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Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

To boost preschool quality, Massachusetts invests in degrees for educators

Demand for more education for early childhood teachers is growing, but the profession’s low pay puts that out of reach for many. What can be learned from a state approach that’s aiming to make it easier?

Suzanne Bouffard/The Hechinger Report
Preschool teacher Kayla Pinto works with a 4-year-old student at the Somerville YMCA in Somerville, Mass. Ms. Pinto is working toward a bachelor’s degree, with the support of state programs that aim to increase college access for early childhood educators.

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Calls to require a bachelor’s degree for early childhood educators in both the public and private sectors have increased over the last decade. In 2007, the US government required that at least 50 percent of Head Start teachers have a bachelor’s degree by 2013. (By 2015, almost 75 percent had them.) But many programs are having a hard time finding and hiring teachers who have attained one. In Massachusetts, officials recognize that the profession’s low pay has put higher education out of reach for many people. Would-be teachers are hard-pressed to take out student loans, knowing that their salaries as preschool teachers will probably not cover loan payments along with living expenses. To ensure that all children have access to educators with deep and practical knowledge, state officials are building multiple pathways to a bachelor’s degree in early education. It’s an effort that may also help with professionalizing the field. “If we say it’s OK for teachers to not know the canon of child development knowledge, our field is going to stay right where it is,” says Lisa Kuh, who oversees public preschool programs in Somerville, Mass. “It will continue to be seen as ‘just care’ rather than education.”

Kayla Pinto knew she had found her calling from the first day she taught preschool at the YMCA in Somerville, Mass. Ms. Pinto had grown up attending programs at the Y in this small city just north of Boston, and she started working there when she was 14. But it wasn’t until her early 20s, when she was asked to fill in for an absent preschool teacher, that she realized how much she connected with young children.

“My heart sang,” she says, remembering that first day. She soon decided to get certified as an early childhood teacher and make a career in preschool. 

Now a veteran teacher with 11 years of experience, Pinto still has a passion for becoming a better teacher. One thing she doesn’t have is a bachelor’s degree. That limits the salary she can earn at a community center like the Y and prohibits her from working in the higher-paying public pre-kindergarten sector, where the qualifications required of a preschool teacher are similar to those needed to teach elementary school.

With a growing body of research showing that the early years are a critical window for cognitive development and learning, calls to require a bachelor’s degree for early childhood educators in both the public and private sectors have increased over the past decade. In 2007, the federal government required that at least 50 percent of Head Start teachers have a bachelor’s by 2013. (By 2015, almost 75 percent had bachelor’s degrees.)

And in 2015, after a comprehensive review of early childhood research, the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, recommended that all lead teachers in early childhood settings have a bachelor’s. But many programs are having a hard time finding and hiring teachers who have attained one.

In Massachusetts, Bay State education officials recognize that the profession’s low pay has put higher education out of reach for many early childhood educators. Would-be teachers are hard-pressed to take out student loans, knowing that their salaries as preschool teachers will probably not cover loan payments along with living expenses. Those who can afford a traditional four-year college pathway often opt for degrees in elementary education, so that they can work in the higher-paying pre-kindergarten classrooms that are increasingly available in public schools. But those programs, which tend to employ the most educated teachers, serve only an estimated 13 percent of preschool-age children in Massachusetts.

“This bifurcated system of early childhood education is a problem,” says Winifred M. Hagan, an associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education and an expert in early childhood teaching. She notes that there are “different qualitative requirements for teachers of different kids,” depending on whether the children attend public pre-kindergarten, Head Start, or community-based programs. This, she says, could contribute to achievement gaps across racial lines and between low-income children and their peers.

To ensure that all children have access to preschool teachers with deep and practical knowledge, state officials are building multiple pathways to a bachelor’s degree in early education. One of them is an initiative called MassTransfer, which encourages students to earn an associate degree at a community college, then transfer to a bachelor’s program at a four-year school. The program, which offers a variety of majors, including early childhood education, guarantees that credits earned during an associate degree program will transfer to the bachelor’s.

Thinking differently about degrees

Not so long ago, the associate degree was seen as the end goal for early childhood teachers. Cheryl McNulty, the director of the Somerville Y’s preschool program, encouraged Pinto and other employees who started around the same time to focus on earning one. “Now we know it’s best practice [to get a bachelor’s],” says Ms. McNulty. 

