Teaching young children is hard work. It’s also highly skilled work: Effective early childhood educators need both a deep understanding of the science of child development and practical skills to interact with children, assess and support learning, and engage diverse parents. Yet they often do this work with little training and low pay. In recent years, early childhood leaders and policymakers have sought to elevate the early education profession by increasing training requirements. Overall, research suggests that better prepared early childhood teachers are more likely to implement effective practices. And preschool programs that demonstrate lasting learning gains for children employ teachers with bachelor’s degrees and specialized early childhood training.
But earning higher education credentials also takes time, effort and money (both from students themselves and from public financial aid programs). Public policies that demand more training for early educators must also ensure that credentials lead to a competitive wage (which likely requires increased public funding for preschool programs and more help for parents with child care costs) and make them better teachers.
Unfortunately, we know very little about the quality or effectiveness of most existing early educator preparation programs. Most teachers in child care settings don’t have bachelor’s degrees, but over half complete some form of postsecondary education, often at community colleges. We know very little about the experience or outcomes for many of these students, however. Increasingly, publicly funded preschool programs require teachers to have either state teacher certification or a bachelor’s degree in early childhood or a related field. Yet training that leads to these credentials may not match the skills early childhood teachers need. Many early childhood bachelor’s programs, for example, weren’t designed to prepare students to work as classroom teachers, but in higher-paying roles in research or early intervention. As a result, they often provide little or no student teaching experience and don’t cover key pedagogical and classroom management skills teachers need. On the flip side, some state teacher certifications cover such a wide range of grades (such as Texas‘ pre-K to grade 6 teaching credential) that candidates don’t get enough specialized training to work with preschool-aged children.
Moreover, there’s very little data or research about the outcomes of different early childhood preparation programs or approaches. Few states track completion rates for early childhood preparation programs, the rate at which graduates enter and remain in the field, settings they work in or their effectiveness in the classroom. This means we don’t know if some community colleges or four-year colleges are doing a better job of preparing early childhood teachers than others. Without such knowledge, it’s hard to replicate effective practices or help programs get better.
To ensure that increased training for early educators leads to better results for kids, we need to be more intentional about quality and support increased innovation in the field. Simply extending down the existing K-12 teacher certification regime – which has its own problems – won’t achieve this. Seven years ago, Kevin Carey and I argued that states should create new systems of competency-based, stackable credentials for early childhood educators. Our point was not that early childhood educators shouldn’t get bachelor’s degrees (both of us appreciate the value of teachers with a Bachelor of Arts degree), but that existing higher education and credential structures are not well designed for this purpose, and we need new, better pathways.
By and large, that’s still the case today. Yet innovative models are emerging. EarlyEdU Alliance, a higher education collaboration for Head Start and early childhood training, offers one example. It developed a set of high-quality, competency based courses that focus on effective teaching practice, are based in research, and integrate coaching. Dozens of higher education institutions, as well as states and community stakeholders, have joined the Alliance to extend these courses to early educators seeking degrees.