Michelle Kang has spent much of her first month as the new CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) on something of a listening tour.
She’s visited child care programs to see and hear what providers and educators are facing more than two years into the pandemic. She’s had numerous conversations with folks in the field about the challenges that are holding them back from thriving in a profession they love—staffing shortages, low pay, better opportunities elsewhere.
“One of the commitments I have made as CEO is every chance I get, I’m meeting with educators,” says Kang, who assumed the role as head of the nonprofit early childhood association on May 2. “Every week, I’m talking with people in the field.”
By hearing educators’ stories, Kang says, she will be in a better position to share them and promote greater awareness and understanding. And though the struggles in early childhood education are largely systemic, it’s the individual, humanizing, heart-wrenching stories that are more likely to change public perception and, eventually, shift policy.
Just the other day, Kang was talking with an educator who’d worked in a center-based preschool—a job “she loved and felt so drawn to,” Kang says—but was pushed out because she couldn’t afford to support her family on the income she was earning there. She took a job instead at a school, but “thinks every day about going back to early childhood.”
This predicament is not rare. In fact, it’s increasingly common to hear about early childhood educators who can no longer justify staying in the field. Just as often, though, it’s not a K-12 school the educators are leaving for. It’s Target, Amazon, Costco or some other big-box store or corporation that pays by the hour, promises far less stress, and has more flexibility to respond to market changes than a child care program whose margins are already razor-thin.
So Kang is listening. That’s one of the two priorities weighing heavily on her mind. The other is creating belonging at NAEYC, a professional and advocacy organization with nearly 60,000 members across its 52 affiliates.
“I want NAEYC to be a place where, no matter how you got to this field, you see yourself here, you are included and accepted, and you want to be part of this organization because of what we represent and want to achieve,” Kang shared in an interview during her third week as CEO.
A Devoted Career
Kang has devoted her career to early childhood education—an early love that she says was forged during her experience growing up as the oldest child of Korean immigrants. In northern Virginia, she watched her parents navigate language barriers, cultural differences and caregiving responsibilities as best they could, sometimes stepping up to serve as the translator herself.
This experience left her naturally interested in child well-being, she says, and made her want to understand what support exists for families and to advocate for better investments in early childhood.
She entered the field—and has spent the bulk of her career—on the employer side of things. Kang worked for 16 years at Bright Horizons, the largest provider of employer-sponsored child care in the U.S., where she sought to help employers see the benefits of investing in high-quality early childhood education. Even then, she recalls being moved by the stories of educators in the field and wanting to find ways to support and uplift its diverse workforce.
Kang joined NAEYC as chief strategy and innovation officer in 2019, a few months before the pandemic began. She was tasked with overseeing and supporting membership, accreditation, conferences and events, global outreach and engagement, and professional learning—all areas that had to be retooled in some fashion for a pandemic environment.
Events and professional development moved to a virtual setting. The accreditation process—which traditionally involves an in-person assessor traveling to observe a program— was adapted to allow programs to submit evidence of high-quality early learning via an electronic portfolio. “We’re still providing and still lifting up high-quality early education,” she explains. “We’re just doing it differently.”
A Time of Transition
And then in spring 2021, NAEYC’s CEO of nearly a decade announced she would be stepping down in the coming year. The announcement led to a “lengthy and transparent national search” for Rhian Evans Allvin’s successor, says Ann McClain Terrell, NAEYC’s governing board president. The search committee included members of NAEYC state affiliates, public and private child care, Head Start, philanthropic communities and higher education faculty.
“We looked at all the candidates that applied,” McClain Terrell says, “but what stood out for us was Michelle’s vision and strategic approach to complex challenges. We felt that was ideal for our organization in this moment.”
She adds: “We are very confident in our choice—[Kang] is the right leader for us at this time. What came through in interviews was her human-centered approach. She is deeply committed to inclusion—diversity, equity and inclusion—but she also stressed belonging. That’s going to be very important to our CEO moving forward.”
It’s not clear why Allvin, the former CEO, decided to leave NAEYC when she did. Allvin has not said publicly what motivated her move or where she’s headed next, and she has so far declined to answer questions about it.
But certainly the leadership transition for the nonprofit comes during a period of incredible upheaval—arguably a crisis—in early childhood education. (McClain Terrell calls it an “extraordinary time for early childhood education.”) The pandemic may have trained the public’s eye on the field in a way not yet seen before, but it also made worse some of the issues that have long held the field back: low pay, fragmentation in the system, inconsistent credentialing and education requirements, and a lack of public investment that leaves parents to bear the brunt of the cost of providing high-quality care and education.
“We have made it nearly impossible for most folks who are passionate about early education to be in this field,” Kang says. The nationwide labor shortage has created high demand and better wages for child care workers elsewhere, whether they have a postsecondary degree or not. As a result, the field is currently staffed at about 89 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, and some classrooms—even entire programs—have been forced to close either temporarily or permanently.
‘Move the Needle Forward’
Kang sees that these acute challenges have left the workforce burned out and overburdened. But she is not so sure this moment is all that different from years past.
She referenced a TIME magazine cover story from February 1997, called “How a Child’s Brain Develops.” That was supposed to mark a turning point in the way children were cared for and educated. But did it? And has anything since?
“It’s sometimes disheartening to think that 25 years later we’re still having some of those discussions about how important brain development is for early childhood development and learning,” she says, suggesting that early childhood, as a field, has been on the cusp of some kind of inflection point for decades, with nothing to show for it.
If the public believed in and cared enough about the brain science to create better structures for providing high-quality care and education to young children, it’s likely that respect, professionalization and pay for those working in the field would follow. But it’d be hard to imagine the latter happening without the former.
“I come back to—how can we all recognize how important early learning is, and what we can continue to do to move the needle forward?” Kang says. “I feel very humbled and fortunate to be in this role at this time. But I don’t think it’s ever been easy to be in early education.”
As Kang settles into her new title, she hopes to continue to position NAEYC and its members at the center of policy discussions around early childhood education, advocating for more federal investments and public support for the field.
“It doesn’t have to be so complicated and difficult,” Kang says. “I want it to be that someone who wants to go into early education can do so without being concerned that they can’t make ends meet, that they can pursue a profession that they love and do what’s good for young children and families, and know that they can be supported in this profession, as a career.”
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