Lisa Kuh, who oversees Somerville's public preschool programs, says that increasing the number of preschool teachers with bachelor’s degrees is also important for professionalizing the field so that it will be viewed on par with careers like nursing and law. That is a goal the early childhood field has been grappling with for decades, she says. “If we say it’s OK for teachers to not know the canon of child development knowledge, our field is going to stay right where it is,” she says. “It will continue to be seen as ‘just care’ rather than education.”

After completing an associate degree in 2013, Pinto wanted to learn more to be the best teacher she could be. She is taking advantage of the chance to transfer credits she earned over seven challenging years of night classes at the end of her workdays at the Y. Because community college courses tend to be cheaper than those at four-year institutions, transferring credits saves students money. But for Pinto and many other early childhood educators, the cost savings from MassTransfer are still not enough to put a bachelor’s degree within reach.

In Massachusetts, the average preschool teacher salary, across settings, is just $31,000. Nationally, a preschool teacher with a bachelor’s working in a community-based program can expect to earn just over half as much as a similarly qualified teacher in a school setting (with salaries for childcare providers of younger children significantly lower). Nationwide, 35 percent of early childhood educators are eligible for public assistance.

To help teachers balance living expenses and school, the Massachusetts state legislature in 2005 approved the Early Childhood Educators Scholarship Program. It covers all or almost all of the cost of tuition for any Massachusetts early educator who is working in the field and obtaining a degree. Once applicants are approved, the state provides funds directly to the college or university so that students, who often live paycheck to paycheck, don’t have to pay out of pocket and wait to be reimbursed. Pinto is one of 539 students receiving the scholarship this year.

Support for diversity

The goal of these efforts is to increase the qualifications of early childhood educators while maintaining the current diversity of the workforce. Early educators are more likely than elementary school teachers to reflect the diverse backgrounds of the children they serve, especially in communities with high percentages of low-income families and children of color — in part because of the historically low barriers to entry into the field. Efforts to improve the quantity and quality of preschool teachers must honor and preserve that diversity, experts agree. Removing the financial barriers to higher education is one strategy for doing that.

Another strategy is an approach known as competency-based education. Based on the idea that learning doesn’t necessarily mean “seat time” in courses, this approach awards college credits for knowledge and skills already mastered. Massachusetts is testing out a new, competency-based pathway with a small group of early childhood educators who have already been in the field for many years. Those educators can earn college credits by successfully completing assessments demonstrating their knowledge or by completing online coursework.

While that approach appeals to some educators, others prefer the unique learning opportunities that college affords. Teddy Kokoros, a 34-year-old preschool teacher at Transportation Children’s Center in Boston, earned his bachelor’s after spending seven years dividing his time between teaching in the classroom and taking courses part-time, but he doesn’t regret any of that time. A big part of his education came from what he calls “incidental teaching moments” from faculty and peers between classes and during snack breaks.

Mr. Kokoros says he values the depth of knowledge he gained from taking courses outside his major in early childhood education. He uses what he learned in a course about the history and biology of Boston’s Charles River when designing science activities for his preschool classroom. And, he says, “having a broad base of knowledge of the world can be important” when teaching a diverse group of children, like those in his center.

Pinto credits the state’s initiatives with her ability to stay on the path to a bachelor’s degree. “I don’t think I would be as far along as I am without the scholarship,” she says. Still, it hasn’t been an easy road. She had to put her educational plans on hold when a romantic relationship ended and she moved out on her own. To cover her bills, she took a second job, working nights as a grocery cashier, and has had to stop taking evening classes for now. The Boston area is among the most expensive places in the country to live, so even with the scholarship covering her tuition, Pinto’s preschool teacher salary was simply not high enough to cover her living expenses.

Early childhood experts and officials know that for higher education initiatives to work, they must ultimately be accompanied by efforts to improve teachers’ salaries. While officials debate solutions to that issue, Pinto is counting on a salary increase once she finishes her coursework. But, she says she would want to earn the bachelor’s degree, even if it didn't lead to a pay increase. “[I]t’s been such a long road, like a boulder being shoved up a hill,” she says of pursuing diplomas for 10 years. “But it’s also something to aspire to.”

This story about preschool was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. 

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