V - The Effects and Future of Systems Science in ECEC
The Effects of ECEC Systems WorlcSerendipity in Action
As the foregoing section suggests, there have been notable advances in ECEC systems thinking, systems work, and systems theory over the past decades. Not all have happened in unison or even in a planned, linear, or even predictable way. Characterized to some extent by happenstance, systems efforts have bumped up against each other, sometimes influencing others haltingly and sometimes with more alacrity. To best understand the rise and effects of a systems orientation in ECEC, it is necessary to provide the gestalt of the change, first by chronicling field-based developments and then by addressing theoretical advances.
ECEC Systems Science and Theory
As this chapter has suggested, systems thinking has had a profound effect on the way ECEC is now conceptualized. No longer content to fund only programs, the public sector and private philanthropy have taken leadership roles in advancing systems approaches. These forward-thinking efforts are loosely adapted from the theoretical framing of systems science, but are innovative in applying it specifically to ECEC. Conceptually, this adaptation acknowledges that ECEC systems are composed of a number of sub-systems (e.g., governance, finance, accountability, professional development, family engagement, regulation, and transitions), each with its own parameters and theories. To render the complexity of systems more transparent and make theoretical work more usable, metaphors and diagrams (e.g., flowers and gears, ovals, theory of change charts) have been developed, a necessary first step that precedes implementation in the field.
Theoretical work of the past three decades has had considerable impact on the way policymakers are conceptualizing services to the young, although the complex policymaking apparatus, replete with topically segregated committee structures and operationalized in striated departments at the federal and state levels, means that constructing policy based on systems theory is difficult to do. Theory-making in ECEC systems work has benefited from work in allied sciences including organizational development, sociology, and psychology; it has also been driven by external forces in the social Zeitgeist, including the press for accountability and data and the need for efficiency and sustainability. Whatever the rationale, ECEC systems theory now exists at a broad level and has become sufficiently popularized so that it is quite accessible for practitioners. This has lent both legitimacy and cache to ECEC systems work.
ECEC Systems Science and Practice
Bom from need and fueled by both the public and private sectors, ECEC systems work is robust and takes many forms. There is hardly a state that is not engaged in some sys-tems-building effort presently. Indeed, some worry that the efforts are so plentiful, with each taking a unique focus, that their proliferation actually may inhibit the development of a cohesive system. Yet, as Satkowski (2009) notes, “While this proliferation of collaboration initiatives and councils may seem counterproductive to a goal of creating a unified system of early childhood, the efforts can work in harmony, and in many states, they do.” There is much reason to be optimistic about the direction of systems work in the United States.
Of course, implementing new ECEC systems work is not only complicated by their number, but by their design and intentions. Sometimes the unit of change is the whole ECEC system, but more frequently the focus of the reform is a single sub-system (e.g., governance, professional development, or accountability). Sometimes the work is externally incentivized (via the ELCF, for example) and sometimes it is quite internally driven. More difficult to advance than service-driven policy (e.g., universal pre-kindergarten), systems work is too often not a policy priority. Indeed, it often remains a hard policy sell, in part due to the ever more apparent implementation challenges that accompany it. ECEC systems efforts are hard to mount; they often take time and demand functional and structural restructuring.
Consequently, there are associated costs with systems instantiation, costs that are often too heavy for constrained government budgets to bear. ECEC systems-building efforts are also hindered by political turnover, as they may go from being a favored approach of one administration to being the Achilles’ heel of another. Moreover, ECEC systems efforts are hard to evaluate. Though progress has been made on examining their implementation (Kagan, 2018; Kagan & Landsberg, 2019), there is far less data available on systemic outcomes and limited scholarship being advanced to examine these outcomes as a necessary prelude to child and family outcomes.