What Exactly Do the Letters B.A. and M.Ed Signify?

Blog Post
May 29, 2018

To facilitate interaction among ideas presented in Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators, Series Editor Stacie G. Goffin offers opening comments. For readers new to the Series, her introduction explains the series' intent.

Pre-K teacher Amy Rothchild recounts her preparation as an early childhood educator. Building from previous blog authors' support for BA degrees and Albert Wat's question of whether ECE is on the cusp of consensus re the value of degrees, Rothchild urges us to pause and think critically about what exactly we mean by the letters B.A. and M.Ed.

My experience as an early childhood educator both in public and private schools has taught me that formal teacher preparation offers many benefits, but that the quality of that preparation is vastly uneven. In the course of earning my master’s degree in early childhood education (ECE), I received detailed feedback on my teaching from mentors and corresponded with them in a shared journal. I also made paper plate masks of the Three Little Pigs. Nearly a decade into my career, I still have the observations from my mentors, but I discarded the paper plate masks before the Elmer’s glue had dried.

If, as suggested by Albert Wat, we may be inching towards consensus regarding the importance of four-year degrees and beyond, the question of what a degree represents looms large. If individuals, employers, or governments aim to invest in degrees, what will they be purchasing? Yet to be explored by this series is the question of what is needed to ensure degrees effectively educate adult learners, and through us, children.

When I graduated from college as an English major, I considered my options for becoming an early childhood educator. Accidents of birth and more importantly, deliberate workings of politics and economics, helped me, a white woman with means, become a teacher very easily. Although preschool teaching was not the path my attorney parents had imagined for me, they nonetheless financially supported me. Consequently, I didn’t have to make the sacrifices so many frontline early childhood educators have to make, sacrifices that Sherri Killins Stewart pointedly details. I didn’t have to navigate the tricky path from support staff to lead teacher that Jamal Berry describes.

I decided to bypass traditional teacher preparation; I didn’t want to spend two years and tens of thousands of dollars in graduate programs friends had characterized as weak. But I also craved more than the six weeks of preparation that most alternative certification programs would provide.

So, I sought out a small apprenticeship program with the guiding philosophy “learn to teach by teaching.” I worked alongside and learned from experienced educators, gradually assuming teaching responsibility. My cohort formed a vibrant community of adult learners pursuing questions vital to our practice. I also decided to pursue the option of earning a master’s degree in tandem, thus securing the legitimacy and mobility degrees provide.

That step involved taking a few courses at a university highly regarded for its teacher preparation—and unfortunately that’s where the paper plate masks came in. Where the apprenticeship model was supportive, in-depth, and rigorous, the university courses were too often rote. I felt like I was paying the piper, rather than learning the art of teaching or even the nuts and bolts of practice. Everyone seemingly passed with flying colors just by showing up. Instructors enacted bias, with one proclaiming the work of Ezra Jack Keats “too dark” for kindergarteners, and no matter the course title, lectures often devolved into scattershot discussions of the dangers of posting about students on social media.

It might be easy to dismiss my experience with this traditional coursework as anecdotal, and isolated, but I fear it is not. At the same time that policy makers and many ECE thought leaders place great hope in degree programs, many outside the field are concerned about trends in higher education generally: the rise of poorly regulated for-profit institutions, the increasingly corporate structure of public institutions, growing reliance on graduate students and adjunct faculty, rising student debt, and lack of accountability for student outcomes.

To these challenges, add those associated with training teachers. Our field’s core knowledge and competencies remain hotly debated, and schools of education have a history of distancing themselves from classroom practice. In The Allure of Order, Harvard researcher Jal Mehta paints a picture of how university schools of education originally “sought to distance themselves from applied questions in order to increase their status,” noting that, “in particular, questions about pedagogy were shunned as potential contaminants because of teaching’s association with low-level, women’s work.” I observed this tension directly—few of the traditional courses I took merged theory and practice in intentional ways, mostly leaning on one at the expense of the other.

I didn’t have to take on any debt or make great personal sacrifice to complete my graduate degree program. Most educators, though, must do both. Educators should receive the requisite financial and other supports outlined by Sue Russell to take on advanced training. And teacher education programs should meaningfully advance early childhood educators’ preparation.

We teach children that letters have meaning, and it depends on all of us to figure out what exactly the letters B.A. and M.Ed signify.

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