Etta Rosen’s interest in child development and early education dates back to working at Head Start during high school. In college she majored in psychology and education and then earned two advanced degrees in education and school psychology. While raising her four children she was employed as a school psychologist and as a preschool consultant in local public school districts. She co-directed the Child Care Resource and Referral Consortium, working with both parents and child-care professionals. She ultimately focused on professional development for early childhood educators with an emphasis on emerging literacy, language development, school readiness and social emotional growth. She and her husband, Mark Rosen, have been active members of the Boston Foundation donor community since 2008.
TBF: We’ve seen evidence that the child-care and early education sector was in crisis well before the pandemic. Why do you think it has been allowed to reach such a crisis point?
Etta Rosen: There’s a popular saying that little children have little problems and big children have big problems. This reflects a fundamental ignorance of how those “little problems” morph into life-altering patterns with far-reaching implications for individuals and society. It is only in the past 25 years or so that there has been growth in recognition of the importance of early childhood education and care and how a child’s development can differ according to the family’s income level. Public money doesn’t flow to early childhood, salaries can’t compete, educational standards for training and licensing early childhood professionals are less than those for K–12 teachers and, even among some of those who are attracted to the field, there’s an expectation that it is easy to teach little children (as confided to me by a preschool teacher). I think decisions have largely been made by men, and children are considered women’s work. The cohort of early childhood teachers typically is not a group that has the time, know-how or ambition to advocate for themselves and the children they care for.
Obviously, this is a very important issue for young families. But why should others be concerned?
Everyone should be concerned because young children are our future. From the research and from my personal experience it is absolutely clear that children are influenced from birth by things like how much they are spoken to and read to. If we are to have hopes of closing the achievement gap and addressing inequities in our society, paying attention to how the youngest children are cared for is critical. The damage from missed opportunities before school starts can create permanent obstacles to future success. There are so many societal needs that require attention, but a long-term view allows that some of those can be mitigated by focusing on young children. We can’t afford to continue to ignore or sideline the needs of our children.
Furthermore, the availability of reliable, affordable, quality child care is critical to all parents to be employed, but especially to women. Studies over the past 10–15 years show that the increase of women in the workforce has had a positive effect on the world economy. According to a 2021 Kinsey report, in the workplace women are also doing more to support their teams and advance diversity, equity and inclusion. These attributes benefit everyone.
When it comes to the early childhood workforce itself, has it been easy for people to dismiss the challenges because so many of those working in the sector are women—and often women of color?
It has been easy to dismiss the issue because it is still often seen as a “women’s issue” but that is a fundamental flaw in our society. As more women enter the paid workforce [across all sectors] more children need quality care. And yes, it has been women and often women of color who are willing to accept these low-paying child-care jobs, because that is what is available to them due to level of education, language barriers, racist hiring practices and possibly lack of confidence or ambition as reinforced by society.
Are there measures donors can take to improve the situation? Nonprofits that you think are doing important work?
Strategies for Children and Neighborhood Villages are organizations doing important advocacy work. Strategies for Children started more than 20 years ago so clearly it is a long-term struggle to bring permanent improvements to this sector. Neighborhood Villages, among other services, offers guidance to individuals who want to improve their professional skills to meet Department of Early Education and Care requirements. Other organizations like Ellis Early Learning fundraise to help offset the high cost of childcare. Over decades of being involved in this field I have seen a shift of emphasis from child outcomes alone to recognition that the quality of caregiving and early childhood instruction is essential to those outcomes. Still there is minimal attention given to preparing a parent, a child’s first teacher, for effective and responsible parenting. Outcomes for children depend on parenting as well. Families First is a growing organization that I am most familiar with that is finding ways to expand its programs to enable access by more parents. Center-based programs like Nurtury, Smart from the Start and United South End Settlements also offer programs to improve parenting skills.
What about policymakers? Is the Common Start legislation promoted by the Common Start Coalition an important step for Massachusetts?
The Common Start Legislation H.605 and S.362 would be game changing if passed as it addresses both availability and affordability of child care. The training of early childhood professionals leading to certification, not addressed in this bill, is also critically important.