This blog was first published by New America.
Since Bright Horizons Family Solutions announced a new initiative this summer to pay for its teachers to obtain an AA or BA degree, about 200 employees have started classes, and more have meetings set with advisors who will help them chart their educational plan.
Jasna Losic, the Associate Director at a Bright Horizons in Redmond, Washington, is one such prospective student. Losic came to the US from the former Yugoslavia in 2004 and sees this new initiative as an opportunity to “do something for herself” and set her on the path to opening her own Bright Horizons center as the director. Losic will meet with an advisor in October to discuss what degree program and institution makes the most sense for her.
Bright Horizons has long paid for teachers to earn their Child Development Associate credential (CDA) and reimbursed teachers for pursuing degrees. But, the company began to hear from employees about barriers, such as upfront costs and uncertainty about how to get started, that were keeping them from participating in the reimbursement program. So, as CEO Stephen Kramer said in a phone interview last month, the company decided to try addressing those barriers.
This and other similar experiments are important and praiseworthy, especially as policymakers, educators, and other stakeholders are seeking strategies for professionalizing the early care and education workforce. But I do have concerns including, in this particular case, connections to some institutions with poor records of helping students achieve degrees.
The new initiative, the Early Education Degree Achievement Plan (EEDA Plan), covers all costs from tuition to books and provides advising to guide teachers through the process based on their previous education, experience, and future goals.
With a philosophy of “hiring for attitude and training for skill,” Kramer said the company sees teachers as their biggest asset and believes it is important to invest in their educational attainment. Kramer views the plan as a staff recruitment and retention strategy. Many employees are eligible for the EEDA Plan from day one on the job, which could entice those interested in a career in early education to join and build a career at Bright Horizons. So far, about 1,000 of the 20,000 eligible employees have expressed interest.
The EEDA Plan allows eligible employees to enroll at one of four institutions: for-profits Ashford University, Rasmussen College, and Walden University, and non-profit Northampton Community College. There are many institutions offering early childhood education and related degrees: So why these schools?
Kramer described what he called a “rigorous screening process” for selecting partner institutions. The process began with programs that were NAEYC-aligned, -accredited, or -recognized. From there Bright Horizons narrowed the pool to fully online degree programs “to best meet the needs of their workforce.” The company also looked for institutions where employees were already enrolled and successful. Finally, the partner institutions had to allow student teaching experiences (or externships) to be done at a Bright Horizons center. Over time, Kramer said, the company may increase the number of partner institutions.
Although online degree programs may be a good fit for Bright Horizons’ workforce, there are drawbacks with these programs. Former New America policy analyst Shayna Cook wrote a report about the challenges and opportunities of online programs. The report found a lack of reliable data about online programs and outcomes for participating students. Also it identified students’ lack of access to “affordable broadband and an up-to-date computer” as a potential challenge to meeting course requirements.
So it’s fair to ask: What additional time and resources do early care and education teachers need to be successful online students? Is Bright Horizons going to help provide those as well?
According to Kramer, the answer is yes. He said that staff computers will be available to teachers when they are not working, and Bright Horizons is training managers to ensure they are being supportive of employees pursuing degrees. Kramer also said the company will be tracking employee progress toward degree completion and offering mentoring and additional supports for those who are falling behind.
For-profit schools don’t have a great track record for putting students first, raising questions about whether they are the best partners for this kind of initiative. Ashford University, for example, has come under fire for misleading students pursuing education degrees. According to a 2012 report from the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, “Bridgepoint’s Ashford University offers programs in education that, according to the college’s web site, are a ‘first step toward becoming a teacher.’ However, the program itself does not allow a graduate to apply for certification as a teacher in any State because the program is not approved by Iowa’s, nor any other States’, Department of Education.”
After a quick review of their website, it appears the university has since revised the language it uses to describe its programs. Still there are reasons for concern. According to a Washington Post article last November, the Attorney General of California sued Bridgepoint Education, Ashford University’s parent company, for “engaging in unlawful marketing, sales, and debt collection practices.”
Kramer said that if employees are not graduating from any partner institutions, Bright Horizons will reevaluate their relationship with that particular school.
But potential challenges with for-profit institutions aside, there are also concerns about the quality of current early childhood education degree programs more broadly. Does the content and experiences that make up these programs equip teachers with the knowledge and competencies needed to work with infants, toddlers, and pre-kindergarteners? Further, because jobs in early care and education tend to be low paying, some institutions closed their programs after finding their graduates were unable to gain well-paying jobs.
Bright Horizons says it will give teachers a pay bump when they complete their degrees, but Kramer was not specific on how much it would actually be. According to the most recent Early Childhood Workforce Index, “86 percent of center-based teaching staff working with infants and toddlers earned less than $15 an hour.”
If employees choose to leave Bright Horizons, will their degree lead to increased salary and benefits elsewhere? For employees like Losic who want to continue to build a career with Bright Horizons, the program may be just what they need. But what about teachers who see this as an opportunity to increase their overall earning potential? Maybe they will work with Bright Horizons for another two or three years and then want to apply at a school district where, right now, they can get much higher pay and benefits — will their degree enable them to pursue the necessary teaching license or will they have to start from scratch?
Our youngest learners need well-prepared, highly skilled teachers. Paying for degrees is but one piece of a complex puzzle. Kramer said he sees the strategy as not just a “game-changer for Bright Horizons, [but also]in our field,” and he hopes to increase the number of degreed early childhood educators and incentivize more people to enter the field.
That vision is laudable. I see three looming puzzle pieces that must be set in place to move us toward the workforce that children birth through age 8 need and deserve: 1) establishing and adopting shared competencies for early childhood educators and caregivers; 2) working with higher education to ensure AA, BA, and advanced degree programs are aligned to agreed upon early education knowledge and competencies; and 3) increasing public financing of early care and education systems, including increased compensation (salary and benefits) for early educators.
Laura Bornfreund is director of early & elementary education policy with the Education Policy program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts working on new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third grade learning experiences. Before joining New America, she worked with several policy organizations in Washington, D.C., including the Institute for Educational Leadership, The Forum for Education and Democracy, and Common Core (now known as Great Minds).