Strategies for Improving Early Educator Preparation

A new report offers bold ideas for preparing and supporting early educators
Blog Post
Feb. 16, 2021

There has been a lot of attention on the early care and education (ECE) workforce since the 2015 release of a 700-page report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine focused on providing high-quality training for early educators. We know that high-quality ECE requires teachers who are able to access quality, affordable training so that they’re well-prepared prior to entering the classroom, supported in their professional growth once they’re in the classroom, and paid well enough to remain in the classroom rather than leave for a more lucrative profession.

Over the past several years, New America has done a great deal of work focused on ways to prepare and support a diverse group of early educators able to provide the kind of high-quality ECE that leads to long-term gains for young children. Last fall, we released a report based on the findings of a working group that explored the barriers institutions of higher education face in serving early educators. Between January 2018 and May 2019, we engaged diverse viewpoints in a blog series on what needs to be done to enable the ECE field to address three of its most challenging issues: preparation and education, compensation and status, and diversity and inclusivity. We’ve also highlighted various methods to help prospective early educators gain the credentials needed to enter the classroom in an equitable manner: apprenticeship programs, including some that start as early as high school; bilingual associate degree programs to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking early educators; and financing strategies for helping prospective educators earn a degree without breaking the bank.

Now, a new report from Bellwether Education Partners, HeadStarter Network, and the National Head Start Association full of innovative ideas for improving the preparation and support of early educators is sure to spark conversations in the ECE field. The report outlines five strategies for bringing about an effective early educator preparation system:

Strategy 1: Redefine Credentials

The Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, first awarded in 1975, has for decades been the first step for early educators looking to strengthen their practice. Obtaining a CDA requires 120 hours of training, 480 hours of experience working with young children, the preparation of a professional portfolio, observation during a verification visit, and passing an exam. The report recommends building on the CDA in two ways: 1) developing a national repository for all CDA training options that includes information on pass rates and which programs result in college credits, and 2) developing a second national credential designed to layer onto the current CDA.

This new credential would be known as the Child Development Professional (CDP) credential. Candidates for the CDP would enter the training having already passed the CDA exam and holding 2,040 hours of classroom experience. Educators who earn a CDP would be prepared to serve as lead teachers and their qualifications would be considered equivalent to that of a four-year degree holder (the report’s authors emphasize the need for prioritizing high-quality postsecondary training rather than advocating for requiring a specific degree or credential).

Strategy 2: Rethink Degree Attainment

When it comes to helping early educators obtain college degrees, the challenges are well-known: high tuition costs, inconvenient class schedules, classes offered only in English, and wide variation in the quality of degree-granting early childhood programs, to name just a few. To help address these issues, the report recommends creating an online, accredited, degree-granting institution of higher education with content specifically designed for early educators. This online university, given the name of Premier University in the report, would be designed to boost the accessibility and quality of educator preparation. The university would confer both associate and bachelor’s degrees in ECE and courses would be priced affordably, offered at convenient times, and taught by faculty with extensive classroom experience. Educators would work through the program in a cohort model, taking courses that are project-based, competency-based, and credit-bearing.

Strategy 3: Optimize Practice-Based Learning

The report also focuses on elevating the role that apprenticeships play in helping individuals enter the early childhood profession. New America has highlighted the benefits of an apprenticeship approach for preparing early educators: participants receive paid, specialized, on-the-job training with ongoing mentorship as well as classroom-based, related technical instruction that can result in college credit. This kind of “earn while you learn” model is especially appealing for a workforce that typically earns low wages and can’t afford to stop working to return to the classroom. The report emphasizes the need for creation of a more robust funding stream for ECE apprenticeships so more educators have the opportunity to participate in them.

Strategy 4: Expand Job-Embedded Coaching

Once early educators complete high-quality postsecondary training they need continued support as they hone their craft in the classroom. Because individualized coaching has been shown to be more effective than other professional development methods, the report recommends enacting policy changes to eliminate barriers to coaching, including developing a statewide coaching credential and ensuring that educators who work with coaches receive course credit they can apply towards a degree or credential. Rigorous qualification requirements would be put in place for coaches to ensure educators are receiving high-quality coaching that improves their teaching.

Strategy 5: Connect In-Service Professional Learning to Career Advancement

Once early educators are operating in the classroom, they should have career advancement opportunities that don’t require leaving the classroom. The report suggests policymakers create new fellowships, job rotations, and certifications to encourage skill development among educators. For their part, providers could design systems that reward educators who take leadership roles, such as serving as mentor teachers, data coaches, or instructional specialists. Ideally, educators who are recommended for and take on these roles would be rewarded with an increase in compensation, if funds are available, but less costly ideas include stipends, title bumps, or additional paid time-off.

To be sure, many of the ideas proposed in the report won’t become a reality anytime soon. A new credential or online university would likely take years to develop and only after receiving input and alterations from numerous stakeholders. There’s real value, however, in putting forth provocative new ideas for the field to consider as we continue to work to ensure early educators are adequately prepared for the classroom and supported as they progress through their careers.

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