The recognition that teaching young children takes well-honed skills and knowledge—it is not just babysitting—has led policymakers and the early childhood field to push to professionalize the workforce. Federal, state, and local leaders across the United States are working to steadily raise credential requirements to a bachelor’s degree for lead teachers.
Individuals in the early childhood workforce who go back to school to attain higher credentials are commonly referred to as nontraditional students because they commute and often juggle family and employment obligations with school. Online degree programs have emerged as one way to create a more flexible and accessible pathway for these individuals to obtain a degree, since teachers can complete coursework from anywhere, which eliminates the time and money spent on commuting and makes programs accessible for those without an institution near them.
A new paper out today, When Degree Programs for Pre-K Teachers Go Online: Challenges and Opportunities, grapples with the issues raised by the emergence of these programs. (On November 29, we are also hosting a free lunchtime event at our offices in Washington, DC, to discuss the paper; please register here to attend.) Our findings show how online degrees can provide pre-K teachers with greater access to programs, but they also point to the need for better higher education data and to the need to provide financial supports so that teachers can afford to enroll.
The report also shows that many challenges remain before online degree programs are seen as viable pathways for lead educators. While promising approaches are emerging, education leaders and policymakers will need to be more alert to the barriers that current and future pre-K teachers face, and work to improve data in higher education.
Below are seven insights and takeaways that emerged from our analysis. The first five takeaways apply to in-person, hybrid, and online programs; the last two are particularly important for developers of online programs and policymakers focused on creating a pathway that takes advantage of online learning.
Early childhood teachers must overcome significant financial barriers to benefit economically from a bachelor’s degree. Without scholarship and grant programs, along with improved compensation, teachers will continue to have difficulty acquiring a bachelor’s degree. Institutions may choose not to offer early childhood degree programs because they fear too many students will default on their loans. Policymakers in higher education and early childhood education must address these challenges to ensure that everyone in the field has access to a bachelor’s degree program.
More comprehensive higher education data and research are needed to better understand the online degree landscape as well as to distinguish between quality and sub-par programs. One way to ensure that we have better data is to use a student-level data network. This network would hold higher education data that is stripped of personally identifiable information to help professors, administrators, policymakers, and researchers understand program, institutional, state, or national trends in college outcomes. With better data, we will better understand how long it is taking to complete online degree programs for early childhood teachers, how many teachers are defaulting on their loans, and how students of particular demographics fare in these programs.
Early childhood teachers need advisors who can help them navigate the many pathways to a bachelor’s degree. Many teachers need more information on how to maneuver through the higher education system. Advisors can help teachers to better understand their financial aid options, provide information about high-quality programs, and offer emotional support along the way.
New approaches to monitoring and evaluating the quality of early childhood programs deserve attention and review. Accrediting bodies should aim for full transparency to avoid conflicts of interest. Teachers should be able to easily navigate websites to quickly discover whether programs to which they are applying are accredited.
Programs must be tailored to meet the needs of the workforce in order to leverage its current skills and expertise. The workforce is already teaching young children. Successful programs will recognize and build upon these skills in order to help teachers improve their practice and learn more effective ways to work with their young students. Policymakers also must be sensitive to the fact that when they change the requirements for the lead teacher role to a bachelor’s degree, the workforce needs time to obtain this new credential. Many teachers will continue working while they work toward their degree and will likely need more than four years to graduate.
Early childhood educators need access to broadband service and up-to-date computers, not just smartphones, to be successful in online programs. Promising programs have emerged in the form of EarlyEdU and other non-traditional programs that take advantage of online tools. Along with a concerted effort to help educators find these programs, they need access to the Internet and updated hardware and software.
More research is needed about the nature of online degree programs in the early childhood context. Government and philanthropies should invest in pilot projects that gather data on effective methods as well as on-the-ground reporting on how pre-K teachers are finding and completing their degrees. Results from those studies are needed to build consensus on how to design, disseminate, and teach online programs that help teachers provide even more high-quality experiences in their pre-K classrooms.
Online bachelor’s degree programs have the potential to help build the skills and core competencies of lead early childhood educators—if policymakers and program developers help teachers to overcome the many barriers to accessing an affordable, high-quality degree. This report is a first step toward understanding those barriers and working to overcome them. To read the full text of the paper, click here.