When Nobel-prize winning economist James J. Heckman declared that a high quality early childhood education is the key to our nation’s future, people listened. His work found that inequality in early childhood experiences results in inequality in ability, achievement, health, and adult success and that investment in early education for disadvantaged children (birth to age 5) helps reduce the achievement gap, increase the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, reduce the need for special education, reduce overall social costs, and lower the crime rate. He went on to report that a more level and productive playing field can be created by making wise and timely investments in effective education.
Funding for today’s early childhood education programs may be provided by state, local, federal, and private funds (or sometimes a combination of two or more). Although adequate funding is crucial, a large number of state and federal policy makers and national advocacy groups argue that the key to quality early childhood education programs begins and ends with high quality early childhood educators.
Educational Requirements for Early Childhood Educators
According to the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill, the quality of early childhood educator training programs is deeply influenced by the institutional setting, specific program and degree type, and the resources that are made available to students. As graduates enter the early childhood classroom as teachers, the preparation they have received influences their conduct, which impacts child and family outcomes.
The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) echoes this sentiment in their State of Preschool 2013 publication, which states that high-quality preschool education produces long-term social, economic, and educational benefits, but only when teachers are professionally prepared and adequately compensated.
The NIEER also reported that preschool programs operated by public schools employ the best-educated teachers, with nearly 90 percent of these early childhood educators possessing at least a four-year degree. NIEER also reported that public school educators typically have received specialized preparation specific to early childhood education.
Degrees and Credentialing Options in Early Childhood Education
NIEER reports that as of 2013, just 30 of the 53 state-funded pre-k programs require a bachelor’s degree for its preschool teachers, while 45 of the programs require preschool teachers to have specialized training in early childhood education (40 states, including Washington D.C. currently have state-funded pre-k initiatives).
Bachelor Degree in Early Childhood Education
Although not a standard requirement across the board, bachelor degree program requirements are becoming more commonplace, particularly among federally funded programs. Head Start programs, for example, must now ensure that 50 percent of its teacher staff possesses a bachelor’s degree. In addition, preschool teachers working in public school settings must meet state licensing/certification requirements which require, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education within a teacher preparation program.
Even if employer requirements do not dictate the completion of a bachelor’s degree, it is typical for many preschool teachers to pursue bachelor’s or even master’s degrees in early childhood education as a way to enhance their career, increase their earning potential, and meet professional development requirements.
Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education
An entry-level requirement for preschool teachers in many public and private preschools is an associate’s degree in early childhood education. Associate degree programs allow students to develop their knowledge of early childhood education through courses that cover early childhood development, pedagogical content and the implementation of instructional strategies.
Graduates of associate degree programs are able to engage young learners, communicate with families, analyze and reflect on instructional strategies, and design appropriate assessments to measure learner knowledge and skills.
Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential
Some employers require preschool teachers or teacher assistants to possess the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential through the Council for Professional Recognition.
To qualify for the CDA credential, candidates must possess at least 120 hours of professional education, at least 480 hours of professional experience, and they must complete a professional portfolio.
Child Care Professional (CCP) Credential
The Child Care Professional (CCP) credential, which is offered through the National Early Childhood Program Accreditation, is earned through the completion of:
- 720 hours of childcare experience serving children between birth and 6 years of age within the last 5 years in a licensed, center-based early childhood program
- 180 hours of education/training
- The National Early Childhood Education specialist credentialing examination
- A professional development portfolio
- Performance-based observation assessment
- Two parent evaluations
- Two letters of endorsement