A majority of early childhood education (ECE) workers who would be most affected by the creation of a national teaching certification expressed support for such a system, according to a recent study on advancing ECE compensation and equity. Yet the respondents surveyed also highlighted entrenched issues in the field that need to be addressed first.
“The key learning is that the respondents really identified low compensation and the entrenched inequities in the field as very clear obstacles that needed to be attended to before trying to engage early childhood educators in meeting the requirements of another national certification,” said Dr. Ola Friday, director of the Early Educator Investment Collaborative, in a recent telephone interview.
The collaborative conducted surveys and interviews with 4,365 individuals, including lead teachers, ECE program leaders, parents, policymakers, staffers from colleges and universities involved in ECE-related programs, accreditation organization leaders and labor union leaders.
Among the findings:
Seventy-four percent of respondents said they would be “very” or “extremely” supportive of a national lead teacher certification (NLTC) credential that increased pay for educators.
A slightly higher percentage of educators (77 percent) expressed support for a national certification system.
Seventy-eight percent of educators reported a strong willingness to work toward an NLTC.
However, caveats exist.
“It was clear from the respondents that depending on the requirements to obtain the credential, they could be very cost-prohibitive, time-prohibitive and inaccessible in many ways,” Dr. Friday said, adding that finding the resources and the time to pursue credentials wasn’t always a given for many ECE workers.
A Gap in Credentialing Systems
Dr. Friday noted that every state has its own requirements around ECE child care qualifications. “Every state essentially has its own rules,” she added. Other than a few states that recognize credentials obtained elsewhere, current practices make it difficult for ECE workers to move around the country and remain licensed. An NLTC, thus, could “potentially expand the professional pathway that includes the national Child Development Associate (CDA) and National Board Certification,” the report states.
Dr. Friday said the former is generally considered the first step in credentialing, while the latter is the highest. “There didn’t seem to be something in the middle of the next step,” she added. “So we wanted to understand: Is there an opportunity for a national teacher certification or credential that would fill the gap?”
Respondents emphasized the importance of real-world skills in such a potential certification. Such a basis “would help clarify the specific knowledge, skills and abilities required to effectively educate young children and provide educators with structured guidance and support through classroom-based experiences,” the report states. “Additionally, respondents appreciated that a
competency-based certification would allow experienced educators to showcase their existing knowledge and skills.”
However, stakeholders also identified as barriers to a national certification: cost, time commitment and staff coverage.
Respondents overwhelmingly opined that a national certification system “should be accessible to educators at low or no cost,” according to the report, and many of them raised the issue of pay increases for all ECE workers regardless of advanced credentialing. “They believed that addressing compensation concerns is critical not only to facilitate the conditions for an eventual NLTC, but also to tackle existing inequities within the field. These interviewees suggested that improving wages should be prioritized before introducing an NLTC, as it would provide much-needed support to the field before introducing additional requirements.”
The study found:
More than half (56%) of respondents said higher pay would need to be a feature for the system to be feasible.
Only 43% of program leaders and policy makers said compensation would be “significantly” improved by national credentialing system, indicating the need to improve compensation first.
Nearly three-fourths (74%) said they would be “very” or “extremely” supportive of an NLTC that increased pay for educators.
A History of Inequity in the Field of ECE
The report notes that educators play “a fundamental role” in the learning and development of young children. “Yet for too long, a public misconception that early educators are primarily basic caregivers (similar to babysitters) and only incidentally teachers, has contributed to their skills being dismissed and devalued,” it states.
“For ECE programs—as a pathway for the workforce—to be successful, factors affecting the current context for national certification must be taken into account. This includes, but is not limited to: 1) racial inequities within the field, 2) inconsistencies in qualification requirements, and 3) meaningful ways to improve working conditions for the workforce as a whole.”
Dr. Friday echoed the report’s finding of a disconnect between the value of early childhood education and compensation. “There’s a history in this field whereby obtaining increased credentials, training and education doesn’t guarantee increased compensation as a result,” she said. “So, there’s a sense that, ‘Here’s yet another, yes, opportunity, but as a professional, I should be compensated as well for increasing my qualifications and my credentialing,’ and that’s not a guarantee in early childhood education at all.”
The report cites previous research showing that Black and Hispanic ECE workers are “especially poorly paid.” For example, Black women who work with infants and toddlers earn an average of 77 cents less per hour than other professionals, while that pay gap increases to $1.71 for those who work with preschool-aged children.
Postponed and Contextualized by the Pandemic
Interviews for the study were conducted in 2019, though release of the findings were postponed by the global COVID-19 pandemic. “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities and workforce issues, further driving demand for solutions that could address these conditions, elevate the status of educators and ensure the provision of high-quality early childhood education across the nation,” the report states.
Dr. Friday said that the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, followed by the widespread protests across the country and the racial reckoning, provided additional context to the study’s findings, as well as an impetus to address equity “in a more intentional way.”
“The findings don’t change, but how we’re interpreting and framing the findings are a direct result of where we feel we are now as a country and as a profession – – where we are really understanding that we have to talk explicitly about equity and payment as a strategy,” she said. “And we also have to talk about compensation very directly and name that as well as a precursor to any sort of certification or increase requirements.”
A Variety of Possible Solutions
Dr. Friday said there are various ways to improve underlying working conditions for ECE professionals. “We do call for policymakers to increase investments for the workforce to access higher education, including, for example, scholarships, loan forgiveness, tax credits and even universal pay increases,” she said.
Aside from legislation, institutions of higher education have a role to play, particularly by providing additional resources for educators, increasing access to educational programs and allowing for coursework to be completed in alternative locations or on flexible schedules. “We’re talking about folks who are frequently working full time,” Dr. Friday added.
Improved attention to the needs of multilingual workers is also important. “There are many immigrant workers in early childhood education,” Dr. Friday said. “And so higher education really needs to be more accessible for folks for whom English is not a first language.”
In addition to improving educational opportunities, government funding for ECE programs needs to be overhauled, Dr. Friday added. “There’s so much around financing that needs to be reimagined, both how we’re funding—what are the funding streams and funding mechanisms that support early childhood education?—and also how we are understanding the true cost of care,” she said. (Studies estimate that every $1 invested in early childhood learning results in upward of $2 in broader economic benefits.)
Understanding the Current Landscape
The EEIC doesn’t have a position regarding the creation of a new national credentialing system, Dr. Friday said. The study, she added, “really was about understanding where the field was and what was most appropriate in terms of sharing back to the field the results of the study. And we just hope that we framed it in a way that was responsible and reflective of where we are currently because so much has, has shifted and changed.
“National certification is this lovely idea and absolutely something that we should continue to explore as a profession,” Dr. Friday said. “But now is not the time to foreground that and to lead with that. There are so many more foundational issues that we have to be working on.”
Bruno J. Navarro is a writer, editor and photographer who has covered business, technology, courts and education. His work has appeared in CNBC, Women's Wear Daily, NBC News, The Associated Press, Nylon and The Arizona Republic. Originally from Queens, New York, he currently lives in New Jersey.