Case Study to Bridge the Divide: Upskilling Virginia’s Early Childhood Educators
Over the past 18 months, the Commonwealth of Virginia worked to fully understand and begin solving some of the issues surrounding improved educational opportunities for early childhood educators. With intentional, strategic collaboration among key stakeholders, progress has been made and changes are underway. In this paper, we share the contexts and structures that impacted these shifts, as well as some initial outcomes.
In summer 2015, key stakeholders in Virginia began a discussion regarding the importance of enhancing the quality of early childhood education services provided to children and families throughout the state. Soon after, the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation (VECF), a public-private partnership supporting early childhood education programs, services, and policies, partnered with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce to host a meeting of high-level stakeholders in Richmond, the capital of the Commonwealth. Presentations by national experts and discussions among participants emphasized the importance of the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the early childhood workforce in predicting quality. This convening, titled “Upskilling Virginia’s Early Educator Workforce,” brought high-level, multisector attention to the importance of the early learning workforce and the need for a cohesive system of preservice education and professional development.
Notably, the “Upskilling” meeting culminated in a working paper that emphasized the critical needs of the education and professional development of the early childhood workforce. Serving as a call to action, the paper highlighted the numerous barriers in Virginia to initial collegiate-level education and professional development pathways for early childhood workers. In response to challenges outlined in the working paper, Virginia’s leaders championed the launch of the Upskilling initiative—a powerful catalyst for laying the foundation for a coordinated set of initiatives in Virginia aimed at ensuring all early childhood teachers in the Commonwealth are prepared to support young children’s development and learning.
The National Academy of Medicine’s Innovation to Incubation Program
The 2015 Richmond convening attracted the attention of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM). Through its Innovation to Incubation (i2I) program, the NAM sought to follow up and leverage the well-received report Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation (IOM and NRC, 2015). The report provided an overview of the science on children’s health, learning, and development and linked this foundational science to the skills and competencies of the adults who work with them. The 13 recommendations in the report are geared toward governments (state and federal); elected officials; health and social service agencies and providers; school and center director leadership; higher-education institutions; accreditation, licensing, and credentialing bodies; and many others who work with children.
The NAM envisioned a five-state collaboration to work toward the practical implementation of plans to transform the early childhood workforce. Virginia was selected as one of the five and participated through generous funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The i2I process occurred over 12 months, during which the NAM facilitated three substantive meetings and monthly phone calls to help the five state teams network and create implementation plans specific to their individual contexts. The other teams were from California; Illinois; Washington; and Washington, DC–Maryland–Northern Virginia (i.e., National Capital Region).
VECF, the coordinating organization for the i2I process in the Commonwealth, selected team members who would best represent the higher-education community because the priorities that emerged from the Richmond meeting centered on improving career and education pathways. Accordingly, the team comprised representatives from the offices of the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor; the early childhood community; community college and university faculties; the Virginia Community College System; and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. The collective perspectives of the team spanned a broad range of expertise in Virginia’s higher-education system, as well as varied points of view. The Virginia team quickly developed collaborative, trusting relationships that nurtured authentic dialogue and resulted in thoughtful recommendations.
The NAM convenings provided an opportunity for the Virginia team to learn from the work being conducted in other regions across the country. In particular, the Virginia team worked closely with a team from the National Capital Region (i.e., Maryland, Northern Virginia, and Washington, DC) to consider common issues, concerns, and challenges. In addition, the Virginia team met with representatives from the three other delegations participating in the i2I program to share perspectives, experiences, and preliminary recommendations. These discussions among well-informed colleagues from throughout the nation were both generative and issue-based.
Discussions within the Virginia team and dialogue with other state teams informed a landscape analysis, which identified key issues that impede the consistent delivery of high-quality programs and services for young children and their families, as well as factors that predict success by means of high quality. At the forefront of these discussions was a recognition that the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the early childhood workforce (e.g., teachers, classroom personnel, and program leaders) are critical to the provision of effective classroom experiences for Virginia’s young children. As a result, the Virginia team, which included representatives of the educator-preparation community, unanimously agreed that a review of the education and training model and structure in Virginia would be an opportunistic focus for this work. In consideration of the extant research and a deep understanding of the challenges associated with early childhood practice, the Virginia team decided to concentrate on improving the career and education pathways to support the upskilling of the early childhood workforce across the Commonwealth.
