Higher Education and Professional Learning

Adapted from Transforming the Workforce Chapter 9

Key Takeaways

  • Educators in child care centers and early education systems outside of public schools are prepared differently than those teaching in public elementary schools. Neither system is effectively producing a sufficient number of educators who support young children’s learning.

  •  Society tends to view working with younger children as less prestigious work even though the early years are formative to children’s future success. State qualification requirements and higher education offerings reflect this.

  • State agencies have significant control over teacher preparation because they oversee higher education programs and create policies on qualifications, licensure, and funding. Accreditation standards for programs preparing early childhood educators need to be strengthened and should be aligned with state regulations.

  • The main purpose of professional learning is to improve quality of practice and promote better child outcomes. The type, quality, and accessibility of professional learning is highly varied depending on the setting an educator works in. This is due to differences in state regulations, funding, leadership decisions, time, incentive systems, and more. 

Chapter Summary

There are two primary ways that early childhood educators prepare for and continue to develop in their roles: formal higher education (often called “pre-service” preparation) or ongoing professional learning opportunities (often called “in-service” preparation). It is common for educators to participate in some combination of these two methods. 

Higher Education (Pre-Service Preparation)

There is significant variation in how educators are prepared depending on which setting they work in and the age group they serve. Elementary school educators are part of a more established system with standard structures and regulation, while educators of children prior to kindergarten (with the exception of pre-K teachers in public schools) are often in less regulated programs or facilities. Neither system is producing enough educators able to provide high-quality education and care to young children.

Professionals in B–5 settings have traditionally been expected to support child development, whereas elementary school teachers are usually expected to focus on academics and knowledge. Elementary school candidates must have formal preparation before employment, usually a bachelor’s degree and state certification. There is great variation, however, in preparation program quality, especially in settings outside of elementary schools. Many early educators work in the field before pursuing formal higher education or training, though programs have been increasing qualification requirements in recent years.

Because of program variation and limited data, it is difficult to determine which aspects of preparation are most important and effective. Programs to train elementary teachers are more standardized than those for educators outside of public schools, and they almost always include some type of clinical experience. But even though field placements are common, there are minimal quality standards in place to ensure worthwhile experiences.

There is no agreement about which standards constitute a high-quality educator preparation program. Many programs do not give educators the knowledge needed to work with young children, and programs have failed to keep up with the needs of the increasingly diverse population of children they are serving. Higher education programs can have difficulty finding and retaining high-quality faculty to prepare educators.

Watch how the University of Washington created a new collaborative preparation program for both principals and center directors:

Policymakers can take steps to increase access to higher education and encourage educator success. Articulation agreements, for instance, can help aspiring educators overcome barriers to higher education.

An increasing number of candidates are also pursuing alternative pathways that have either been emerged out of partnerships with traditional higher education institutions or created by entirely new entities that sidestep higher education institutions.

Here's the story of how the University of Oklahoma at Tulsa developed an affordable and accessible path to a bachelor's degree: 

Ongoing Professional Learning (In-Service Preparation)

Professional learning during ongoing practice is highly variable: it comes in many forms (e.g., workshops, coaching, communities of practice), can be delivered through numerous methods (e.g., in the workplace, offsite, via technology), and serves multiple purposes (e.g., supporting core competencies, introducing new tools). The goal of all professional learning is to improve quality of practice and support child outcomes.

Professional learning varies based on role and practice setting. Those working in elementary schools usually have to meet specific requirements around professional learning and may have greater access to opportunities for ongoing training. Educators in publicly-funded programs, like Head Start, are more likely to participate in professional learning during paid work hours. Some educators face barriers like limited funding, lack of support from leadership, and the inability to take time away from the classroom. 

Researchers have identified characteristics of effective professional learning that improve instructional practice and foster stronger adult-child interactions. They have found that professional learning is most effective when it is ongoing, consistent, and directly related to classroom practice. 

Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning
Source: Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation, Figure 9-1, page 397. Excerpt from Standards for Professional Learning: Quick Reference Guide (Learning Forward, 2014b, p. 2). www.learningforward.org.

Continuous improvement is key to effective professional learning. Reflective practice where educators review and alter their own practice is also essential. Educators are more receptive to professional learning that is relevant and useful to their work. It should foster collaboration between educators, such as through professional learning communities that allow for collaborative learning and reflection. There is some evidence that high-quality in-classroom coaching can improve the quality of instruction and child outcomes. 

Key Quote from Chapter

“Teaching is one of the most common occupations in the United States...yet as a nation the United States lacks a common vision for or standardization of how to prepare educators. This lack of standardization has influenced perceptions of the occupation, as well as policies and practices for teacher preparation. The lack of standardization and its effects become even more striking when viewed in light of the broad variations in the preparation of educators across professional roles and settings for children birth through age 8.” (pg. 365)

Questions for Policymakers, Higher Education, and the Workforce


  • How do state policies differ around qualifications of educators working in B–5 settings and those working in elementary schools?
  • What types of professional learning opportunities does the state or district offer for early childhood educators? Are there opportunities for all educators (e.g., teachers, leaders, and paraprofessionals) working with children from birth through third grade? Are educators working with different ages of children participating together in these opportunities at times?
  • Are there requirements around ongoing professional learning to ensure that educators stay up to date on the latest science and best practices?

Higher Education:

  •  In preparation programs, are educators who are planning to work in elementary schools leaving with a strong foundation in child development and early learning?
  • Are higher education programs accessible, both in terms of cost and time, for educators already in field? How can programs make higher education more accessible?
  • Do preparation programs give leaders the knowledge and skills to manage a small business and provide instructional leadership to classroom teachers?
  • How can preparation programs incorporate additional high-quality field experiences to give prospective teachers more opportunities to practice and demonstrate competencies?
  • Is there a track for administrators of non-public school early education programs that includes both operational or managerial knowledge and instructional knowledge?

B–8 Workforce:

  • Are you afforded opportunities to join professional learning communities in your school or program? If not, can you advocate for the creation of those communities or start them yourselves with the assistance of professional membership organizations in your field?
  • Have you talked with your leaders about expanding options in your state or locality for augmenting your skills and sharing learnings across programs or grade levels?