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Preparing Early Educators: A Career Pathways Approach

In response to stagnating wages and high unemployment among non-college educated populations, several states and localities have embraced career pathways as a workforce development tool. The career pathways model aims to deliver a seamless educational continuum of well-articulated steps, each with a corresponding certification or degree, coupled with strong supports and connections to employment opportunities and wage increases. This comprehensive approach to workforce development is believed to be a promising strategy to better train and educate low-skill workers for the early childhood field. The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services and the U.S Department of Labor have each commissioned reports to evaluate the role career pathways could play in preparing early educators.

In response to a recommendation to increase educational requirements of lead early childhood teachers in the 2015 Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation  reportNew America set out to determine whether the current system of higher education and workforce training was prepared to support the advancement of the current and future workforce.

We  identified promising efforts at the state or local level that support educators in their pursuit of additional education and training – efforts to meet the unique needs of a workforce largely comprised of minority, low-income women. Strategies identified included flexible class scheduling and online courses, career and academic advising, stackable credentialing and articulation, job-embedded training models, and financial assistance. While acknowledging the effectiveness of these strategies in increasing access to an individual course or easing the transference of credits to a subsequent degree program, the authors of a recently released report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor, Career Pathways in Early Care and Education, conclude that these strategies fall short of a formal career pathways approach.

An important assumption in such an approach is that graduates will find enough higher-skilled job opportunities and access to - as well as increases in - livable wages. Yet we know that a large portion of early childhood educators across all settings are earning wages close to or below the poverty level. The median hourly wage is about $9.77 for child care workers and $13.74 for preschool teachers and any of the 1.7 million early educators seeking advancement – to move into a leadership role for instance – are competing for just 64,000 center or program director jobs.

Adequate funding to appropriately compensate early childhood educators is a major barrier to creating a promising workforce development strategy. Sue Russell, Executive Director of T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood National Center explains that “we don’t pay teachers well enough to keep them in the teaching profession. Wages are insufficient and it makes it impossible to stay.” Low wages are also a deterrence to pursuing additional education and training that could improve the quality of teaching. The T.E.A.C.H. program is one of few current initiatives that provides the kind of comprehensive supports included in the career pathways approach, including corresponding wage increases to steps along the pathway.

As a follow-up to the Transforming the Workforce report, the National Academy of Sciences recently released a report looking at ways to fund a high-quality early care and education system that aligns with the recommendations in the 2015 study. The 2018 study estimates the total cost of providing a high-quality early care and education system to be $140 billion a year and recommends that a coalition of public and private funders support development and implementation of such a system. Importantly, the report recommends that the incumbent workforce bear no cost for increasing knowledge, competencies, and qualifications, and costs should be limited to a reasonable proportion of postgraduate earnings for the incoming workforce.

It is important that increased funding for early childhood systems finds its way down to educator salaries, and that these educators have opportunities to advance within the early childhood teaching field and see associated salary increases.  Efforts to professionalize the early childhood workforce are an important complimentary strategy to calls for increased funding. Initiatives such as NAEYC’s Power to the Profession are raising awareness of the needs for a high-quality, well-trained, and adequately compensated workforce and are building towards consensus on the skills and competencies expected of early educators at various levels.

Increased funding to provide robust salary structures for early educators, coupled with efforts to professionalize the workforce and better define the roles and responsibilities of teachers, can open the door to promising workforce development strategies like career pathways. Rather than throw out the idea of career pathways for early educators because of the current structure of the early childhood workforce, structural changes are necessary to create advancement opportunities for the current workforce and to attract, prepare, and retain the next generation of educators.