Equitably Expanding Educational Requirements: Insights from Diverse Early Educators

Blog Post
Oct. 23, 2019

Last spring, New America hosted an event to elevate the experiences and expertise of early educators of color. The dialogues on stage embodied the findings of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and The Education Trust's new report Increasing Qualifications, Centering Equity: Experiences and Advice from Early Childhood Educators of Color, which explores the perspectives of early educators of color towards recent policy shifts in credential requirements.

Transforming the Workforce, released in 2015 by the National Academy of Medicine, codified the importance of lead teachers earning a bachelor’s degree with a specialization in early childhood education. State and local legislation requiring further qualifications and credentials has since increased. In 2018, 23 states required lead pre-K teachers to earn a bachelor’s degree. These changes have led to gripping debates by policymakers and thought leaders, especially around issues of race, gender, and stratification.

Within these conversations, the voices of educators who are most impacted must be elevated, particularly those from historically disadvantaged groups. To this end, NAEYC and Ed Trust conducted focus group interviews with 50 early educators of color in New Jersey, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. Each of these states have implemented changes in qualification requirements for early childhood teachers. Researchers inquired about participants’ perceptions of the new policies, what advice they might offer to leaders and policymakers considering similar changes, and what supports are needed to make new requirements feasible.

Early educators of color from each state and setting echoed similar themes. Participants felt discouraged that after years of experience and training they had to earn more credentials or jeopardize their livelihood. Many felt anxious about the added time and financial commitment on top of their already busy lives and inadequate paychecks.

Despite these concerns, teachers expressed a desire to deepen their knowledge and enhance their teaching practices. Educators felt affirmed and motivated when their newly developed skills positively affected their young students’ learning. New credentials opened pathways to leadership and future opportunities for teachers, shattering stereotypes and fracturing the career ladders that have often stratified early education.

The focus group conversations illuminated four necessary support systems to make these credentialing shifts viable for all early childhood teachers: financial, higher education, workplace, and personal. These themes were explored in two panel discussions at New America’s event last spring. The first panel was comprised of early childhood educators, while the second featured policy analysts from NAEYC, Ed Trust, and New America.

During the first panel, Danny Vasquez, a pre-K teacher in Annandale, VA, described the financial struggle of child care work coupled with earning credentials. “We’re sacrificing more by going to school .... We’re barely making ends meet, yet we’re still buying supplies for the kids.” Like many teachers struggling to pay rent in high-cost regions, Vasquez expressed the additional burden of living in a metropolitan area. “It’s frustrating sometimes because you want to do so much, but you also have to live. You can’t find anything and live comfortably out here.”

Regarding higher education and professional development, panelist Maria Potts, a family child care provider in Fairfax, VA, emphasized the importance of multilingual support. Her experienced staff includes many teachers for whom English is not their first language. “Most of them who’ve been working with children for over 30 years, and some more than 40 years, they want to continue their education, it’s just the language barrier.” Potts described “hunting for training” for her multilingual staff to understand the content and asserted that if bachelor’s degree requirements are established, then classes need to be fully accessible.

Panelist Maria Martinez, an infant and toddler teacher in Greenbelt, MD, used multilingual programming to earn her credentials, explaining, “I did the CDA in a bilingual way.” Martinez found a role in a child care center with the type of workforce supports that many participants in the report desired. Her center director provides financial support for CDA renewal and training, paid holidays and sick days, and most importantly, ensures that teachers feel respected. According to Martinez, “She understands not only the work, she understands the person who’s working there.”

April Torrence, owner of an early education center in Farrell, PA, reminded the audience to reflect on the “disproportion of incomes in the early childhood education field.” Though the workforce is relatively diverse both ethnically and linguistically, there is stratification within the field by race, educational attainment, and compensation. Black and Latinx teachers are more likely to have a high school degree as their highest educational attainment than their white or Asian peers. Latinx educators are more likely to be assistant teachers, and African American teachers often serve infants and toddlers, both circumstances associated with lower pay. Controlling for education, African American early educators earn 84 cents for every dollar that their white counterparts earn. As responsibility and compensation opportunities increase in the career ladder, diversity often decreases.

When asked what they would like policymakers to know about supports needed to improve early childhood credentials, panelists varied in responses yet echoed the four interconnected themes found in NAEYC and Ed Trust’s report: financial, higher education, workplace, and personal. Torrence requested benefits, Potts recommended flexibility of class time and languages offered, and Vasquez stressed the importance of fair compensation.

During the final panel, co-author of the report, NAEYC’s Lucy Recio, explained, “We know that the practitioners, those individuals who are in the classroom day in and day out, have the expertise to be able to inform the policies that are happening and the policies that will be created to impact their lives.” But, simply listening to early educators is not enough. As asserted in the report, “If district, state, and federal policies impose new educational requirements without addressing systemic inequities, revising current structures and supports, and financing these changes, they would—without question—deepen existing divisions along racial, geographic, socioeconomic, and linguistic lines.” Voices of educators and communities of color who care for young children must be elevated throughout policy conversations to ensure equitable systemic change.

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