Our Take on New Paper: Rethinking Credential Requirements in Early Education

The Center for Education and Skills at New America (CESNA) released a paper today that explores the practical and political challenges of professionalizing the early childhood education workforce. CESNA is one of our sister programs within New America’s broader Education Policy Program and focuses on the intersection between workforce development and higher education policy. The paper provides a strong case for why our country needs high-quality early childhood programs and well-trained educators. It also offers an innovative alternative for transforming the early education workforce that relies less on traditional higher education degree programs: apprenticeship. 

While early education advocates will likely identify with many points raised in the paper, there are a few that may cause heartburn. Specifically, the paper pushes back against recommendations requiring lead educators obtain a bachelor’s degree, arguing that the low wages that plague most of the pre-K sector, combined with the rising cost of higher education, make the BA too much of a burden on an already vulnerable workforce. It also suggests that four-year degree programs are not a good fit for the professional development needs of many early educators, who would be better served by shorter programs that include more on-the-job training and mentoring. 

While we share the paper’s concerns on the equity implications of degree requirements, we disagree with the idea that a bachelor’s degree is not a good fit for the early education workforce. As our longtime readers know, we believe that setting a goal of attaining a bachelor’s degree for lead educators is necessary for advancement and professionalism across the field.We know it won’t be easy, but we are convinced that it is the most feasible strategy for helping these educators gain status and a knowledge base on par with lead teachers in the K-12 grades, it will push higher education institutions to innovate, and it is more likely to help those educators earn compensation and benefits that will pull them out of poverty themselves. 

Most importantly, a well-designed bachelor’s degree program is a path to help educators become more adept at helping children learn; this requires an understanding of how to ensure that one’s interactions with children are helping those children become thriving, interested learners. In the paragraphs below, we explain where we see eye-to-eye with our colleague’s report and where we differ. We appreciate the opportunity afforded by New America to allow different viewpoints to be heard, and we believe that many of the ideas in the paper deserve attention. Discussion and debate across multiple sectors will be necessary to move the field toward a suite of solutions that can help educators see themselves as professionals and advance their skills.

To start, we agree with several points in the paper:

1) The CESNA paper argues that current early childhood preparation programs leading to bachelor’s degrees do not equip future teachers with the knowledge, skills, and experiences they need to be effective early educators. Across New America’s Education Policy Program, we agree that higher education institutions will need to change or new competitors will need to arise. We need more institutions that recognize the importance of on-the-ground practice and existing competencies and that do a better job of showing teachers how to apply lessons from the science of learning.

 2) New pathways are needed for gaining skills and knowledge. The traditional higher-ed model won’t work for the vast majority of current teachers of infants, toddlers, and in many cases even teachers of pre-kindergarteners. Many early educators who are seeking degrees today are non-traditional students with little to no income available to pay for higher-education courses, let alone to afford leaving their jobs to go back to school. It is unfair to expect them to gain more training without significant financial help.

 3) Regardless of the pathway, however, current teachers will need multiple supports if they are to be successful along the way. These include scholarships, tuition waivers, evening & weekend classes, paid leave from the workplace, child care, and counselors or mentors.

 4) The apprenticeship model includes many features that deserve attention. It is exciting to see the emergence of new models such as the ECE Career Pathways Partnership program in Philadelphia. Throughout the world of teacher preparation, not enough attention is paid to what can and should be learned on the job, particularly when it comes to working with children. The additional compensation earned is crucial as well.  

 But here is where we diverge: The CESNA paper states that bachelor’s degrees are a poor fit for professionalizing the early education workforce.

Our take: Most would agree that if you offer a pathway that includes skills and training, people will expect to end up with some kind of credential. We hope that over the course of the next several decades, there will be new types of credentials available across a wide variety of careers. In the field of education, perhaps in the far future, a different set of other credentials will take the place of the bachelor’s degree. But in the meantime, the bachelor’s is already in use in public education systems in every state and every school district across the country. Using the same credential as our public school systems can help to create a more seamless connection between the workforce that runs early childhood programs before age five and the workforce that runs elementary programs after age five. This more seamless system could help public schools to learn better skills and approaches for working with young children while also infusing more dollars into the field of early childhood. Why not try to improve the quality of the bachelor’s degree instead of designing a whole new credential that may take decades to gain traction?