The team worked diligently at three NAM-convened meetings of the five state teams and through conferences and working sessions among the members of the Virginia delegation. Pertinent documents—drafted with the support of VECF president and Virginia team lead, Kathy Glazer, and our skilled consultant, Alison Lutton—were exchanged during this collaborative process. The Virginia team, with the support of Glazer and Lutton, considered and formulated short- and longer-term plans of action (see section “Outcomes from the NAM Work”); the focus remained on mechanisms and structures that facilitate consistent preservice education and associated state credentials via articulated pathways from high school to the associate degree to the bachelor’s degree to graduate-level instruction. The team felt that this continuum, with seamless linkages among higher-education institutions and opportunities for continuing professional development, would result in advancing the competencies of the early childhood workforce.
Importance of this Work
Investment in early childhood education is crucial to effectively meet the needs of our youngest citizens. In Virginia, there are approximately 390,000 children, aged birth to 5 years, who are in child care or preschool settings (ChildCare Aware of America, 2015). The experiences these children have during their formative years have a tremendous impact on their development. Numerous studies have shown that this critical window of children’s brain development (i.e., between birth and age 5) has a large impact on readiness for formal schooling and success in future learning (Duncan et al., 20017; Lipsey et al., 2013; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007; NRC and IOM, 2000). Research has also indicated that highly effective teachers are the most important factor in maximizing the development and learning of young children (Goe, 2007; Pianta et al., 2008).
Virginia has further acknowledged the importance of school readiness and supporting children and families with early childhood education initiatives. For example, the state’s definition of “school readiness” includes the component “Ready Communities,” which has the goal of ensuring communities work together to provide families affordable access to high-quality child care and early learning (Virginia Department of Education).
The Virginia team’s work with the NAM centered on finding ways to support the career pathway of Virginia’s early childhood workforce – approximately 52,000 teachers and caregivers – to increase access to high-quality care for the state’s children (Migration Policy Institute, 2015). Our team chose this focus in part because, currently, it is extremely challenging for Virginia’s early childhood teachers and caregivers to continue professional development training. Among the identified barriers to continued professional development are a lack of early childhood programs at all community colleges and universities throughout the state, and a lack of cohesive articulation between Virginia’s community colleges and universities. Knowing the importance of having well-trained professionals working in Virginia’s early childhood classrooms, the team understands that improving the pathway for this workforce is of the utmost importance.
Highlighting the Problem
As a result of the barriers in higher education for early childhood educators within the state, the Virginia team chose to focus on Recommendation 5 from Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8, which looks at the development and enhancement of programs in higher education for care and education professionals. Recommendation 5a specifically calls for this goal: “Institutions of higher education, including leadership, administrators, and faculty, should review and revise the requirements and content of programs for students pursuing qualification to practice as care and education professionals working with children from birth to age 8” (IOM and NRC, 2015, p. 525).
After examining the current higher-education pathway, the team realized there were many areas that needed revision. Figure 1 illustrates the challenges that this workforce faces as they attempt to move through the career pathway.
As Figure 1 demonstrates, there are a number of key barriers for early childhood educators to attain certificates and advanced degrees in Virginia. These barriers are categorized by five key areas: affordability, access, articulation, availability, and accountability.
Affordability. This is a crucial barrier for this workforce as the average annual salary for child care workers is $22,310, or approximately $9.77 per hour (Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 2015). Many child care workers looking to continue their education will have difficulty using federal financial aid if they need to be enrolled in school less than part-time status (which is at least six credit hours per semester). This means that child care personnel must consider cutting back on their working hours in order to be at least a part-time student or paying for college courses out-of-pocket on their meager wages.
Access. Gaining access to continuing education can be confusing for many students, and often they are not sure where to begin. Early childhood educators hear about pathways involving attainment of the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential and an associate degree as well as pathways to becoming a licensed PK–3 (preschool through third grade) teacher by earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree. These three options are quite different in that the CDA is not a credit-seeking pathway, even if some institutions give prior learning credit. The associate degree in early childhood represents 2 years of full-time credit attendance, even if students attend part-time. The pathway toward attainment of PK–3 licensure requires students to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree, which has little to no alignment with the previous two pathways. Not only are students confused about what pathways exist or which is best for them, but college staff are sometimes confused as well and advise students into the wrong pathway, or tell students about inefficient options (such as starting over when credits do not transfer).
