To Build a Cohesive, High-quality Early Childhood System, You Have to Address Linguistic Diversity!


by Karen Nemeth

In a recent blog post from the Brookings Institution, authors Bassok, Magnuson, and Weiland1 review the shortcomings of the current early childhood care and education system and make recommendations for changes in the field… without ever once mentioning the role of growing language diversity. Apparently, that’s my job. So, please get out your stapler and attach this post to your copy of the Brookings memo.

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The following points should be added to the Brookings recommendations to complete the picture and come closer to a truly cohesive, high-quality early childhood system:

  1. Increase spending on childcare subsidy, preschool and home visiting programs with explicit requirements for linguistically appropriate outreach and application processes for each community.

While it is certain that substantial increases to child-care subsidy spending will help, those increases have the potential to widen the gap between native-born English-speaking families and immigrant families. Compared to native-born children, children of immigrants are more likely to be in low-income families2 .who are more in need of those subsidies. Immigrant families may need the subsidies more, but access them less because language barriers and other factors prevent them from knowing about or applying for these services. Simply increasing funding will make it possible for more English speakers to access the best early childhood services, but may not do much to increase access of families of dual language learners. Focused outreach efforts are needed to match families to the kinds of early childhood supports that meet their needs and get their children off to the best possible start. To succeed, the subsidy and support system must address the languages of each community.

  1. Improve early childhood program quality by building and professionalizing a workforce that is both diverse and prepared to support diversity.

Close to 25% of our young children are dual language learners, yet the number of linguistically matched early childhood professionals falls far short of meeting the needs of this increasingly diverse population.3 We need teachers, paraprofessionals, care providers and home visitors that speak the languages of children and families and who are prepared with the skills to use their languages to best advantage. We also need to ensure that everyone who works with young children in any capacity has received coursework and practical experience that adequately addresses the diversity of the population in which they will be working. 4 Current conditions are pushing linguistically and culturally diverse early childhood workers to the lowest income positions in the field.3  It is not enough to simply recruit teacher candidates who speak different languages. Professionalizing the workforce means that every bilingual professional must be supported as a learner and they must learn how and when to use each of their languages. More importantly, professionalizing the field of early childhood care and education must be aimed at ALL professionals with the explicit goal of preparing them to meet the needs of ALL children.

  1. Require that all novel approaches to systems-building must include specific steps for including and supporting – not just responding to – the linguistic and cultural diversity of children, families, and early childhood professionals.

I’ve been working in this field, advocating for professionalizing the early childhood workforce and improving quality of services since the 1990s. We have had 25 years to learn that our children and our education systems suffer when we persist in pursuing incomplete solutions. Without mentioning the growth of language and culture diversity, the memo from the Brookings Institute looks like reports we saw 25 years ago.  If it was too much trouble for the authors to include data and recommendations about diversity in their memo, where will readers find motivation to address diversity in their work? We have the research and the federal mandate5 to update our approach. 2017 is coming. We can do better!

  1. Bassok, D., Magnuson, K. & Weiland, C. (2016) Memo: Building a cohesive, high-quality early childhood system, Brown Center Chalkboard – Brookings Institution
  2. Jiang, Y., Ekono, M. & Skinner, C. (2016) Basic Facts about Low-Income Children, National Center for Children in Poverty
  3. Maki, P., McHugh, M., Zong, J. & Batalova, J. (2015) Immigrant and Refugee Workers the Early Childhood Field: Taking a Closer Look, Migration Policy Institute.
  4. Nemeth, K., Brillante, P, & Mullen, L. (2015) Naming the New, Inclusive Early Childhood Education: All Teachers Ready for DECAL!, Language Castle
  5. S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education (2016) Policy Statement on Supporting the Development of Children who are Dual Language Learners in Early Childhood.


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