Challenges in Moving Towards A Highly Educated ECE Workforce

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Last year, the National Academy of Medicine and National Research Council released the seminal Transforming the Workforce report that emphasizes the competencies and qualifications birth to third grade educators need to possess in order to support high-quality learning for young children. The report makes 13 recommendations aimed at bringing about greater educator quality and continuity from birth through early elementary school.

Of all the report’s recommendations, the one that has garnered the most attention is the second, which calls for the development of pathways and timelines for transitioning to a minimum bachelor’s degree requirement with specialized knowledge of ECE for all lead teachers of children from infancy to third grade. The recommendation is based on research suggesting that these qualifications are associated with higher-quality teaching and strong learning environments. But significant challenges exist in realizing this recommendation.

Recently, the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) released a report outlining several of these challenges as well as highlighting some promising practices being utilized by states to train and retain highly educated ECE teachers.

First, CEELO’s report points out that low teacher wages are a significant barrier to reaching an educated ECE workforce. As I’ve pointed out in the past, childcare teachers are currently one of the lowest paid occupations in the country, earning a median hourly wage of just $10.31.

CEELO’s report points out that child care teachers have experienced no real wage growth since 1997, despite the fact that they are expected to be better trained and educated than ever before. (The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment has raised this issue as well.) The wage issue is an important one because it’s difficult to convince a teacher that she should dedicate time and money to earning a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education only to continue earning a poverty-level wage after graduation. Once a child care teacher earns a bachelor’s degree she is likely to choose to enter the formal K-12 system since she can earn twice as much teaching in an elementary school. It’s also very difficult to attract new teachers into the early childhood field when wages are so low.

Second, if all lead teachers in child care are required to possess a bachelor’s degree, then many non-degreed teachers will need to go back to school to earn additional credits. CEELO’s report points out challenges that an influx of early childhood teachers into college courses could bring about.

Currently, the educational attainment of the ECE workforce spans a wide range, from teachers who only hold a high school diploma or perhaps less to teachers who have already earned a  bachelor’s degree or higher in early childhood education or another discipline. This wide range means that a “one size fits all” approach towards helping those teachers who need to earn a bachelor’s degree and specialization in early childhood won’t work. Teachers will need multiple paths to fulfill the bachelor’s degree requirement.

There is also wide variability between colleges in what constitutes required coursework to earn a degree in early childhood education. The CEELO report points out that colleges need to work to create greater comparability within and across institutions about which specific courses are necessary for earning an ECE degree.

Third, once child care teachers are enrolled in college courses, it’s important that they have the opportunity to engage in student teaching experiences to further develop their skill set. The importance of supervised practice is emphasized in the third recommendation of the Transforming the Workforce report. While there are plenty of opportunities for these types of field experiences with children of pre-K age or older, the CEELO report points out that most ECE programs do not currently offer field experiences for teachers of infants and toddlers. As more infant and toddler teachers work towards a bachelor’s degree, it will be important for colleges to expand opportunities for them to take part in meaningful field experiences with very young children.

Fourth, college courses need to be offered in a manner that best meets the unique needs of the ECE workforce. Since most ECE teachers seeking degrees are working full-time, it’s important that college courses are offered at non-traditional times, such as nights and weekends. Another issue to address is the fact that many ECE teachers speak English as a second language, making college-level work in English more difficult.

Finally, the report explains the need for colleges to develop articulation agreements that allow credits to be transferred between different colleges. These agreements help ensure that all college-level courses completed by ECE teachers count towards earning a degree, regardless of the specific college where the course was taken. These agreements are crucial for creating a simple, coherent pathway towards the attainment of a bachelor’s degree.

CEELO offers a few possible solutions to these challenges. Since many ECE teachers earn low wages, some states are offering TEACH scholarships or similar incentives to assist teachers in paying for college courses. In order to ensure that earning a bachelor’s degree results in higher compensation, the CEELO report highlights policies in Georgia and Nebraska. These states currently offer higher salaries to ECE teachers once they earn a bachelor’s degree. Other states should follow suit in order to incentivize ECE teachers to earn a degree and to help retain these teachers once they earn a bachelor’s degree and have the option of entering the K-12 system and earning higher pay.

Last year’s Transforming the Workforce report acknowledges that simply mandating a bachelor’s degree for all ECE teachers is insufficient and will require a great deal of work to establish pathways and timelines to make the degree requirement a reality. CEELO’s new report is a useful resource for gaining a better understanding of both barriers and potential solutions towards reaching this goal.

Author:

Aaron Loewenberg is a program associate with the Education Policy program at New America. He is a member of the  Early & Elementary Education team, where he provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade.