When Degree Programs for Pre-K Teachers Go Online

Challenges and Opportunities
Policy Paper
Nov. 9, 2017

Before they enter kindergarten, many young children spend a significant portion of their days in early care and education programs, where the quality of their experiences determines whether they will gain a solid foundation for building both academic and social skills in their later years. A growing body of research shows that the quality of everyday interactions between a young child and a caring adult—interactions infused with playful learning experiences that are rich in content and vocabulary—is essential to ensuring that early learning programs make a positive impact on children, particularly for those from high-poverty communities. That research shows that effectively fostering children’s development in key domains (such as socioemotional learning, early literacy, early math, fine motor skills, cognition, and approaches to learning) takes skillful planning, execution, and reflection. 

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. Programs like Head Start and public pre-K programs for three- and four-year-olds have been on the leading edge of these changes for over a decade. Today, 35 state-funded public pre-K programs require that lead teachers hold a bachelor’s degree, and many of those states require a major or specialization in early childhood.

These policies are raising big questions: What is the best way to support lead teachers in attaining a bachelor’s degree? What are the equity implications of this credential requirement for the existing workforce, for people new to the field, and for children? What do we know about the availability and quality of existing degree programs? Could they be offered in a way that would enable a teacher to earn her degree at night without disrupting her work with children? Could online degree programs provide new opportunities? Or do they simply represent a new set of challenges related to quality and access? 

This report aims to answer those last two questions, which represent new and unexplored terrain in early childhood education policy. To investigate the intersection of issues in teacher preparation, early childhood policy, and online degree programs, we synthesized findings from published reports on the state of teacher preparation, conducted interviews with experts, culled information from websites of institutions offering online degree programs, and analyzed national data sets on early childhood teacher preparation programs, as well as surveys of the early childhood workforce. We focused primarily on the segment of the early childhood workforce that is closest to achieving the bachelor’s degree credential and commensurate compensation: pre-K lead teachers. Our findings show how online degrees can provide teachers with greater access to programs, but also point to the need for better higher education data and the benefits of degree programs that provide teachers with financial supports.