Along with Dolly Parton, good weather, well-stocked toilet paper aisles and the “stop video” function on Zoom, the pandemic has brought a newfound appreciation—reverence, even—for early childhood educators.
Families, fellow educators and the general public have begun to see just how integral child care professionals are to a smoothly functioning economy, says Ashley LiBetti, associate partner of policy and evaluation at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit that aims to improve outcomes for underserved children. Many people, LiBetti notes, are realizing that the existence of early childhood education programs almost single-handedly allows mothers of young children to participate in the workforce.
“The pandemic catalyzed this previously unmatched level of attention on early care and education,” LiBetti says, adding that “the potential for aspirational change to early educator preparation is possible right now.”
But it’s more than just the pandemic that has made this a “prime moment” for the field, says Cody Kornack, director of government affairs for the National Head Start Association (NHSA). As the country grapples with its long and enduring history of racism, early childhood educators—about 40 percent of whom are women of color—are well-positioned both to support young children who have experienced trauma from systemic racism as well as to expose children to anti-racist ideas and education at a young age.
These factors, plus the economic downturn that has devastated the child care industry, amount to what Kornack calls a “confluence of crises” that together have led to a shift in attitudes toward the field, whose workers historically have been treated more like babysitters than trained professionals.
With this in mind, early childhood advocates and practitioners are taking a fresh look at how to tackle the biggest problem points related to workforce development. In particular, they’re taking aim at how educators are credentialed, how they receive on-the-job training and other ways they might advance their careers.
In August, dozens of early childhood researchers, educators, policymakers, practitioners and philanthropists convened virtually for a full day of discussions and brainstorming about these and similar topics. “The immediate goal was to think outside of the box,” Kornack says, “to be unafraid to bring bad ideas to the table, because maybe it could lead to one good idea; to be willing to share.”
That conversation helped spawn a recent report, authored by Kornack and LiBetti, titled “Broader, Deeper, Fairer: Five Strategies to Radically Expand the Talent Pool in Early Education.”
“Radical” is key, as some of the ideas envision an early childhood preparation landscape that looks wholly different from what is currently in place. But that’s what Kornack and LiBetti—and their adviser, NHSA executive director Yasmina Vinci—intended. Pulling from concepts that already exist in pockets of the early childhood education ecosystem, as well as from programs that are deeply entrenched in other industries, the five strategies are “at once exceptionally simple and frustratingly complex,” the authors write in the report. “Improving early educator preparation is not just about disrupting the current system, but it is a function of designing new strategies and improving existing strategies, then implementing them with fidelity at scale.”
Below are summaries of three of the five strategies and recommendations detailed in the report. You can read the full report, including the remaining two strategies, here.
A New Credential for Early Educators
The Child Development Associate (CDA) is the most widely used and recognized credential in early childhood education. More than 20 states include CDAs among their requirements for working with children. Yet it “remains under-recognized as a lever for change,” the report argues.
Not all CDA programs are alike, which can be confusing for early childhood educators, and not all of them grant college credit. To help candidates better navigate these programs, the field should “develop a single national repository” that both names and assesses the various options, the report says.
At the same time, the field should develop another national credential—to be called the Child Development Professional (CDP) credential—that would expand on the skills and expertise of the CDA and eventually be “held in equal esteem to four-year degrees.” Early childhood educators who have already earned CDAs would, theoretically, do additional training and/or coursework to earn their CDPs.
In this path, the authors compare the current CDA to a “driver’s permit,” which would allow educators to serve as assistant teachers, while the CDP would act as a driver’s license that would enable them to serve as lead teachers.
CDP courses might focus on topics such as classroom management, including how to supervise and work with assistant teachers; the use of technology in early education; inclusion and anti-racism practices; trauma-informed care; and practices to support dual language learners. The new credential also opens up possibilities for educators to specialize in tracks such as mental health, disabilities and dual-language instruction.
Some strategies outlined in the report are more ripe for swift action than others, Kornack acknowledges. “I would name the national credential as one of those strategies where there are pieces that could more easily be implemented,” she says. “We’re not that far off.”
It has become increasingly common for states to require that assistant teachers have an associate’s degree and lead teachers hold a bachelor’s degree. But given the low wages and slow growth in compensation that the typical early childhood educator experiences, the return on investment can take years to realize.
The report proposes the creation of an online, accredited, degree-granting institution of higher education, dubbed “Premier University.” The course content and wraparound services of this institution would be designed with early childhood educators—potential and current—in mind.
Eventually, Premier University might offer associate and bachelor’s degrees, with courses that are competency- or project-based. The report floats several more ideas for the school, including coursework relevant to early educators (such as a statistics course that uses student-level data); a diverse, culturally responsive faculty; and flexible schedules that allow educators to work and take classes at the same time.
Pieces of this idea are already in place in certain parts of the country, Kornack says. “In reality, if we got five to 15 people in a room, we could manifest Premier University.” Some of those people include Gail Joseph, who helped design and roll out EarlyEdU, a suite of competency-based courses for early childhood educators that is hosted through public universities, and the team that develops new academic programs at Southern New Hampshire University, which is known for its online offerings.
“The devil’s in the details,” Kornack says, “but it’s my impression there is a willingness on the part of multiple parties to get there.”
A Push Toward Apprenticeships
Practice-based training—which in K-12 is usually offered through student teaching— is among the most valuable components of teacher preparation, the report argues. In early childhood education, apprenticeships should be the “cornerstone” of practice-based training, says Kornack, “and there should be more of them.”
Apprenticeships allow educators to “earn while they learn,” gaining new skills and competencies as they pursue a credential, and often collecting incremental pay increases along the way.
The report suggests something called “Apprenticeships+,” which would pair apprenticeships with additional practice-based training opportunities. The latter could follow the model that nurses use in their rotational programs: trying out different specialities and learning from experienced professionals in each.
“Gaining experience under mental health consultants, family engagement teams, special education interventionists and data specialists would build educators’ competencies in complementary aspects of a classroom instruction position,” the report says.
There is already a lot of momentum around apprenticeships in the field, LiBetti says, adding that it is the most feasible strategy to implement because there are clear policy and practice steps to help them “proliferate” in early childhood education.