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How to Grow a Great Early Childhood Workforce: Charter Colleges of Early Childhood Education

Early childhood education has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, and is frequently promoted as a strategy for narrowing achievement gaps and improving children's educational and life outcomes. But achieving these outcomes is going to require improvements in the education and skills of the adults who currently work with our youngest children. Despite the lip service we give to the importance of early learning, the adults who work with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are among the lowest paid workers--and many have very low levels of education and skills themselves.

In a new paper published today by the Brookings Instiution, Kevin Carey and I propose a new strategy to boost the skills and knowledge of early childhood educators. Over the past decade, early childhood advocates have focused a lot of attention on two strategies to improve the quality of teaching in early childhood settings. Universal pre-k advocates have focused on requiring all pre-k teachers working with 3- and 4-year-olds in educational, center-based settings to have bachelor's degrees. Another strand of work has focused on increasing early childhood educators' access to professional development. The problem is that bachelor's degrees are costly and difficult to obtain; the evidence that they actually improve the quality of pre-k teaching is mixed; capacity in our higher education institutions to train pre-k teachers is limited; and our higher education system in general has a terrible track record in serving low-income, nontraditional students who make up much of the early childhood workforce. On the other hand, some professional development strategies have shown real promise in improving early educators' skills and children's outcomes--but it's hard for consumers to distinguish effective from ineffective professional development, and as a result these experiences rarely translate into improved compensation or career advancement for early childhood educators.

Kevin and I argue that there's a better way: Rather than relying on higher education institutions or ad hoc professional development, states need to foster the creation of new training institutions and credentials that meet clearly defined needs for skilled early childhood educators. Specifically, states should clearly define the skills and knowledge they want early childhood educators to have. Then they should offer "charters" to providers who demonstrate they can enable early childhood educators to achieve these skills and knowledge. "Charter colleges of early childhood education" could take a variety of forms--including center-based inservice training programs, coaching, and more conventional higher education programs--and could award state-recognized teacher credentials without specific seat time or course requirements. In exchange, they would be required to demonstrate that students who complete their program have master the required skills and are positively impacting children's learning and development.

This more flexible model can foster the development of early childhood educator preparation and support strategies that meet the needs of working adults, while enabling teachers to earn meaningful credentials that connect with increased compensation and career advancement.

As states compete for federal Early Learning Challenge Grants, one of the things they will have to do is develop strategies and plans to improve the skills and knowledge of their early childhood workforce. States should seriously consider creating charter colleges of early childhood education as a strategy to achieve this goal. Check out the paper to learn more.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead's Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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