Do We Need Bachelor’s Degrees in ECE? Our Response to a Controversial Question

Author: Peggy Haack, T.E.A.C.H. Outreach Coordinator


WECA is dedicated to enhancing the educational qualifications of our workforce and improving wages and working conditions in our field.  For decades, the dominant thinking has been that as we raise the level of professionalism (i.e. the skill and knowledge base of the workforce), better wages would follow.  As dictated by new research, the job of early care and education has become more complex and the demand for education more insistent.  We have watched educational levels improve, while there has been only incremental change in compensation. Rather than thinking one can solve the other, we need to consider the two as distinct problems that need to be addressed simultaneously.  Today is the time to once again wrestle with this dilemma.  -Peggy Haack, T.E.A.C.H. Outreach Coordinator

Women graduating from college

In 2015 the Institute of Medicine (IOM)1 and National Research Council (NRC), based on the science of early brain development, recommended that all lead educators working with children from birth through age eight have at minimum a bachelor’s degree with specialized early childhood knowledge and competencies.  Just two years later, New America, an organization “committed to renewing American politics, prosperity and purpose in the Digital Age,” in a report entitled Rethinking Credential Requirements in Early Education, suggests that bachelor’s degrees are in fact not the way to go.

Two opposing views coming from two very different perspectives – neuroscience vs. the current labor market.  What is one to think?  From our reading of these reports, it may depend on whose lens you look through.

If we look at this problem through the lens of a child – the way early childhood educators are prone to do – it is obvious that what is happening in these early years is so important that young children deserve nothing less than our best.  A highly skilled professional with a well-rounded education – like that required of all other educators – is fundamental.

If we look at this problem through the lens of a family struggling to pay for high quality child care, we can only see a failing free market system in which the true cost of child care cannot reasonably be assumed by the purchaser.  Until high quality child care is recognized as the public good that  it is, families will seek low-cost alternatives and low wages will continue to subsidize whatever program they are offered.  This is a difficult environment in which to promote higher education.

If we look at this problem through the lens of professionals who are operating programs, we are confronted with the immediacy of the problem.  A growing teacher shortage is the result of demanding more of teaching staff than they have the skills to give, or investing in the high cost of educating their staff and then not being able to provide the financial incentives that encourages them to stay.

students

In our view there has to be some both/and thinking around this dilemma.  We must continue to support a bachelor’s degree pathway in early education because highly qualified teachers are more likely to provide high quality programs for young children.  A bachelor’s degree does more than focus on specific skills needed in the classroom; it creates a learner who is engaged with the world, ready to bring her curiosity and love of learning to the children.  We must also be open to innovative approaches that support on-the-job skill building, because today’s children can’t wait until we land on a solution, and programs need retention strategies right now to continue operating.

The New America report makes some important points, particularly in regards to the difficulties of building public support for early education in our current climate.  The distinctions they point to between public education and early childhood as it relates to collective power to negotiate better working conditions also resonates with us. However, the author does not seem to fully grasp the fundamental differences in the way young children versus older children learn.  These differences impact K-12 teachers’ perceptions of our work and transitions from early care to elementary education.

WECA’s vision is that all children through age eight are engaged in play-based learning, geared to their developmental needs and supported by strong relationships with teachers who reflect the diversity of the children in their care.  In our vision, there are multiple educational pathways for early childhood teachers to take, each of which could lead to a Bachelor’s degree or beyond if one chooses.  It is our mission to address the barriers they may face along their path.

Currently WECA operates a T.E.A.C.H. Scholarship Program.  Over nearly 20 years of operation, we have learned that many scholarship recipients are inspired to pursue education even after achieving their original goals.  Many earning a Bachelor’s degrees did not start with that goal in mind.  Imagine the loss if we had taken that option away and had not encouraged them to reach their full potential.  Some of the barriers to education that the Apprenticeship Program described in the New America report – paid release time, personal supports/mentoring, and incremental wage hikes, for example – are also addressed by the scholarship program.  And just as there is an economic burden that T.E.A.C.H. shares with students and their sponsoring child care programs, the Apprenticeship Program carries the same or similar burdens.  Supporting mentors and engaging teachers in a reflective process are critical aspects of any learning opportunity and they do not come without a cost to programs, as the reader may have been led to believe.

T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® WISCONSIN points proudly to our successes in improving wages, reducing turnover, providing educational opportunities to typically under-represented groups, influencing colleges to be more responsive to our non-traditional workforce, and celebrating the graduation of individuals with both Associate and Bachelor’s degrees.  Of course, there is more work that we must do.  What we must not do is accept that today’s story cannot change and that resources don’t exist to ameliorate the problem.  We believe that there is not so much a scarcity of resources as a scarcity of political will to write a new story for young children, their families, and the early childhood educators who care for them.

Footnotes

1. IOM is now referred to as the National Academy of Medicine (NAM)

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