Bachelor degree attainment for all lead teachers, especially those working with very young children, will not be easy. We do not expect it to happen overnight. The Transforming the Workforce report recognized this. It recommended that institutions “develop and implement comprehensive pathways and [emphasis ours] multiyear timelines at the individual, institutional, and policy levels for transitioning to a bachelor’s degree requirement.”

In its considerations for implementing this recommendations, the authors of the Transforming the Workforce report also acknowledge that higher education will need to adapt. The report calls for “adaptive considerations for potential evolution in the nature and format of higher education degree and credentialing systems, including potential future alternative equivalents to the bachelor’s degree—as long as the same general level of education is ensured and is accompanied by the specialized education and training in the knowledge and competencies needed to serve as an educator of young children.” The recommendation was not issued lightly or without consideration of the state and needs of the current and potential workforce.

Lastly, it may help to remember that the recommendation was for lead educators only, including directors. There are different roles adults take on in early learning settings and they are not clearly defined, often varying greatly not just from state-to-state, but also center-to-center or program-to-program. Here at New America, we believe there is much work to do to better define “lead educator,” especially for providers who enroll children who are too young for pre-K classrooms. What role in infant and toddler classrooms should really have a bachelor’s degree? (We have some ideas, but that’s for a different post.) Fortunately, the National Association for the Education of Young Children through its Power to the Profession initiative has brought national early childhood educator membership groups together to tackle some of these tough questions about what the required knowledge and skills should be, what the various roles should be, and what roles need which credentials.

Two big questions on many people’s minds are 1) how do we ensure that higher degree requirements equate to higher pay and better benefits for early educators and 2) will this mean even more expensive early learning programs for parents. The National Academies is already at work on a new study that looks at financing for an early childhood system with a highly qualified workforce. Funding and fair compensation are at the heart of the problem: Without better pay, these child care workers cannot afford more training. Without more training, they won’t get better pay. We don’t know what the new report will call for, but in our minds, our country is going to have to start treating early care and education programs for children birth-to-five as a public good as we do K-12 education. We need more public investment. This does not mean that early education has to be free for everyone or required for everyone, but through a sliding scale perhaps everyone who needs and wants to send their child to a high-quality early care and education program should be able to do so.

The Rethinking Credential Requirements in Early Education paper calls for quality and equity. We agree, but it has to be quality and equity for both children and the workforce. Do we want a world in which providers who lack up-to-date training and credentials are ‘good enough’ for children in poverty (and middle-income families in many places) while affluent families are able to seek out providers who gain training and have credentials?

We cannot assume advancing the field, improving the competencies and compensation of educators serving our youngest children, and making better connections with our public schools are impossible tasks. This work is already well underway in many places: Across the entire state of Oklahoma, in Washington, DC, and in dozens of cities and school districts around the country, all educators of four-year-olds in public pre-K (and in some cases three-year-olds) have received bachelor’s degrees and are now making salaries comparable to their K-12 counterparts. To be sure, much more work needs to be done to understand the roles and positions of educators and other professionals working with children younger than age three, but we are not ready to step backwards and give up on the idea that teachers of younger children can gain the same training, support, and status as teachers who work in public schools.

For more on the Early & Elementary Education Program’s writing related to the Transforming the Workforce report visit our special page, “Thriving Workforce; Thriving Early Learners.

Authors:

Laura Bornfreund is director of early & elementary education policy with the Education Policy program and co-director of the Family Centered Social Policy program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts working on new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third grade learning experiences.

Lisa Guernsey is deputy director of the Education Policy program and director of the Learning Technologies project at New America.