Formal Credentials and Degrees - Not Always the Best Starting Point for Early Childhood Teachers

Blog Post
March 20, 2018

Posts in this series, Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators, run every two weeks and are edited by Stacie G. Goffin, who provides this introduction to explain the series' intent. Previous posts are archived here, and to join the conversation on Twitter, use #beyondfalsechoices. To facilitate interaction among ideas presented in the series, Goffin offers opening comments:

Berry's blog returns us to the issues of preparation, education, compensation, and status. An early childhood education (ECE) administrator, he highlights that diversity and inclusion encompass a variety of entry points into ECE as a field of practice. Fearing valuable talent will be lost if ECE excludes early childhood educators who initially lack formal formal degrees or credentials, he asserts that ECE programs should support and grow early childhood educators on site, while simultaneously expecting them to establish a timeline for entering into and completing a higher education program.

The early learning field (ECE) has for too long been considered mere “babysitting.” As it grows and matures as a field of practice, challenging questions and issues are inevitable. Regarding the interplay among preparation and education, compensation and status, and diversity and inclusivity, the challenge is being made more complex because higher expectations for early childhood educators are being pitted against demands for equitable compensation and finding effective drivers to transcend the divide.

I began my ECE career driving a van for an after-school program; later I became a pre-K teacher in a child care center. I progressed by obtaining a Masters in Human Development and Education and an Educational Specialist degree, first becoming a Head Start teacher and then a mentor-coach for infant-toddler teachers. Now, I lead Educare DC, a full-day, full-year Head Start program serving 160 children and families in Washington, DC. Educare DC is part of a national network of 23 research-based schools with financing that enables it to employ what the field considers highly-qualified teachers and coaches, i.e., teachers with Bachelors of Art and Masters of Education in Early Childhood Education.

My blog begins by introducing my career pathway because I wanted to offer an example of the multiple entry routes into ECE. While on my pathway, I met awesome early childhood educators. Some of them had high school diplomas; some had a Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential™, and still others had Bachelors degrees. Despite variability in their educational status, these teachers shared two things in common: love for children and a growth mindset, two qualities that up-end the notion that degrees or credentials are all important for entry-level early childhood educators.

Two of these teachers particularly stand out. Both have completed collegiate course work but neither is credentialed or degreed. They both have been early childhood educators for over 15 years and are mothers of adult children. The thought of going back to school has simultaneously excited and unnerved them. But because of their willingness to engage in embedded professional development (including reflective supervision, coaching, and communities of practice), they are becoming two of the most effective teachers I know.

As ECE increasingly relies upon education credentials and degrees to indicate competence, I fear that unless these two colleagues complete their bachelor’s degrees, they will not be afforded the opportunity to advance in their careers. Consequently, I am testing a different hiring approach with non-credentialed and degreed early childhood educators at Educare DC.

We have begun assessing applicants’ strengths and competencies, rather than their formal credentials and degrees. Teachers without formal preparation who are nonetheless considered sufficiently competent based on their strengths and competencies are assigned as interim lead teachers in our Early Head Start classrooms, which is possible because they are subject to nominal practitioner requirements. An Instructional Coach and I provide supervision. Concurrently, these teachers are exposed to professional development circles, such as a weekly Community of Practice, that I run for lead teachers. Additionally, each teacher develops an individual professional development plan that includes a timeline for applying for school and earning a degree.

In conjunction with salary increases, individuals participating in this pilot become inspired to develop in ways I would not have imagined. According to the prominent developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, “In order to develop normally, a child requires progressively more complex joint activity with one or more adults who have an irrational emotional relationship with the child. Somebody's got to be crazy about that kid. That's number one. First, last, and always.” I challenge us to feel this way about adults as well. I think participants in our pilot are blossoming because someone believes in them and expresses elevated expectations for their work. As a community and as a nation, recognizing the incredibly valuable work of ECE teachers is past due.

The ECE field must do more to offer higher compensation, better on-the-job training, and fully resourced programs. Early childhood teachers should never be compelled to seek public assistance to support their own families. Babies’ futures should not be built on the backs of a workforce that earns poverty wages. Rather than think of education and compensation as an either-or choice, we should be thinking in terms of “both-and.”  We should both develop the competencies and credentials of our current and future teachers in all their diversity (including those I describe above) and at the same time increase their compensation.

In the process, we should remember that from a business standpoint, even if successful in raising credentials and teacher compensation, most early childhood education programs struggle to keep afloat. Rather than force trade-offs between credentials, compensation, and diversity, the ECE field should invest in quality early learning by establishing sustainable structures and funding sources for teachers and programs that can yield the greatest impact for children. I truly believe that by strategically appropriating funding and by working with others to increase program quality through grant-funded trainings and partnerships extending beyond our programs’ walls, all children will be the beneficiaries.