Articulation. Part of the reason that access is so challenging in Virginia is that there is not an efficient way to move through the higher-education pathways. Universities and community colleges each have their own requirements for accreditation and completion guidelines, and in most cases these are at odds with each other, to the disadvantage of the student seeking portability of credits. Early childhood degrees at Virginia’s community colleges are applied associate degrees; upon graduation, the student is qualified to work in the field. Thus, they are heavy on credits within the subject area, and light on general education courses. This creates a hurdle for students who intend to work in the field right away but also intend to continue into a 4-year program. In addition, universities in the state that have accepted early childhood credits are primarily private institutions. This then becomes an access and affordability issue for students.
Availability. Finding time and the right pathway into early childhood programs is difficult for many individuals in this field. Because early childhood educators and caregivers are working during the day, they usually need to choose between night courses and online courses. However, night courses can be challenging if they begin before the typical child care center closes, and not all early childhood programs are offered in all locations throughout the state. In Virginia, this is especially true for early childhood bachelor’s degree options. There are only a few universities that offer early childhood degrees and an even smaller number that provide early childhood teacher licensure. In some areas, online courses are a more convenient option, but they require technology skills that some students might not have at the beginning of their college career. As well, online courses require reliable computer and Internet access, which can be an especially challenging issue for students in rural areas.
Accountability. Ensuring that program offerings match the needs of this workforce and the demands of employers is of the utmost importance. The NAM report calls for increasing requirements to a bachelor’s degree pathway and licensure. Head Start and Early Head Start have already increased the requirements in the Head Start Performance Standards, which took effect in November 2016, and require that center-based teachers have at least an associate or bachelor’s degree in child development or early childhood education, equivalent coursework, or otherwise meet the requirements (Head Start Performance Standards: A rule by the Children and Families Administration, 2016). However, in Virginia, students in Head Start and Virginia Preschool Initiative programs are but a small percentage of the overall total of children currently enrolled in child care (8 percent). Is it reasonable to expect that family child care providers will immediately enroll in a transfer pathway to a 4-year degree, or is it more likely that they will slowly move up a career pathway that likely includes stacked and sequential certificates leading to an associate degree? When considering accountability, it is also important to consider demand. Opportunities should match the interest, preferences, and priorities of both early educators and employers. Additionally, capacity of institutions of higher education to create new programs must be considered. This is particularly true if initial enrollment is scant and in a time of decreased resources for higher education.
In most cases, early childhood educators experience more than one barrier. Below are two examples of how the pathway, in its current form, has impacted this workforce.
Jane (a pseudonym) worked as a family home child care provider for more than two decades, engaging in community-level training and other professional development before deciding to attend community college. After obtaining her associate degree (AS), she pursued a Bachelor of Individualized Studies (BIS) with an emphasis in early childhood. After attaining her BIS, Jane attended the same university to pursue a master’s degree in early childhood development. A BIS can be a limiting degree to pursue, but Jane felt certain she would pursue graduate studies at the same university where she attained her BIS; and this would remove the potential barrier of a BIS being a less desirable degree. This pathway was available to Jane because her university liberally accepted all of her credits from her AS and she was not pursuing teacher licensure. However, if she had neither lived near this university nor wanted to be a certified teacher, she could not have pursued this degree. Jane herself notes that her success along the pathway was impacted by socioeconomic and life-experience factors. Because Jane was an older student when she attended community college, she had a mature recognition that she was a consumer and if she had trouble finding an answer to a question, she would continue to seek help. She also has an employed spouse, which gave her additional financial freedom.
