Patricia Hnatiuk teaching at Wheelock College.  Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Patricia Hnatiuk teaching at Wheelock College.
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children


How are colleges and universities doing at training early educators? A new policy brief — “Early Childhood Higher Education: Taking Stock Across the States” — provides answers, pointing to fragmented efforts that need more organization and consistency.

The brief is based on information collected through the Early Childhood Higher Education Inventory, “a research tool for describing the landscape of a state’s early childhood degree program offerings at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels.”

The inventory is administered by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California at Berkeley. The organization also produced the policy brief.

The brief “highlights findings from inventories conducted in seven states to date —California, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island — on the extent to which ECE teacher preparation is currently integrated across the birth-to-age-eight continuum, and on variations in field-based practice opportunities for teachers of young children.”


Emerging Knowledge 

“Midway through the second decade of this century,” the brief explains, “the importance of early care and education (ECE) to children’s lifelong learning and to our nation’s economic well-being is widely acknowledged. This public understanding represents a dramatic shift from earlier decades, and carries with it heightened expectations for what teachers of young children should know and be able to do, particularly in light of mounting evidence about unequal educational quality for children based on race, ethnicity, language, and family income.”

As a result:

“Over the last two decades, considerable public and private resources have been spent on efforts to raise educational levels for ECE practitioners.”

In addition, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences commissioned a study that looked at “the implications of the science of child development and early learning for the professional preparation of early childhood practitioners.”

That study, “Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation,” included a number of recommendations, including:

• “transitioning to a minimum requirement of a bachelor’s degree, with specialized knowledge and competencies for all lead teachers working with children from birth to age eight”

• developing and enhancing “interdisciplinary higher education programs for early care and education professionals, including practice-based and supervised learning opportunities,” and

• providing “foundational knowledge about development and learning throughout the birth-to-age-eight continuum, in addition to differentiated instruction for specific age ranges and subject matter”


What States are Doing: The Inventory Results

According to the brief, the inventory unveiled three common themes across the states.

The first theme: The landscape of higher education programs is complex.

“Early childhood higher education offerings within states mirror the complexity of each state’s education and certification requirements for teachers working with children from birth to age eight, which in turn reflect the states’ fragmented service delivery systems for young children, particularly children under age five.”

“Programs with different funding streams and located in different settings typically require different standards, resulting in multiple sets of qualifications for teachers working with children from birth to five, even for those working with children of the same age. In California, for example, a four-year old in a transitional kindergarten classroom can expect that her lead teacher will hold a bachelor’s degree plus teacher certification, while her peer in a public preschool classroom will be taught by a teacher only required to have completed 24 units of ECE and some general education, short of an associate degree.”

The second theme: Higher Education Programs have different training goals.

Of all the states that were asked, none said that preparing teachers and administrators was their primary goal.

“Employers, by contrast, whether from school districts or from Head Start, community-based preschool, or child care programs, typically rely on ECE degree programs to prepare students for teaching and/or administrative roles — an expectation also shared by many policy makers. Yet a sizeable portion of programs at all degree levels, in all of the examined states, reported that their primary goal was the preparation of students for multiple roles involving young children, working in many types of settings, rather than specifically for teaching or administration.”

The third theme: Despite common agreement that field-based learning experiences are critical learning tools, there is no standard approach in this area.

“There is no widely implemented standard of field experience, such as student teaching, for the preparation of teachers working with children from birth to age five, and opportunities are unevenly applied for early childhood students to engage in a diversity of such field experiences. In K-12 education, however, student teaching experience is a widely accepted pre-service requirement, and various efforts are underway to increase the length of student teaching, introduce it earlier into a program of study, and strengthen student supervision during the field experience.”


Recommendations for Progress 

The brief says that “when states intentionally redesign their certification systems for early childhood educators, the higher education system adjusts by making appropriate changes in required course content, age-group focus, and field-based practice.”

But: “in the absence of well-articulated statewide certification standards that apply to early childhood teachers and administrators in all types of ECE programs, working with all age groups of children, institutions of higher education have largely responded only to the emphasis placed on preschool-age children in public settings, which affects just a limited segment of the ECE workforce.”

That’s part of why: “Creating a unified approach to the preparation of educators working with children from birth through age eight, in line with recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, will require transforming policies and practices in multiple arenas, and the engagement and collaboration of diverse players.”

The brief also calls for:

• revising current systems of teacher and administrator certification

• aligning content with evidence to strengthen content for infants and toddlers

• identifying new leaders in early education, and

• committing more state, federal, and philanthropic investments in higher education’s early education programs

As the brief concludes:

State policymakers can lead “by emphasizing the importance of unified expectations and pathways for ECE workforce preparation. This would include initiating state-level processes to create a timeline and pathway toward a system in line with the Institute of Medicine recommendations, in order to strengthen competency-based requirements for all early childhood professionals–such as a requirement that all lead teachers working with children from birth to age eight hold at least a bachelor’s degree, with specialized knowledge and competencies.”

In addition: “Federal policymakers can bolster state leadership by identifying how to finance not only the transformation of how we prepare teachers and administrators working with children from birth to age eight, but also the necessary support and rewards that will allow ECE practitioners to continually deepen their knowledge, effectiveness, and skill.”

Building a more coordinated system of higher education should help states train early educators who are well-prepared to teach our youngest children.