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Strengthening the Early Childhood Workforce to Assure High-Quality Early Education

Strengthening the Early Childhood Workforce to Assure High-Quality Early Education

This post was first published on August 12, 2016 by the Committee for Economic Development.

There is broad agreement among researchers across a wide range of disciplines— economists, neuroscientists, program evaluators,  and geneticists—that early education can give children a powerful start on the path that leads to college and career success. More than 12 million children participate in early care programs. Well-designed and well-implemented high-quality programs can change the arc of children’s lives, leading to lower rates of special education placement, reduced retention, and higher graduation rates. Studies that have tracked preschool participants for decades report significantly higher incomes, better health, and lower incarceration rates.

The quality of these programs is essential, and recent studies highlight several obstacles to building a high-quality early childhood workforce—obstacles that undercut even the best efforts to reach and sustain classroom quality. The Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment’s national Early Childhood Workforce Index found that the two million early educators who shape the future of our nation’s children are often grossly underprepared, unsupported, and underpaid.

Early learning professionals need what any savvy businessperson wants for his or her company—a motivated, skilled, quality workforce. Our recent report, The Road to High-Quality Early Learning: Lessons From the States, highlights the strategies that four states with successful early childhood programs have adopted to build a high-quality early educator workforce. Michigan, North Carolina, Washington, and West Virginia have increased professional knowledge and skill; provided ongoing coaching and support; and focused on educator retention. These are states we can look to for examples of promising practices.

Increasing professional knowledge and skill

Children do not start learning at age five when they enter the formal education system, and quality pre-k isn’t babysitting. High-quality early instruction requires staff with professional knowledge and skill who provide enriching teacher-child interactions and engineer developmentally-appropriate learning experiences. Specialized knowledge about child development instruction for young children is particularly important.

Community and four-year colleges are especially critical in strengthening preparation and professional development programs. The strongest programs are those that include significant clinical training linked to useful coursework and that emphasize teaching and learning as well as child development.

All four states in our study require their lead teachers to have a degree with an emphasis in early childhood education, child development, or a related field. Michigan, West Virginia, and North Carolina require that lead teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree. In West Virginia’s apprenticeship program, child care workers and pre-k assistant teachers remain employed and receive mentoring while taking classes at West Virginia’s community and technical colleges.

Training programs must also be accessible to providers. States can offer courses regionally in community colleges, county offices of education, or districts or through online platforms. West Virginia and Washington offer online courses to make opportunities accessible in rural areas.

Delivering ongoing coaching

In addition to learning the skills necessary for high-quality instruction, teachers need opportunities to practice these skills while receiving ongoing coaching.

In North Carolina, all preschool teachers are coached during their first three years in the classroom. Michigan employs county-based Early Childhood Specialists who work one-on-one with teachers in their classrooms. Washington also offers onsite coaching to both state preschool and child care providers that’s explicitly tied to the state’s quality rating and improvement system.

Caroline Shelton, a program director at Child Care Aware in Washington explained, “Most [child care staff] have been in a regulatory environment, with a licenser telling them what they’re doing wrong. Now there’s a coach telling them what they are doing well. After receiving coaching, most programs say it’s what they value most in their whole experience [with the quality rating and improvement system].”

Early research in Washington suggests that the strategy is working—coaching is linked to more effective interactions between children and teachers, less teacher burnout, and increased teacher retention.

Focusing on educator retention

In each of the four states we studied, pay differentials—between child care workers and preschool teachers, between preschool teachers in public schools and their counterparts in community settings, and between preschool and k-12 teachers—pose problems. In rural Michigan, finding and retaining qualified preschool teachers has always been a challenge, for they can readily transition to jobs as kindergarten teachers in the local school districts which pay at least $10,000 more. In West Virginia, the average child care wage is $8.00 per hour, while a typical public pre-k teacher earns $27.19. As the credential requirements for preschool teachers in public schools and child care centers have become more similar, the financial incentive to shift from the centers for employment in public schools has increased.

One way states are addressing these retention issues is by providing scholarships and salary supplements. In North Carolina and West Virginia, through T.E.A.C.H.—the Teacher Education and Compensation Helps program—child care providers pursuing higher education degrees in early childhood receive scholarships in exchange for a commitment to remain with their employers for a specified period following degree completion.

The Southwest Washington Child Care Consortium (SWCCC) is keeping its 160 teachers in preschool classrooms with a two-pronged strategy of intensive training and better pay. North Carolina also has invested in early childhood workforce education through the WAGE$ initiative, which supplements the income of poorly-paid early care and education professionals.

What can business leaders do?

Business leaders can play an important role in impacting both policy and practice to create a motivated and skilled workforce through:

  • highlighting the importance of an early learning teacher on a child’s development;
  • promoting investment in high-quality early learning teacher training through community and four-year college programs that include a clinical component;
  • advocating for increased access to training programs by offering courses regionally or through online platforms;
  • supporting ongoing coaching tied to assessments of adult-child interactions; and
  • cultivating pathways for advancement and retention through scholarships, bonuses, and education-based salary supplements.

An investment in a quality early childhood workforce is an investment in quality pre-k, which is an investment in the future of America.