Another example is Marquis (a pseudonym). Marquis began as a full-time student at a 4-year college, but dropped out after 1 year due to financial constraints. He then began working in a private daycare center, while working toward advancing on the early childhood pathway. Marquis earned an associate degree in early childhood, which he thought could transfer to a 4-year college once he saved enough money to enroll. After completing his associate degree, he realized that very few of his credits would transfer to a 4-year teacher licensure program. He was advised that he would need to start over if he wanted to be a licensed teacher. Frustrated and confused, he decided to continue working in early childhood settings and find an online degree program that would accept his 2-year credits so he could receive his bachelor’s degree in a related field. Marquis is well on his way to graduating with a bachelor’s degree and is considering obtaining a master’s degree to fulfill his dream of becoming a licensed teacher. However, financial issues continue to impact his ability to take classes and move forward on this pathway. He currently works two jobs (in an early childhood setting and in a fast food restaurant) to pay for his classes. His limited knowledge about higher education as a first-generation college student also impacted his ability to navigate his options and utilize available resources.
Outcomes from the NAM work
After analyzing the higher education pathway, the Virginia team recommended that the state pursue a goal to streamline a career pathway for teachers of children aged birth to 5 years that develops core skills early, intentionally, and affordably. This pathway needs to build on current assets, align with nationally recognized standards, and award meaningful credentials along the continuum that indicate mastery of core skills as well as provide opportunities for enhancing skills and specialization. Streamlining this career pathway will provide an additional benefit in improving the more traditional education pathway for the early educator workforce. The full report from the Virginia team’s work to address streamlining this pathway, Bridging the Divide, as well as the team’s crosswalk of Virginia and national professional standards, can be found on the VECF website athttp://www.vecf.org/.
Assets and Barriers
The Virginia team identified three specific assets and barriers in the state:
1. Asset and Barrier: While there is an affordable offering of stackable credentials at Virginia’s community colleges that build important core skills specific to teaching children aged birth to 5 years, the early childhood coursework and degrees are not offered at all Virginia’s community colleges and may be inconsistent across colleges.
Recommended Short-Term Action: Recognize the early childhood associate degree as a critical core credential for early educators in Virginia. Ensure these offerings are readily available to practitioners in all regions of the Commonwealth.
Recommended Long-Term Action: Strive for nationally recognized accreditation of associate degree programs to demonstrate the quality and distinction of these programs for early educators.
2. Asset and Barrier: While teacher preparation programs exist at Virginia’s universities for educators leading classrooms in grades PK–12, there are few baccalaureate programs in Virginia that are specific to preparing teachers with the skills needed to support the development of children aged birth to 5 years, and none of these leads to teacher licensure.
Recommended Action: Pilot the creation of baccalaureate programs at Virginia’s universities that are aligned with nationally accepted standards and take advantage of flexible credit hours for specialized preparation for early educators; and develop program-to-program articulation agreements that create a more seamless transfer of the associate degree to the baccalaureate level for early educators, based on a shared set of professional standards, competencies, and student outcomes.
3. Asset and Barrier: While there is availability of PK–3 and PK–6 teacher licensure in Virginia, historically, these programs have focused heavily on elementary-aged children, and licenses do not ensure that candidates receive specialized early childhood development preparation and field practice or demonstrate competencies aligned with nationally accepted standards for the early childhood profession.
Recommended Short-Term Action: Support the further amendment of currently proposed changes in the PK–3 teacher licensure regulations in consideration by the Virginia Board of Education, to emphasize content and practice mastery specific to ages birth to 5 years. Differentiate and promote the PK–3 license as the preferred licensure for teachers of children aged birth to 8 years (as distinct from the PK–6 licensure for teachers of students aged 6 to 12 years) for baccalaureate-degreed teachers.
Recommended Long-Term Action: Explore the feasibility of developing a birth to age 8 license available to candidates in baccalaureate degree programs.
In addition to the identification of specific assets and barriers, the Virginia team created a set of guiding principles for the development of a career pathway for this field. These guiding principles build on the work of the initial Upskilling group as well as the NAM report.
The Virginia early childhood higher-education pathway will:
- Contribute toward a continuum of training, education, technical assistance, and credentials that support and improve practice and career opportunities for early educators working with young children from birth through age 8 years.
- Offer high-quality, competency-based, stackable credentials beginning with options at the high school level and spanning community college programs, to undergraduate and graduate-level programs in Virginia’s colleges and universities.
- Improve higher-education affordability, access, and articulation opportunities for the early childhood workforce.
