No More False Choices: Increasing early childhood teachers’ education, compensation, and diversity

Recently, the District of Columbia established new regulations that require all lead teachers in licensed child care programs to have an Associate’s degree by 2020.

Increasingly, policymakers, parents, and early childhood teachers themselves accept the notion that early care and education (ECE) professionals should be well-educated and have rigorous preparation. In the last 10 years, policies in Head Start and many state pre-k programs have required these teachers to attain bachelor’s degrees with specialization in early childhood education. In 2015, “Transforming the Workforce,” a report from the National Academies recommended that all lead teachers of children from birth through age 8 attain at least a bachelor’s degree with specialized early childhood competencies, and that all levels of government should invest in pathways to help existing and new teachers reach that goal. (Full disclosure: I was part of the committee that produced the report.)

Some in the field have raised the concern that requiring early childhood teachers to get four-year degrees would push out teachers of color and threaten the racial and linguistic diversity of the workforce. Critics believe that such policies privilege those who have the resources to gain access to and complete higher education while shutting out otherwise talented educators, especially teachers of color. Still others see the calls for “professionalizing” the workforce as devaluing the experience, competencies, and relationships with families and communities that less-educated educators sometimes have. These critics also worry that this trend is part and parcel of the history of displacement in communities of color that results in the name of “progress” – from public schools to housing.

These concerns forced me to question my beliefs about the benefits of a college education for ECE professionals as well as diversity and equity. In the final analysis though, I maintain that a four-year degree should be the standard for ECE teachers and that such a policy - when coupled with robust investments to increase compensation and recruit and retain teachers of color - can be compatible with the goal of fostering a racially and linguistically diverse workforce that reflects the demographics of the children and families it serves.

Let’s start with the evidence. What do we know about the relationship between increasing education requirements and the racial demographics of early childhood teachers? Systematic research on this question is limited, but there are some interesting patterns. Data from center-based child care, a state pre-k program, and Head Start suggest a correlation between teachers’ increased education levels and some decrease in the proportion of African-American teachers, but an increase in Hispanic teachers. One study of individual Head Start programs found that increasing staff’s education levels to a bachelor’s degree was associated with a slight increase in White staff and modest decreases for both African-American and Hispanic staff.

So the concerns about creating a less diverse workforce are real, although the data about Hispanic teachers suggest that there is more to understand.

And how would teachers of color who attain higher degrees fare in terms of compensation? On average, ECE teachers who have BA’s do get paid more than those who don’t regardless of funding stream or age group. For these professionals, a college education could be the difference between living in near-poverty or a living wage. To be sure, even with a BA degree, center-based early childhood teachers earn, on average, only about $30,000 annually. That’s less than 200 percent of poverty for a family of three and just a little over half of what an elementary school teacher earns. And while Head Start teachers’ education levels have increased, their wages have stagnated since 2007. That’s why any advocacy to increase teachers’ level of education must also identify ways to improve compensation.

So if we don’t support and incentivize ECE teachers to attain higher degrees and credentials, are we relegating a workforce made up disproportionately of women and minorities to low wages, with limited opportunities for advancement in their careers? Wouldn’t that also be an inequitable outcome? And how many college-educated minority students is the ECE field turning away because they can’t afford to be an early childhood teacher?

Or, put another way, couldn’t a drive to increase educational attainment AND compensation be a strategy to recruit and retain a diverse workforce?

We can do this. States and communities have helped teachers with diverse background attain higher education by investing in strategies like peer support programs, scholarships and grants, articulation between two-year and four-year colleges, and ways to give current teachers credit for their experience and competencies. It’s time to press for a more robust public investment strategy that supports higher levels of education, increases compensation, and preserves and grows the profession’s racial and linguistic diversity at the same time. The future of the early education profession cannot be a choice between a well-paid, predominantly White workforce that has high levels of education and one that is cash poor, less educated, but rich in diversity.

Related Resources from Alliance Partners

-Albert Wat
Senior Policy Director
Alliance for Early Success
(July 18, 2017)

This is a more condensed version of a blog that appeared in New America Weekly.