Early childhood education training needs investment, higher ed leaders say

Dive Brief:

  • Poor compensation and low-level degree requirements are contributing to high turnover in the early childhood education field, a new report argues.
  • The National Association for the Education of Young Children interviewed nearly 30 higher education leaders at colleges and organizations, listening to their ideas for investments in the sector. 
  • In addition to bolstering early childhood educators’ pay, higher ed leaders advocated for seamless transfers between associate and bachelor’s degrees in these areas and accrediting more academic programs. 

Dive Insight:

The report emphasizes the importance of early childhood education, especially during the pandemic, when it says “child care was more readily acknowledged as essential to the economy.” 

The pandemic heavily exacerbated teacher shortages. Education organizations wrote to Congressional leaders drawing attention that dearth this month, lobbying for investments that President Joe Biden’s sweeping Build Back Better spending plan would make in teacher preparation.

Turnover has been particularly high in early childhood ed, with an estimated 20% to 40% of the field leaving annually, according to the association’s report. 

Those interviewed for the research described robust early childhood ed and well-compensated staff in these areas as moral imperatives and “a fundamental racial and gender equity issue.”

But too often policymakers gloss over early childhood ed’s benefits, the report states, deriding it as “babysitting.” This mindset is partially reflected in these educators’ low pay.

Early childhood instructors nationally earn on average $11.65 an hour, according to the report. They take home so little that almost half are from families eligible for public assistance, it states.

Higher salaries and better health insurance were more consistently found at the elementary school-level. One interviewee said they observed educators leaving early childhood ed and taking positions in those settings.

Moreover, little incentive exists to pursue high-level credentials, as in most states, “licensed child care requires minimal educational attainment.” In a few settings, such as some states’ publicly funded preschool programs, the highest degree required might be a bachelor’s, according to the report.

Another interviewee said that American school districts and other employers perceive teacher preparation merely as a way to alleviate the teacher shortages — to “fill slots.” That approach undercuts attempts to build early childhood as a professional field of practice.

But opportunities exist to mitigate some of the profession’s problems. 

As a large share of students begins early childhood ed training at community colleges, firming up articulation agreements between two-year and bachelor’s degree institutions can help, the report states. 

Helping students navigate transfer rules is also key, too, as students sometimes must identify at the beginning of their programs whether they’d like to go on to a bachelor’s program. The coursework for a terminal associate degree is often much different than that for transfer students.

The report also notes that while accreditation is viewed as essential for ensuring proficiency in certain lines of work, it remains voluntary for early childhood ed programs. Those interviewed endorsed accreditation, as they saw it as a way to professionalize the field. 

However, they cautioned that accreditation in some cases has evolved into a more of a check-the-box service rather than ensuring programs’ quality. 

Lastly, the report advocates for offering childcare benefits to students and employees. This could take the form of on-campus childcare centers, which sometimes serve as a laboratory for early childhood ed trainees. 

If the state and federal governments invest tuition assistance and research dollars for early childhood education, then “more likely a robust marketplace will emerge and higher education will respond,” the report says.

“This is especially true related to compensation for the workforce,” the report states.

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