Improving Early Educator Preparation: A Fragmented System in Need of Cohesion

Blog Post
April 26, 2021

It’s been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic shut the country down. Early care and education (ECE), a system already struggling, was hit particularly hard. Child care programs saw costs increase by 47 percent, dramatic decreases in enrollment, and thousands of educators left the workforce. Because the impacts were felt broadly, support for creating a stronger ECE system has grown, signified by the recent historic increase in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan and other recovery programs.

Approximately 60 percent of children in the United States are in the care of someone other than a parent before entering kindergarten and the greatest in-school factor affecting student success is a child's teacher, so it follows that a key component of strengthening our ECE system is building and retaining a high-quality workforce.

Unfortunately, many challenges stand in the way. State and local governance of ECE is highly fragmented, with authority and oversight often housed in multiple agencies and departments, making it difficult to implement system-wide changes. Qualification requirements for birth-to-5 early educators vary widely across role and setting, even in the same zip code. For instance, a lead pre-K teacher in a home-based setting may be required to earn a handful of course credits while a lead teacher in a state-funded pre-K program may need a bachelor's degree.

With such wide variation in credential requirements for early educators, it’s not surprising that most early childhood-related degree programs also experience limited public oversight of program content, requirements for graduation, and quality.

To contribute to the ongoing efforts to improve early educator preparation and subsequent compensation, the Early Educator Investment Collaborative (EEIC) funded the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, Bellwether Education Partners, and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) to analyze the educator preparation and compensation landscape and to take a deep dive into the structure of management and oversight of related systems in ten states.

In a comprehensive report, the authors found that institutions of higher education (IHE) vary significantly in their preparedness to meet the unique needs of the ECE workforce. In some cases, this is because there is not enough interest or buy-in from the IHE or its faculty, but often it comes down to uncertainty over how and with what capacity they can do so. There can be significant costs associated with creating courses and programs focused solely on preparing early educators, especially with the varied training and certifications sought by prospective students. IHEs must also take the cost of attendance into account since this remains a key obstacle to student attendance and there is no guarantee graduates will be compensated adequately. (New America released a report last fall digging into five of the most pressing barriers IHEs face when serving early educators. The report offers promising practices and policy levers to help overcome each of them.)

Interestingly, across the 10 states analyzed, the authors found that IHEs have made the most progress in producing system-wide change when they have had organized bodies (e.g., working groups, coalitions) of higher education faculty. Such bodies have been able to drive change within and across institutions, facilitating statewide changes to course content, curricular alignment, and articulation agreements, for example.

IHEs cannot drive this change alone, however. Individual institutions have made promising efforts to create degree programs and pathways designed to meet the varied requirements that apply to early educators, but in the absence of a statewide strategy this has resulted in a mix of certificate and degree programs both within and across states, rather than a unified, streamlined, and aligned system of higher education.

Unfortunately, getting states to focus on this issue long enough to create a unified system is a major challenge. Interviews with state advocates indicated that state priorities tend to be an ever-moving target. Swings in political momentum are frequent and changes in leadership have been known to halt progress entirely. Changes in legislative priorities can also result in fragmented and piecemeal efforts, the authors explain. Some states have found that having a distinct state-level early education department can help streamline government efforts and that collecting data that informs priorities and highlights economic impacts can help garner political momentum.

Ever-changing priorities make providing direction to and offering incentives for IHEs inconsistent and piecemeal and makes kick-starting comprehensive policy reform difficult. The reports conclude with several innovative institution-level and system-wide efforts that have shown promise, however. Forty-nine states and DC have adopted statewide competencies that define what educators should know and be able to do and some institutions have integrated them into their courses. Numerous two- and four-year colleges have created articulation agreements, focused faculty recruitment efforts on bilingual candidates and those with early childhood expertise, and on making programs more accessible and affordable for non-traditional students. Offering apprenticeship programs is one promising way they’re doing this.

As Pablo Picasso once said, “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” When the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on our education system, it revealed existing inefficiencies and inadequacies. With a newfound appreciation for the importance of ECE amongst the public and policymakers alike, and an influx of federal funding to support regrowth, this is the opportune time to redesign our policies and increase investments in educator preparation and compensation.

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