Theorizing ECEC Systems: Recent Advances and Pressing Needs

Recent Advances in ECEC Systems Thinking

Having noted a disconnect between systems science theories and on-the-ground ECEC systems work, there have nonetheless been conceptual and theoretic advances that have indeed impacted ECEC systems work. By no means a codified field of science, the work of scholars from diverse organizations is aggregating to form a respectable body of literature on ECEC systems. A great deal of recent systems-oriented ECEC research focuses on governance and the need to create a home for systems work in the states. Gomez (2015) has extensively examined different approaches to governance and has suggested that fresh conceptual framing would advance the field. Building on complex adaptive systems work, she posits that if government is to be an elixir of systems work, it must focus not only on structural properties, but on functional ones, as well. Citing efforts that have taken hold across the country, Dichter (2015) writes convincingly about the importance of structure, providing a wealth of understanding regarding the implementation and scaling of systems efforts. Yoshikawa, Wuemili, Raikes, Kim, and Kabay (2018) suggest that systems work is the necessary ingredient to foster both scalability and sustainability of ECEC efforts. Combining a wealth of theoretical knowledge, Regenstein (2015) has proffered a typology of governance models that, if implemented, would accelerate systems thinking and systems actions.

Pressing Needs in ECEC Systems Thinking

Despite these notable efforts, there are emerging challenges facing those who are concerned with advancing ECEC systems thinking and systems work. All related to the advent of the accountability movement, three areas will be highlighted: (i) increasing demands and efforts to evaluate systems work; (ii) the emergence of “theory of change” efforts to render a cogent methodology to such evaluations; and (iii) a re-clarification of the need for and content of systemic outcomes.

Increasing Demands for and Efforts to Evaluate ECEC Systems Work

Given pressing demands to use increased resources on direct services for children, systemic work is hard to justify, despite the efforts cited above. Justifying the diversion of funds from services for children to systems work is made more difficult by the lack of a solid research base that affirms the cost-effectiveness of systems investments. Indeed, however much it has become legitimized, ECEC systems work begs for evaluation as a means to rationalize its existence and prove its efficacy. Under the aegis of the BUILD Initiative, a study of systems was undertaken to address this need. Designed to examine how systems were unfolding across the states, the resulting e-book, Rising to the Challenge: Building Effective Systems for Young Children and Families (Jordan & King, 2015), examined how different ECEC governance structures emerged, and the role of governors’ offices in launching and sustaining them. The study looked at how such systems efforts unfolded, examining the number and nature of funding streams, the existence of consolidated governance entities, and the strategies inherent in aligning goals and coordinating actions across programs with different political histories and cultures.

On a global level, systems initiatives are not uncharted territory. As part of a broader initiative funded by the National Center on Education and the Economy, Neuman, Roth, and Kagan (in press) analyzed 16 multi-country studies that focused on one or more elements of the ECEC system infrastructure. When considered in the aggregate, these studies covered an impressive breadth of countries, attesting to the widespread embrace of ECEC systems thinking across the globe. Yet importantly, the studies examined by Neuman, Roth, and Kagan revealed that international systems varied considerably, and that the presence of systems work did not necessarily provide a panacea to address the range of complex challenges that governments sought to ameliorate.

Moreover, these studies — sometimes called evaluations of systems building, systems change, or systems reform — face large methodological challenges that prevented data aggregation. For example, the international studies were often conducted at different points in the evolution of a system, and they took place in contexts that were not only very different, but that embraced systems thinking very differently. Further, like any evaluation of a complex, multifaceted phenomenon, the studies were somewhat challenged in the ways they conceptualized and operationalized systemic work. More often than not, the studies succeeded in describing the extant systemic elements and delineating the complexities associated with launching systems, but did not focus on evaluating their impact or outcomes.

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