Early Childhood Educators Face a Complex Path to the Classroom

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As early childhood leaders and state policymakers focus on the importance of early childhood education, there’s growing recognition that ensuring quality early learning for all children will require growing the supply of well-prepared early childhood teachers. For K-12 teachers, the pathway to the classroom is fairly simple: most teachers earn a bachelor’s degree and acquire a license to teach in their state. For early childhood educators, the route is far more complex. Early learning is provided in a handful of different settings — including state pre-K, district pre-K, Head Start, and community child care — each of which have their own credential requirements of teachers.

At Bellwether, we are proud to partner with early childhood programs, higher education institutions, state and local leaders, advocates, and philanthropic funders to cultivate the early childhood workforce. Through that work we have observed the wide variation that exists in early childhood workforce pathways, both within and across geographies. The graphic below illustrates the typical pathways — and four main entry points — that exist in many states and communities:

graphic illustrating various pathways to an early childhood teaching career

Let’s start at the bottom of the visual and work our way up:

“Direct-to-work”: This is when someone with a high school degree (or less than that, in some states) enters the workforce without a specific early childhood credential. Those who choose this path are able to work at community-based (private) or family child care centers, many of which require only a high school degree for their assistant teachers or even lead teachers. Those who choose this path may also opt to concurrently work towards a credential or degree at some point through one of the pathways below.

Earn a CDA: Some teachers or prospective teachers pursue a Child Development Associate (CDA), a nationally recognized, portable credential. It requires clocking 120 hours of coursework, compiling a portfolio that highlights experience in early childhood, and passing an exam. An early childhood specialist must also observe the CDA candidate working with children as a lead teacher. One needs to have some experience working with children ages 0-5 in order to obtain a CDA, so it is often pursued by those already employed at a child care center (as mentioned above). Some high school students also have the opportunity to earn a CDA during high school or soon after through career and technical education (CTE) programs. In some geographies, a CDA articulates to an associate’s degree (for example, in Rhode Island, a CDA is worth three credits at one of the state’s community college early childhood programs).

Associate’s degree: Teachers or teaching candidates in early childhood may choose to enroll in an associate’s program, usually at a two-year community college. The degree earned varies: we’ve seen AAS (Associate of Applied Science), AST (Associate of Science in Teaching), and AA (Associate in Arts). An associate’s degree often enables one to be a lead teacher in community-based child care, at least an assistant teacher in Head Start (and sometimes a lead teacher), and an assistant teacher in state or district pre-K.

Sometimes an associate’s degree articulates (either fully or partially) to a bachelor’s degree program; in other cases, an associate degree is designed as a terminal degree for candidates working in childcare settings, and does not have a clear articulation pathway to a bachelor’s program. Cities and states focusing on the early childhood workforce are increasingly trying to create clear paths from associate’s programs to bachelor’s programs. 

Bachelor’s degree: Early childhood teachers or teaching candidates may enter a bachelor’s program directly or get there by pursuing some combination of a CDA and an associate’s degree. In either case, a bachelor’s degree qualifies one to be a lead teacher in several settings: child care centers, Head Start, and — if it’s a program that leads to state licensure — state or district pre-K. The types of bachelor’s degrees we’ve come across are Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS), and Bachelor of Professional Studies (BPS). BA and BS degrees may be conferred as part of a state-approved teacher preparation program, depending on the state and institution. Some institutions offer multiple bachelor’s pathways, only some of which lead to a state teaching certificate. 

The pink box in the diagram indicates an additional component of the pathway that is available in some geographies: an introductory credential for current early educators. This early step is less of a commitment than the CDA, and is required or incentivized by some states for staff working in childcare settings. This introductory coursework is often offered by community colleges or professional development providers free of charge for current childcare workers, and in times and locations that are accessible for current early educators (as an example, Southwest Tennessee Community College’s orientation includes 30 hours of sessions on weeknight evenings or Saturdays). These are often funded in part by states, using childcare quality improvement funds. However, such offerings often are not connected to a clear path for candidates who complete this initial training to progress towards higher degrees and credentials.

The variation and lack of connections across preparation pathways for early childhood educators creates challenges. In response, many states and some higher education institutions have taken steps to better align preparation pathways and reduce barriers to current early educators seeking to advance. Others have created new pathways designed to meet the needs of the current childcare workforce.

However, all of these efforts will have limited impact as long as compensation for early educators remains low. Geographies we’ve worked in struggle to attract and retain early childhood teachers, especially when these teachers or teaching candidates could earn the same or more working at a McDonald’s or Target. Cities also struggle to retain early childhood teachers who earn a state teaching license, many of whom go on to seek positions in elementary schools, which tend to offer higher wages. Early educators who earn associate’s degrees may also move to paraprofessional teaching positions in elementary schools in order to increase their pay. 

In order to ensure a supply of well-prepared teachers, it will be essential both to streamline existing preparation pathways and make them more accessible to diverse candidates — and to increase compensation for the early childhood workforce so that current and prospective workers have real incentives to enter and remain in the field. Doing so will require changes in both the financing of early childhood care and education to support increased compensation, and in public attitudes towards and respect for early childhood educators. Such changes will not come easily, but are essential to improving outcomes and opportunities for both our littlest learners and the adults who care for and educate them.