Beyond Bachelor’s: The Case for Charter Colleges of Early Childhood Education

To enhance the quality of early childhood education, and provide better economic opportunities to early childhood educators themselves, states should create Charter Colleges of Early Childhood Education.  These research-driven, flexible, and accountable institutions would help increase the supply of high-quality early childhood educators, provide those workers and their families with stable, well-paying jobs, and create a new model of higher education and credentialing that can be applied to other fields.

The Challenge

A growing body of research demonstrates that high-quality early childhood education has tremendous potential to improve children’s and families’ lives.  Spurred by this research, as well as growing demand for childcare to enable parents to work, policymakers have seized on early childhood education as a strategy to improve student achievement and break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.  Yet despite increasing public investment, only one-third of American preschoolers have access to publicly funded pre-K or the federal Head Start program, and preschool quality is often low. 

One contributing factor is that the average preschool teacher in the United States earns only $23,870 annually, compared to $51,009 for public elementary and secondary school teachers.  To address this disparity and improve early childhood education quality, many advocates have called for extending the umbrella of traditional K-12 teacher policy over early childhood workers, by requiring preschool teachers to earn bachelor’s degrees and state certification.  But that system is ill-designed for helping early childhood workers get the skills and salaries they need:

  • Research offers little evidence that bachelor’s degrees improve early childhood educator effectiveness
  • Early childhood bachelor’s degree programs are not well designed to prepare educators for the classroom
  • Bachelor’s degree requirements for early childhood educators would drain public and private coffers
  • Students similar to those working in early childhood education who pursue bachelor’s degrees usually fail to complete them

A New Approach

Building on the early success of promising models in the field, policy makers should create new Charter Colleges of Early Childhood Education, built from the ground up specifically to give early childhood workers the education they need.  Like their K-12 counterparts, charter providers would receive increased flexibility in exchange for increased accountability to deliver results.  To create and empower these institutions, policy makers should:

  • Set clear expectations for what early childhood educators need to know and be able to do, based on state early learning standards and current research
  • Define credentials linked to skills and workforce needs, reflecting the variety of settings in which early childhood educators work and the differentiated roles they take on in those settings
  • Identify metrics of teacher knowledge and skills, allowing charter colleges to confer credentials when students successfully demonstrate their effectiveness in improving children’s learning
  • Create and empower authorizers to grant charters, enable charter colleges to grant credentials and access public funding, and hold the colleges accountable for their performance and use of taxpayer funds
  • Enforce constructive accountability by organizing independent evaluations and tracking supporting data to assess early childhood educator preparation programs

The charter concept can be most fully realized in states that have in place other elements of a high-quality early childhood system.  The Obama Administration’s new Early Learning Challenge Race to the Top Program provides a unique opportunity for states to consider creating charter colleges of early childhood education as part of their strategies to create great early childhood workforces.  In doing so, states can address the twin challenges of providing disadvantaged children with better life chances, and giving their parents access to marketable skills and better jobs.