The Work Beneath the Work: What We're Fighting About When We're Fighting About Our Profession
As most any couple will tell you, you’re never actually fighting about the dishes. You’re fighting about what doing the dishes says about how you’re valued and respected. In Congress, likewise, and in our early childhood education (ECE) community, we’re often not fighting about the thing we appear to be fighting about. Instead we are grappling with questions about motives and compromises. We’re wrestling with questions about whose voices get to lead, get sidelined, and get dismissed. And we’re confronting questions of control, fear, privilege, power, and trust. Let’s call this the “work beneath the work.”
As a new Congress struggles to find a way forward, and ECE attempts to detangle its “thorny knot,” policymakers, advocates, and influencers are engaging with (or avoiding) that deeper work. But as early childhood advocates who must engage, it is imperative that we assume responsibility for the systems and sequences we design, especially those of us (and I count myself among them) who have, in some way and because of some unearned attributes, benefitted from one or many of these systems. We cannot allow our privilege to get in the way, as Killins Stewart posits that we do, nor blind ourselves, as Washington references, to the ways in which our lack of respect for educators is made visible.
We must connect the dots between things such as Sykes’ (accurate) assessment of a system rife with racism, elitism, sexism, and classism and Washington’s concern that our “numbers adequately reflect the demographics of the children and families served among 'new' roles such as coaches, [etc.]” We must then take that connection to the next step by adding new details to questions such as one posed by Cox Mitchell so that we ask: “Do the QRIS and pre-K systems being designed and financed support the coaching and quality assessment industry (which tends to be more highly-paid, more highly-educated, and less diverse) while simultaneously only minimally supporting educator compensation and working conditions (among a profession that is less well-paid, less well-educated, and made up of a greater percentage of women of color)?”
The answer to that question, added parentheses and all, is yes; and the point is that those of us who create and influence policy could do it differently. We could, for example, create quality rating and improvement systems that reverse the focus – i.e., they create incentives that lean more towards increasing the compensation and working conditions of the frontline professional, and less towards the growth of the coaching industry. But typically we don’t. Instead we call consequences of policies we create “unintended,” even when they are predictable, or we bemoan results of the problems we’ve created for ourselves.
Why do we do this? What do we believe about educators doing this work that causes us, as advocates, funders, and policymakers, to design and promote systems that invest in systems and structures around the profession rather than in the profession itself? What is behind the “countless rule changes” that Mann references in her blog, with their “unintended consequences too often generated for those on the frontlines of this work?” As early childhood advocates, our “work beneath the work” should be to ask questions such as: Are these consequences actually unintended? Why don’t we create QRIS systems that invest first and foremost in frontline educators? Why is it so hard to achieve articulation between associate’s and bachelor’s degrees? And further: who is benefiting from the way things work? Who is helped by a kind of controlled chaos?
The truth is that somebody always benefits. Most things don’t just happen, no harm intended.
Michelle Alexander, in her seminal book, “The New Jim Crow,” writes of efforts by “white elites to decimate a multiracial alliance of poor people”—in other words, to make sure that the people who should be banding together to fight a shared challenge instead are fighting each other. Sowing division is one of numerous, intentional strategies to halting change, and, like for our country at large, these strategies represent a threat faced by the ECE field.
If there’s to be any hope of addressing them, these threats have to be understood. Here’s just one example of how sowing division plays out: those who are demanding increased affordability of early learning programs get pitted against those demanding their increased quality. The ECE field gets sucked into making it seem this is the field’s defining division and engage in internecine fights with each other instead of turning towards policymakers and holding them accountable for developing financing solutions that transcend the false schism.
It doesn’t have to be this way. False choices can be avoided. But to stop fighting the wrong fights, we must do the work beneath the work, which includes seeking out and welcoming new voices, questions, experiences, ideas, and perspectives, especially from early childhood educators on the front lines. Significant and sustained public investments can’t be won without them. As new Representative Ilhan Omar tweeted a few months ago, “We get what we organize for.” So let’s get clear on who we are fighting, what we’re fighting about, and who we are fighting for; in other words, let’s get to (the work beneath the) work.
This post was originally published at the New America blog.