Rethinking Credential Requirements in Early Education

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Author(s): New America

  • Mary Alice McCarthy

Published: June 26, 2017

Report Intro/Brief:
"Despite its grounding in cognitive science, the field of early education has struggled with perceptions that it is babysitting by another name, something that requires little or no training. Early education advocates know otherwise. They point to solid evidence that professionally trained educators are far more effective at helping young children learn than their untrained counterparts. Without rules requiring early education centers to hire trained educators, however, the quality of the education children receive varies widely.

Few people question degree requirements for teachers in elementary schools, including in kindergarten and first grade. Advocates for degree requirements for early educators ask why we would expect anything less for the teachers of our youngest children. If a bachelor’s degree is required to teach a five-year-old, why not a four-year-old? Or a three-year-old? Teachers are teachers, according to this view, and all of them need professional training before they are ready for the classroom.

Degree requirements might change who qualifies for a job as a lead teacher for young children, but they can’t change the underlying realities of the labor market—and that is the real problem with degree requirements in early childhood education and other low-wage occupations. The way the early education market is structured, the costs of any degree requirement will be borne almost entirely by workers who will see little, if any, increase in wages. And college isn’t getting any cheaper. An average associate degree at a two-year public college costs around $9,500 a year. A bachelor’s degree from a four-year public institution costs about $18,600 a year. That is a steep entry price for a profession where hourly wages average less than $10 an hour.

What if there was an educational strategy that could increase early childhood educators’ skills and knowledge and improve the quality of their jobs without requiring them to pay for a college degree? The city of Philadelphia is one of several governments that have embarked on a bold experiment to do exactly that. The ECE Career Pathways Partnership is led by the District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund, a labor-management partnership serving employers and workers in the healthcare and human services sector.

The program launched in May 2017 by enrolling 30 current early childhood educators in a two-year registered apprenticeship program. Participation results in a certificate of completion from the U.S. Department of Labor, an associate degree, and lead teacher certification for Philadelphia-area early childhood education centers. The apprentices learn on the job with the help of a worksite mentor and receive college credits as well as their regular wages. They face limited out-of-pocket costs, but they earn progressively higher wages as they advance through the program.

Apprenticeships could be game changers in early education, frontline healthcare, and other fields where a skilled workforce is essential for reaping the rewards of public investment but where wages remain low and working conditions poor. Awareness of how apprenticeship programs are designed and delivered—and how they differ in key respects from traditional higher education programs—can help policymakers identify opportunities for strategically leveraging them to professionalize workers in critical industry sectors."