Debate rages on about whether or not pre-K teachers need a bachelor’s degree. Proponents argue that degrees will lead to greater respect and compensation for preschool teachers and ultimately better results for children. Opponents scoff at the idea of limiting the supply or diversity of pre-k teachers.
But no one is talking about the type of programs these teachers are likely to attend—let alone considering the quality of these programs.
Here’s what we know: Most early childhood educators looking to obtain a degree attend community college. Yet these programs are often ill-prepared to help early childhood educators complete their education for a number of reasons including: entrenched norms and policies of higher education institutions; a challenging higher education policy landscape; and limited capacity and resources.
Higher education institutions weren’t designed with early childhood educators—or many other nontraditional learners—in mind.
As a result, academic policies and practices create additional barriers for early childhood educators seeking to earn degrees. Students seeking to transfer from community college to a four-year institution must navigate a confusing array of transfer policies and articulation agreements that can slow their path to degree completion or derail it altogether.
Community colleges struggle to support and advise students navigating disparate pathways and working towards different goals. Early childhood education (ECE) programs are often even more unprepared to assist students seeking bachelor’s degrees since many early childhood education associate degree programs were not designed to transfer to a four-year degree.
Colleges Lack Incentive to Improve Early Educator Prep
The current higher education context also creates little incentive for community colleges to focus on or improve early childhood education programs. Recent higher education policies such as the passage of the gainful employment rule and state-level adoption of performance-based funding systems send the message that programs that prepare students for socially important but low-paying jobs—such as those in early childhood—are not worthy of investment.
Exacerbating this challenge is the fact that community colleges have minimal resources to help students work towards completion and transition to a four-year institution. Surveys of community college early childhood programs show that most programs have few full-time staff members and rely on adjunct professors. Additionally, most programs have large student-to-counselor ratios and limited student support services.
My new paper, It Takes a Community: Leveraging Community College Capacity to Transform the Early Childhood Workforce, explores the challenges identified above.
These challenges are well-documented, but we know much less about the quality or effectiveness of these early childhood education programs. Community college early childhood programs have rarely been studied and community colleges and state and federal agencies have not collected the data necessary to accurately assess student completion and time to degree.
Let’s Look at the Community Colleges Leading the Way
Despite these challenges, I identified a number of strategies for maximizing the potential of community college early childhood degree programs. Promising practices at the community-college level include scheduling accommodations, online programs, supports for English language learners, providing scholarships and emergency funds and new approaches to remedial education.
In fact, a number of community college early childhood programs have been at the forefront of piloting new remediation models like Washington’s Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-Best) program and Oregon’s Pathways for Adult Basic Skills Transition to Education and Work Initiative (OPABS), both of which help students spend less time in non-credit bearing coursework and earn more college credits. Promising state-level approaches include creating stackable credentials and statewide articulation policies.
- Should all ECE educators obtain an associate’s degree?
- Should all ECE educators obtain a bachelor’s degree?
- Will higher education improve early educators’ abilities in the classroom?
These are vital questions but one cannot answer them without first understanding the degree programs currently available to early childhood educators.
Policymakers interested in transforming the early childhood workforce need to understand both the challenges these programs face and the best methods for building their capacity.
This is a necessary step if they truly want to ensure early childhood educators can obtain the skills and knowledge they need to teach young children well.