This blog has been adapted and is an excerpt from When Degree Programs for Pre-K Teachers Go Online: Challenges and Opportunities a forthcoming paper by Shayna Cook.
During Head Start’s last reauthorization in 2007, Congress instituted new regulations focused on quality to improve the program’s efficacy nationally. These regulations included a new requirement for half of lead teachers in center-based programs to have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or a related field.
With the new credential requirement in place, Head Start officials set out to find experts who could develop effective ways to help its workforce attain these degrees. In 2008, the Office of Head Start awarded the National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning grant to the University of Washington Haring Center in collaboration with the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University, Iowa State University, University of South Florida, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Susan Sandall and Gail Joseph of the University of Washington oversaw the $40 million, five-year grant, which brought together nationally recognized experts in the fields of early care and education, early childhood special education, and early intervention to think about how to develop what Joseph calls “cutting-edge coursework” that would help close the gap between early learning theory and practice. The group also sought to solve the lack of affordable higher education programs for Head Start teachers, and eventually for the entire field.
The grant led to the creation of Head Start University, a program that developed comprehensive, research-based college courses that could be offered online and in-person. This program was modeled after the U. S. Air Force’s Air University, which has a workforce with similar hurdles for early childhood teachers. The Air Force enlists members with disparate educational backgrounds, from those with high school diplomas trying to finish community college and eventually earn four-year degrees to generals who may already have advanced degrees but need leadership development courses. Enlisted members, like early childhood teachers, are often place-bound and may not have easy access to higher education programs. Air University, an alliance of institutions of higher education, both brick and mortar and online, was created to address the educational needs of all Air Force members by allowing them to easily access courses. Head Start University worked to achieve the same goal.
Head Start University evolved into the EarlyEdU Alliance, which now serves the entire early education field, offering two-year and four-year programs as well as advanced degrees. Joseph describes the EarlyEdU Alliance as a program designed to address the challenges facing this particular workforce through the development of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are needed in high-quality early learning professionals.
The program originated at the University of Washington to increase access to affordable bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education through effective in-person and online degree programs for people already working in the field. Although program costs vary by institution, programs that are members of the Alliance are delivering high-quality content and adhere to around 80 percent of the EarlyEdU curriculum. In addition, institutions in the Alliance use an application called a “coaching companion,” which enables video sharing and allows students to receive feedback from peers and coaching from instructors on their own teaching practices. It can be used with or without being enrolled in a course.
Fifty-two institutions have piloted the program since 2015, and membership is currently free. And, EarlyEdU is also working with state-level teams to develop new paths to quality degrees.
The idea, Joseph said, is to help them “think about how they can create systems to incentivize the early learning workforce to not just get degrees, but to get degrees that matter.”
For more information on online degrees for early childhood educators, look out for an upcoming paper entitled, When Degree Programs for Pre-K Teachers Go Online: Challenges and Opportunities, which will be published on November 9, 2017. And, for more information about the institutions that have piloted the EarlyEdU program as well as the program’s state partners, click here.