Working to find actionable solutions to the nation's key challenges.

Moving Beyond the Degree Debate

By Linda Smith

Monday, April 30, 2018

The draft Power to the Profession framework outlining professional qualifications for early care and learning professionals has reopened a debate in the early childhood community that many felt had been put to rest with the publication of the report Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). In fact, most had hoped that it had been put to rest. But the new draft framework includes a recommendation that an associate degree, or AA, be the entry-level credential for early childhood educators. So, necessarily, here we are again, debating whether a bachelor’s degree, or BA, is the appropriate entry-level credential for a lead early childhood educator.

Perhaps this debate continues to resurface because it is not a clear-cut issue of BA or no BA, even though many see it through that lens. In fact, the NASEM report correctly stated that “decisions about qualification requirements are complex, as is the relationship among levels of education, high quality professional practice, and outcomes for children.” And though the science on the impact of degrees on program quality and child outcomes is inconclusive, the NASEM report recommended that the country should transition to a minimum expectation that all lead early educators have BAs and this should be implemented carefully, over time, and in the context of efforts to address the interrelated factors including compensation.

It goes without saying that current education requirements for those working in early childhood education lag behind developmental science. There is no question that we need to increase educational requirements and that a transition to four-year degrees is an important ingredient for long-term growth of the profession. However, simply instituting a BA requirement in and of itself is not sufficient. In the midst of this heated debate, we seem to be missing the point: the devil is in the details.

The real question that we should be debating is how we get there. High standards are of little use if they are unattainable. What is an appropriate career pathway and are two-year degrees an appropriate intermediate step? What are the appropriate combinations of degreed and non-degreed teachers in programs and within classrooms and homes? How can we compensate teachers fairly, according to their credentials and competencies? How do we provide equitable opportunities for the existing workforce to progress down a career pathway and meet higher standards of practice? How do we fix higher education degree programs so that they align with what teachers actually need to know and do with children and families? What credentials and competencies should directors and other leaders possess? These are all questions Power to the Profession is grappling with. We should support this work with constructive comments that move us forward.

Whether or not an early childhood educator has a degree should not be the sole—or even primary—identifying factor of the profession. The extent to which that person possesses the competencies needed to work with children and families should be. Unfortunately, in many cases, that is not determined by whether or not that person has a degree. An end goal for a degree is only as good as our commitment to fix early childhood degree programs.

What are the appropriate combinations of degreed and non-degreed teachers in programs and within classrooms and homes? 

It is also only as good as our commitment to financially support early childhood educators in attaining that degree, and in paying them fairly and in line with their credentials once they earn them. Can we reasonably expect teachers to pay between $100,000 and $200,000 for a BA degree to be rewarded with $15.00 per hour pay? If not, how will we pay for degreed teachers when parents are already tapped out? Financing the professionalization of the early childhood workforce is a serious issue that the field must grapple with, and though we made progress with Transforming the Financing of Early Care and Education, there is a tremendous amount of implementation that needs to be done to make that vision a reality. We also know that you cannot have a good program without a good leader. Good teachers leave when there is not good leadership. It is time the field seriously considered the skills and competencies needed to lead an early childhood program.

Perhaps the solution to the BA degree discussion is to focus on incremental improvements. The better question for everyone is how to pay teachers at either the AA or the BA degree levels. Is the AA degree suggested in the Power to the Profession draft viewed as an interim and logical next step or have we sold out the profession? A high-quality AA-degreed teacher in every early childhood classroom in America would a very welcome step, not as the end point but as an interim measure toward full implementation of the NASEM recommendations.

The field would benefit by carefully examining two successful, large-scale models that have achieved a high-quality standard of early childhood education with qualified staff: Head Start and the Department of Defense’s child care system. Head Start successfully moved their lead teachers from a CDA to an AA, then to a BA. Today, 73 percent of all lead Head Start teachers have a BA degree or higher, and 96 percent have an AA or higher. They also have access to continuous coaching and professional development opportunities. The DOD model, when designed, moved teachers down a professional pathway, built on a series of incremental steps that is tied to compensation. It moved along a similar path as Head Start—basic training, CDA, AA, and then BA, paired with requirements to demonstrate competencies and continuous training and coaching. Both models are based on a combination of training, education, and coaching with a mix of credentials in each center.

There is not one way to do this and there is no silver bullet. No one denies that a more educated teacher with the right skills and competencies, in a program with knowledgeable leadership, is needed, but the conversation cannot stop there. Let us not allow ourselves to once again fall into the trap of arguing about degree requirements. We will not win a debate with ourselves and there are so many more important details to sort through. The truth is that everyone in the field—from early childhood educators, to aides, to coaches and support staff, advocates, parents and policymakers—only want the best for our children. The way to get there is not by rehashing a tired debate. It is by infusing much needed investments in our system and designing a financing structure that supports our teachers in moving up a career ladder, and pays them appropriately for it.

KEYWORDS: DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, EARLY CHILDHOOD INITIATIVE