Photo: Michele McDonald for Strategies for Children

As Eve Gilmore of Worcester noted in yesterday’s blog post, the field of early education “is moving from a job to a profession.” Early educators are returning to school to earn their degrees, as Quality Rating and Improvement Systems in Massachusetts and elsewhere, Head Start and the National Association for the Education of Young Children aim to increase the education and training of this workforce. Now a new literature review from the U.S. Department of Education tries to discern the elements of effective professional development programs for early educators.

“This review,” the executive summary states, “incorporates findings from research on four targets of early childhood professional development: 1) strengthening human or social capital; 2) strengthening practices at institutions or organizations providing professional development; 3) strengthening early educator practices related to specific child outcomes; and, 4)strengthening overall quality in classroom or group settings.”

The report also makes a plea for more research, noting that “the research on early childhood professional development is at an early stage.” The review, which was conducted by Child Trends, lists the following six overall characteristics as “a starting point” toward identifying effective professional development practices:

Existing research, the report notes, tends to be “descriptive and correlational” rather than based on rigorous experiment. “When evaluations have been carried out,” the researchers add, “the focus is much more on curricula and their implementation than on the preparation of early childhood educators to use them. Significant questions remain about which features of professional development for early childhood educators, singly and in ‘packages,’ are most effective for improving both educator and child outcomes.”

The report cites a number of gaps in research. For instance, the report states, “the literature tends to focus on the content that should be conveyed to children, rather than on the specific processes that can be used to guide early educators in implementing practices to convey or engage children with this content effectively.” In addition, most research is based on center-based programs and largely excludes the licensed and unlicensed home-based providers who comprise the bulk of the early education workforce.