Today, the Brookings Institution published a lengthy Internet manifesto detailed online policy paper co-authored by Bellwether Education’s Sara Mead and myself titled “Beyond Bachelor’s: The Case for Charter Colleges of Early Childhood Education.” We describe why both early childhood educators and the young children they serve would benefit from a whole new system of post-secondary education.
For me, the paper was a way to explore the tyranny of old credentials. The early childhood education world has changed dramatically in recent decades. Profound social and economic shifts have created a society where two-thirds of children under age five now spend time being cared for by adults other than their parents. Research shows that disadvantaged children arrive in public schools far behind their well-off peers and often never catch up. Early childhood education can go a long way to fixing this problem–but only if it’s high-quality early childhood education. And like all things educational, that means interaction with high-quality educators. Yet early childhood workers are often poorly trained and underpaid, diminishing the services they can provide and making it hard for them to access the care their own young children need.
As policymakers and advocates have worked to secure new public investments in early childhood education, they’ve adopted a common strategy for addressing the human capital problem: credentials. Specifically, bachelor’s degrees. The last re-authorization of Head Start required half of program teachers earn a B.A., and a number of states have moved to require B.A.’s for preschool teachers. This amounts to extending the umbrella of traditional K-12 human capital policy over early learning.
As policy, the bachelor’s degree requirement is logical, understandable, grounded in history, and straightforward to implement. It’s also terribly misguided. First, research on the link between traditional college degrees and quality early childhood education points to one of two conclusions. Either (A) there is no link to speak of, or (B) the positive relationship is so small as to make the expense of earning bachelor’s degrees and the cost of excluding non-bachelor’s degree holders from the workforce not worth the benefits.
Second, the early childhood workforce is disproportionately made up of lower-income and minority women of non-traditional college age who have families of their own to support. Look up national college graduation rate statistics and you’ll find that the odds of people with these characteristics earning a four-year degree once they enter college are shockingly low. Regulatory bachelor’s degree requirements for early childhood education are a recipe for debt, lost time, and failure, all in pursuit of credentials with little or no value for the occupation in question. Indeed, the history of K-12 education policy is substantially one of regulatory credentialism gone wrong–millions of teachers have dutifully earned master’s degrees in education at great public expense, even though research shows that, with few exceptions, master’s degrees don’t make people better teachers.
Why, then, is the bachelor’s degree solution for early childhood education so popular? Because that’s the only available degree. This country has a vast array of colleges and universities serving various constituencies and a wealth of different high-skill occupations but we only have one degree that universally indicates preparation for the professional class and that can be obtained from a wide range of institutions. For policymakers who want to improve the human capital of early childhood workers, the current choice is the B.A. or nothing.
Sara and I argue that the government–specifically, states–should create a policy structure allowing for the creation of new institutions–charter colleges of early childhood education–that would specialize in helping early childhood workers obtain new credentials that signal skills, knowledge and talent specific to the field. Rather than define what a college should look like and then grant carte blanche on the knowledge underlying degrees, as is current practice, policymakers would define what high quality early education looks like and then give charter colleges broad organizational flexibility to achieve it. Rather than a system of course credits that only have value when summed to a standardized, arbitrary number, the charter colleges would grant information-rich sub-credentials that early childhood workers could obtain depending on their specific workforce needs.
Early childhood education is a particularly good place to pilot this approach to post-secondary education because it represents a large new population of non-traditional students engaged in an activity of great societal concern. But there’s no reason it couldn’t be expanded to other fields. The future of higher education will contain a much wider range of credentials and organizational models than we have today.