- Link to state efforts to increase availability, accountability, capacity, and demand for early childhood higher-education programs.
- Increase professional development system integration through alignment of standards, competencies, and credentials across birth through age 8 years early-learning sectors including child care, Head Start, prekindergarten, and early grades.
- Improve quality assurance processes in higher education to provide accountability to professionals, young children and their families, governing bodies, and the public, ensuring that degree and certificate programs are high quality in design and implementation and meet national standards of the profession as well as state requirements.
- Support increased diversity in the early childhood workforce at all professional levels and across all sectors through the recruitment, retention, and completion of students whose gender, race, language, culture, socioeconomic background, and other characteristics reflect the diversity of children and families served in early childhood education programs.
- Align with efforts to increase compensation parity for early educators across settings, sectors, and age of children served by adopting a unifying framework of expected knowledge, competency, responsibilities, and qualifications across birth through age 8 settings, sectors, age groups, roles, and adjacent or similar states.
- Develop and enhance programs in higher education through regular review and revision of requirements and content; and through work with local practice communities to improve program design, facilitate cross-institutional relationships, and identify appropriate and diverse field placements.
- Be informed by evidence-based research and practice, support ongoing research and evaluation, and be innovative and responsive to evolving community and state contexts.
We believe the previous recommendations, combined with the guiding principles, will help bridge the divide and create career and education pathways that are more cohesive and effective for supporting knowledge and skills specific to early childhood development. Improved skill-building and credentialing opportunities for the early childhood workforce, paired with concerted strategies for in-service supports such as specialized training and coaching, will lead to a strong corps of high-quality early educators helping build the brains of the Commonwealth’s next generation.
Communicating and Implementing the Recommendations
With the conclusion of the formal NAM process, the team sought to communicate its recommendations to variety of state policymakers and embed its findings in the ongoing work of other policy bodies. Communicating the process, findings, and recommendations to policymakers has included a presentation to the Joint Subcommittee on the Virginia Preschool Initiative and the state’s new School Readiness Committee, and conversations with the Secretary of Education, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and other state leadership.
Since the completion of the Virginia team’s work and as a response to the call to action that was emphasized in the Upskilling working paper, the School Readiness Committee was created by the 2016 General Assembly via VA House Bill 46. The School Readiness Committee comprises stakeholders from state education and social service agencies, public and private early childhood care and education providers, community colleges, 4-year higher-education institutions, private foundations, public schools, and the legislature, among others. The Committee’s first goal is to address the development and alignment of an effective professional development and credentialing system for the early childhood education workforce in Virginia. Ultimately, the School Readiness Committee is expected to build on the work of the NAM team in developing specific recommendations for the Board of Education and the General Assembly. This priority developed with a recognition that one of the most important factors in determining learning outcomes for young children is the capabilities of the adults who support their growth and learning.
During its preliminary work, the School Readiness Committee established three subcommittees charged with developing concrete, action-oriented recommendations to change state policies and practices. The three subcommittees are considering all policy levers available for aligning this work, including education and social service regulations and board action, administrative action within agencies and institutions of higher education, and statutory changes controlled by state legislature.
The subcommittees have divided the work into three general categories: the big-picture state priorities and vision for this workforce, the professional standards and competencies desired of all practitioners, and the pathways available to practitioners to enter and grow in the field. The State Priorities Subcommittee is tasked with setting broad, state priorities for the early education workforce that prioritize particular children, educators, programs, or settings; and helping appropriate state entities align with and communicate that shared vision. The Professional Standards Subcommittee is examining the professional development standards and competencies required within different programs, and working to align them with those competencies rooting in evidence and sound practice. Finally, the Pathways Subcommittee is a direct continuation of the NAM team’s efforts, chaired by two NAM team participants, and working toward creating a smooth pathway for those educators in Virginia. The Pathways Subcommittee is also monitoring the regional pilot articulation project and examining the public education licensure structure in order to make specific recommendations to various legislative and regulatory bodies to reach the ultimate goal of a licensure system aligned with the learning needs of all children.
