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Who’s Qualified? A Funder-Backed Effort to Open Up Early Childhood Teaching


May 10, 2018
L.S. Hall
Inside Philanthropy

What qualifies someone to teach preschool-age children? More to the point, is a bachelor’s degree necessary to be a qualified preschool teacher? It’s a debate that has raged for years—and it’s one with high stakes and no easy answers. Now, as early childhood education draws new attention, including from foundations and major donors, this question is getting more attention.

In one corner are those who say the degree is necessary raise the level of respect for the early childhood education profession, where salaries lag far behind those of elementary and secondary teachers. Data from the University of California at Berkeley indicates that salaries for college-educated preschool teachers range from $28,000 to $42,000 a year—far behind the average of $56,000 earned by their elementary school counterparts.

These advocates also contend that a bachelor’s degree ensures that educators are prepared to work with young children at their most crucial developmental years. Extensive research has shown that high-quality preschool confers numerous benefits for children, especially those from low-income families. Advocates contend that degreed teachers help ensure higher quality.

In the opposite corner is a coalition of early childhood education groups who question the need for preschool educators to hold a bachelor’s degree. They say the degree provides no guarantee of quality or of higher salaries. Further, they say requiring the degree undermines the diversity of the preschool teaching force, forecloses a promising path to upward mobility for non-college workers, and makes it harder to staff early learning programs.

Early childhood educators are almost exclusively women, but data from Berkeley indicates that the nation’s preschool teachers are more racially and ethnically diverse than their K-12 counterparts. While more than 80 percent of K-12 teachers are white, the data show that the preschool teaching force is 63 percent white, 17 percent African American, and 14 percent Hispanic. The proportions of African American and Hispanic teachers in preschool are almost double their representation in K-12 classrooms.

Those who say a bachelor’s degree shouldn’t be required for preschool teachers are the driving force behind a collaborative effort known as Power to the Profession. An array of early childhood education advocates and labor organizations are behind this collaboration. Members include the National Education Association, the National Head Start Association, the Service Employees International Union, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Power to the Profession formed in 2016 after a study from the National Research Council found a fragmented early childhood teaching force that lacked uniform qualifications. This year, the collaborative released its own set of recommendations. A central recommendation, reported by education news site The 74, calls for multiple education levels for early childhood educators. In its draft of recommendations, Power to the Profession noted that other fields, such as nursing, have multiple designations. It also expressed a concern that a single designation would harm the diversity that exists in the early childhood teaching ranks.

Power to the Profession has some serious funder dollars behind it. Supporters of the collaboration include the Gates and Kellogg foundations, the Richard W. Goldman Family Foundationthe Buffett Early Childhood Fundthe Alliance for Early Success, and the Foundation for Child Development.