The early-childhood education profession would be organized into three levels, each with specific competencies and pathways into the field, according to a culminating report released Monday by Power to the Profession. The task force has spent three years defining the work and preparation of those who teach and care for young children.

Its “unifying framework” aims to bridge the existing “incoherent” and chaotic array of training, degree and licensing programs — or no professional preparation at all — with an “audacious” vision of an “effective, diverse, well-prepared, and well-compensated workforce.”

The initiative has been, in part, a response to a 2015 Institute of Medicine and National Research Council report calling for those working with children birth through 8 to have pathways toward earning a bachelor’s degree.

The 15-member task force, convened by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), also released new “standards and competencies” that clearly outline what early educators would be expected to do at each level. The standards, they write, should “inform state and federal policy” in areas such as licensing, hiring and performance evaluations, professional development and national accreditation. 

“It is historic to have these organizations to come together to agree on what the next steps should be to really build our profession,” said Valora Washington, a member of the task force and CEO of the Council for Professional Recognition, which grants the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential in the U.S. and internationally.

Under the task force’s plan, those who hold a CDA, for example, would be considered an “early childhood educator I.” Many state-funded pre-K programs require assistant teachers to have a CDA, while some still require only a high school diploma. Those with an associate degree would be an early childhood educator II, and a level III would require a four-year degree. 

The National Institute for Early Education Research also includes a bachelor’s degree for lead teachers as one of its quality benchmarks. Its annual state preschool “yearbook” is due for release in April. 

“I think the idea of one profession with three designations offers … cohesion, which is what people really want because the field is so fragmented,” said Lea Austin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, which provided feedback on drafts throughout the process. The organization raised concerns over whether the broad range of early educators in the profession were well represented in the process. 

In addition to the groups represented on the task force — including the National Head Start Association (NHSA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) — 35 organizations with connections to the early-childhood education field have influenced the framework. 

The project has involved input from over 11,000 early-childhood educators, events hosted in 47 states to discuss the issues, and survey responses collected from more than 6,300 individuals. Leaders also held focus groups that involved over 3,400 people. The task force went through eight “decision cycles,” with each focusing on a different aspect of the overall project.

No answers ‘right now’

Those now working in the field will likely have questions that include “What am I now, what do I need to be and how am I going to get there?” Washington said. 

State leaders and higher education institutions, on the other hand, might wonder how to pay for changes to bring programs in line with the framework. 

“There are no answers to many of those questions right now,” Washington said. “We’re asking people to join us in the vision and to extend some trust that we’re going to think it through together.”

In a transition to the next phase, NAEYC will house a “professional governance body” that will set guidelines for the profession, and its work will be “subject to a comprehensive, substantial, and independent review within the first three years,” according to the report.

Probably the biggest barrier to increasing expectations of those who work in the early-childhood field is that higher standards or additional education requirements are usually not met with increases in pay and benefits. And compensation varies tremendously based on the type of program in which someone works.

The report, for example, includes a salary comparison for early educators with a bachelor’s degree, ranging from $27,248 for an infant/toddler teacher to $42,848 for a pre-K teacher in a public school, who still earns almost $14,000 less than a kindergarten teacher.

The task force acknowledged these pay gaps and wrote, “The poor compensation across the workforce is disproportionately experienced by women of color, who are clustered primarily in the lower-wage jobs within this already low-wage field,” the report says.

The members also wrote they won’t advocate for tougher requirements without also advocating for funding, and the framework states salaries paid to public school teachers should be the “minimum benchmark” for the early education field. 

Equity and “empowering” Head Start educators who work with “the most vulnerable children across the country” was also a top concern for the NHSA, explains Robin Winchell, director of public affairs for the organization.

“The necessary next step comes from federal and state investments, because as we think about the future of the early childhood profession, we must seriously consider how we will pay our educators a living wage,” she said. “But beyond valuing early childhood educators as professionals, the rich representation of people of color in the early-childhood workforce makes this a conversation about economic equity as well. As this movement evolves, it is paramount that we prioritize maintaining this diversity in our workforce.” 

Multiple initiatives underway

For some experts, it’s unclear how the framework connects to existing efforts to improve the field. Does it resolve ongoing debates over whether increasing teacher pay would prevent states from expanding access or whether requiring bachelor’s degrees hinders efforts to have a diverse workforce?

On Tuesday, New America, a think tank, will hold an event to release “Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators,” a report based on a blog series that began in 2018. The dilemmas authors address, such as how family child care providers fit into a redesigned system emphasizing college degrees and salary structures, make up a “thorny knot” not easily untangled.

Power to the Profession suggests early educators with an associate degree can work in larger community-based classrooms but should have “frequent access to [early childhood educator] IIIs for guidance.” Lead teachers in state pre-K and school district-run early-childhood programs, however, should be at a level III, the report says.

But Austin said having different designations for teachers who work in community-based settings or with infants and toddlers could “reinforce the stratification that exists.”

“The younger the child, the lower the status and the lower the pay,” she said.

The authors suggest “innovations” are necessary to help self-employed family child care providers meet “the responsibilities of the profession.” But they also write some providers may choose to “operate outside of the profession.” The report notes there has been a “steep decline” in licensed family child care homes in recent years, often because providers can’t afford to make the quality improvements required to maintain their license.

“The Power to the Profession task force had a really difficult job of reaching consensus and a framework for competencies, standards, career pathways for the ECE workforce. They should be commended for their important work,” said Laura Bornfreund, director of early and elementary education policy at New America.

“But, there are multiple [early-childhood education] workforce-focused initiatives underway across the country at local, state and national levels. And, so two questions I have is, how do all these efforts fit together? Are they moving the field in the same direction? I’m not certain that everyone in the … field yet agrees on a shared vision forward.”

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