Over the next 12 months, the School Readiness Committee is well positioned to advance sequential progress in a number of component areas. Most immediately, with Virginia’s legislative and budget session in the first quarter of 201, it is anticipated that the Committee will endorse and propose a joint legislative resolution, recommended by the state priorities subcommittee. The purpose of the resolution is to elevate the early childhood workforce as a priority in the Commonwealth and to call on all state agencies and institutions to cooperate on a strategic plan and cross-cutting policies, informed by a growing body of research and the national discussion, to support its development. The desired effect of the resolution is to signal the importance and urgency to the Commonwealth of the subsequent recommended actions and directions of the Committee, thereby paving the way for broad-based support and evidence-based action.
The State Priorities Subcommittee will prescribe a targeted subset of the early education profession as the Committee’s initial focus. Setting boundaries for a core set of practitioners – those lead teachers, assistant teachers, and administrators who most directly impact infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in services that are delivered at least in part through public dollars (e.g., subsidized child care in center-based, faith-based, and school-based settings) – will afford the Committee the leverage to have a near-term impact on those professionals serving at-risk children where they spend large portions of each day. The Professional Standards Subcommittee will insist on consistent attention to the research-backed competencies that are most correlated with positive gains for young children, as Virginia’s professional development pathways and policies are re-envisioned. And finally, the Pathways Subcommittee will nurture discussions and monitor pilots impacting cohesive, “stacked” opportunities for not only effective skill building but also meaningful recognition of mastery and specialization. The Pathways Subcommittee will consider articulation strategies from 2- to 4-year education programs, refined content of baccalaureate programs, and potential revision or supplementation of teacher licensure for this workforce.
Disruptive Change and the Potential for Transformation
Like most states, Virginia’s systems and structures for education and teacher preparation were established well before brain research yielded new recognition of the priority of supporting children’s growth and development in the first few years of life. Recent research has also increased our knowledge of the specific skills and competencies that early childhood professionals need to best support children’s gains and the understanding that these skills are not less than but different from those needed for teaching older children.
The barriers to a cohesive professional development system that have been identified and elevated in the past 18 months by the Upskilling group, the NAM team, and now the School Readiness Committee are long-standing and complex. Solutions to diffuse, complex problems do not reside in any one sector, system, or institution and require diplomacy and persistence; solutions to long-standing problems do not resolve quickly and require disruptive change and endurance.
While the initial recommendations and actions of the School Readiness Committee are expected to surface in 2017, the term for successful implementation of the relevant “pods” of effort are likely to unfold in the subsequent years. Since the ultimate and ambitious goal is increased school readiness of young children, supported effectively by parents, families, and a highly competent early childhood workforce, strategies for sustained attention must also be harnessed for long-term focus and resolution.
The outcomes (i.e., declarations, recommendations, actions, and implementation) stemming from the work of the School Readiness Committee have important potential for real change, largely because of certain intentional characteristics, including the statutory framework and relevant visibility and the strategic composition of membership. These attributes of Committee structure and strategy set the stage for discussion that can productively address the important issues that come with the territory, easing the discomfort that will surely come from the realization that long-held assumptions and values held by sectors, agencies, and institutions must be reconsidered. The ongoing nature of the Committee’s charge and staggered terms for defined but diverse members as outlined in the Code of Virginia ensures that it will be sustained beyond the churn of gubernatorial administration, providing for a vision that extends to the horizon and not a nearer hurdle. A “perfect storm” of circumstance may enable this effort to be transformative, bringing the relevant stakeholder groups into a posture of willingness for research to question assumptions and of real readiness for change that can result in more cohesive systems and policies throughout the state.
It is important to acknowledge the role of the NAM i2I program and the participation of the inspired state team in bringing Virginia to this point of tactical readiness. The collegial collaboration of diverse, high-caliber team members approached the NAM opportunity with a willingness to be informed by the science, other states’ experiences, and the team’s own resident and varied expertise. The trust and introspection that characterized the NAM team’s experiences led to discernment of the biases that can prevent openness to inquiry and a readiness for the disruption required for transformation. The team’s accomplishments can serve not only as key spadework for the School Readiness Committee, but also as an important model for Virginia stakeholder groups across systems and sectors as they each consider their role and responsibility in ensuring a highly competent early childhood workforce for school readiness in the Commonwealth.
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