Why Are Colleges Hesitant to Train More Early Childhood Educators?

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As consensus builds among many researchers, policy experts and elected officials that the U.S. should prioritize early childhood education, a key component of that agenda is getting more people trained to offer high-quality care and teaching to young kids. And that means encouraging colleges to recruit, prepare and graduate more early childhood educators.

But there’s a hitch: Some higher ed leaders are ambivalent about promoting pathways to jobs in early learning.

Even though there’s high demand for people to enter the profession, skeptics say that the career track doesn’t provide workers—mostly women, many of them women of color—with a living wage. So they argue that it’s not in the best interest of their students or their institutions to direct graduates to jobs in preschools and other early childhood programs.

This is playing out especially at community colleges, many of which traditionally offered entry-level certificates in early childhood education. Even as these institutions seek to meet local labor market demand for workers, their leaders increasingly are also concerned about how well students live after they graduate.

“Early childhood puts those things into tension. We need talented early childhood education workers, and community strength depends on talented early childhood education workers. On the other hand, average wages are $12 an hour,” says Josh Wyner, founder and executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute. “You’re not enabling economic mobility at $12 an hour. An individual probably doesn’t need to go to college to earn $12 an hour—that’s a low-wage job. How do they resolve that tension between economic development and individual mobility?”

Thinking Strategically About Early Ed

Some community colleges intentionally choose not to offer entry-level early education certificate programs because of the low-paying jobs they point to. That’s the case at Valencia College in Florida, according to its former president Sandy Shugart, now an Aspen senior fellow. Instead, according to Shugart, “We guided students to a credential that would lead to a bachelor’s in education so there was a pathway to a living-wage career.”

Other colleges still offer basic certificates in early learning but try to nudge students in more lucrative directions. Pima Community College in Arizona offers students Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training instruction—a model that helps students strengthen their math, reading and writing skills while they prepare for a career—only in subjects that lead to jobs with “family-sustaining wages,” such as information technology and construction. Pima purposely does not offer IBEST courses in early childhood education.

It’s an example of the strategic, push-and-pull leverage that colleges can use to try to spur employers to create better jobs for graduates, says Laurie Kierstead-Joseph, Pima’s assistant vice chancellor for adult basic education for college and career.

“We’re only sending people to the pathways that are allowing them to support themselves,” Kierstead-Joseph says. “My hope is that it will provide pressure. They’ll have to bring those wages up.”

And some colleges try to ensure more students move beyond the basic certificate, and therefore become eligible for higher wages, by making it easier for them to continue training at the associate and bachelor’s degree level. Dallas College, a Texas community college, recently created its own bachelor’s degree program in the field as a more-affordable alternative to the ones offered at four-year institutions.

One of the motivations, according to Robert DeHaas, vice provost of the School of Education at Dallas College, was to set students up for better jobs and higher pay.

“We’re not bashful about calling that out,” DeHaas told EdSurge in November. “How are we going to pat ourselves on the back for awarding a certificate like a CDA [Child Development Associate] that is going to lead to a job that is earning minimum wage? It’s challenged us in higher ed to think beyond that. It’s not minimizing those credentials, but forcing us to think more strategically.”

Convincing Colleges

Hesitation on the part of higher ed leaders may hinder efforts to improve the pipeline of trained early educators. This may be especially troublesome coming out of the pandemic. The health crisis exacerbated the high rate of turnover that already plagued the early childhood education industry. It also led to decreased higher ed enrollments, which means fewer students are studying in some college schools and departments of education. According to a May 2021 survey of the early childhood higher education community at 400 colleges conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), almost two-thirds had enrollment declines; more than one-third had graduation declines; 30 percent experienced budget cuts; and 2 percent closed.

To get past higher ed’s ambivalence, there may be some alternative ways to train more people to be early childhood educators, such as by creating a new online institution solely focused on this goal or by expanding apprenticeship programs.

Some experts remain hopeful that colleges may yet come around to embrace the role they could play in training the early learning workforce. A fall 2021 report from NAEYC, called “Preparing a Profession,” outlines ideas and examples of how to win higher ed leaders over to the idea, such as by increasing research dollars related to early childhood education, emphasizing the importance of high-quality early learning to racial equity, and changing local and state credential requirements for child care workers so that people hoping to join the profession are more likely to seek associate and bachelor’s degrees.

Government and philanthropic support could help push colleges off the fence, says Rhian Evans Allvin, the report’s author and CEO of NAEYC: “If a public entity says, ‘This is important to our economic health, the well-being of our communities, who we are as a city or county,’ it sends a signal of investment that’s been really important to higher education.”

An example of that may be taking shape in Delaware, where the state is investing more than $30 million in the creation of an Early Childhood Innovation Center at Delaware State University. According to Shelley Rouser, chair of the education department, the effort will pay for scholarships and to create community hubs designed to support people who want to pursue certificates in early childhood education—which may become stepping stones on the way to later earning degrees.

“We know with adult learners how important those milestones are. It gives them that encouragement on their educational journey,” Rouser says. “The Early Childhood Innovation Center can be a place that helps professionals be ready to provide that nurturing atmosphere for social, emotional and cognitive development of our little people.”

One important distinction about the Delaware effort is that it’s designed primarily to help people who already work in the child care profession earn credentials—not to steer new high school graduates toward the field. That mission of “upskilling” workers is similar to the goals of two universities in Washington D.C. that collaborated to create a shared “stackable credentials” pathway to help the city’s child care workers go back to school.

Research from the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute shows how colleges have improved job and wage outcomes for their graduates in other fields also known for low pay, such as hospitality and food service. Perhaps these strategies could also apply in early childhood education, Wyner says—which might encourage colleges to train more students in that field without compromising the goal of guiding graduates to living-wage jobs.

For example, maybe colleges could embed management, accounting, customer service and marketing training into early education programs so that students graduate with the skills they need to secure higher-paying management roles. And colleges could try to build partnerships with local child care programs, promising to deliver them high-quality candidates in exchange for securing them better pay. Child care providers often don’t have much room to raise wages, but perhaps higher ed leaders could make the case to these employers that doing what they can to improve wages could pay off in the long run by decreasing costly, disruptive employee turnover.

Like so many others pondering the stubborn problems in early learning, though, so far many college leaders remain stuck.

“We see them questioning early childhood,” Wyner says, “but I haven’t yet seen anybody solve it.”

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