both individuals and systems. When deciding how to invest in leadership development, we recommend that funders answer five questions to determine their approach:
    1. What are the outcomes we are trying to achieve for systems and for children?
    2. How do leaders help to achieve these outcomes?
    3. What types of leaders can help achieve these outcomes?
    4. What competencies do leaders need to achieve these outcomes?
    5. What conditions must be present in the ECE ecosystem for leaders to succeed?

Going forward, we hope that more funders will consider the roles leaders play in the success of the ECE field—and of the children and families that depend upon that leadership. Participation in high-quality leadership development programs has multiple benefits for ECE leaders and the sector overall. Participants gain new knowledge, peer networks, and professional pedigrees. The sector benefits from better knowledge sharing and innovation, continual enhancement of best practices, and increasing equity. Interested funders can engage effectively in multiple ways, whether through scaling or strengthening existing leadership development programs, investing in new programs, or supporting informal leadership development.

To learn more, read the full report here.

If you or those you know have questions about effective funding in this area, please let us know.

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