Charter Ed for the Early Childhood Workforce: A Recipe for Disaster

Last month, amid a flurry of natural disasters, the Brookings Institution and Rockefeller Foundation dumped a dangerous proposal on the overworked, underpaid, unrespected early childhood workforce. In "Beyond Bachelor's: The Case for Charter Colleges of Early Childhood Education," Sara Mead and Kevin Carey bring the K-12 charter school movement right on down to the earliest years of education. At the heart of their concept is a simple bargain: increased flexibility in exchange for increased accountability to deliver results.

A Faustian bargain, to be sure.

The early childhood workforce, as I've often noted, in this space and elsewhere, is a highly challenged species. Qualifications are all over the map across states and settings (that means Head Start, child care, and state pre-K). In some parts of the country, women with high school diplomas are guiding the critical learning and development that occurs in the first five years of life. Levels of education for the workforce have been on the decline, even as the field, after years of debate, has embraced the bachelor's degree, with specialized training in early childhood education and development, as the baseline. (See "A Matter of Degrees: Preparing Teachers for the Pre-K Classroom," courtesy of Marisa Bueno, Danielle Gonzales, and Linda Darling-Hammond.)

Add to this scenario the significant issues faced by the schools that educate this workforce, including low staffing, use of part-time faculty with heavy teaching loads and instructors with little expertise in early childhood education and development. As if this were not enough, recent research has called into question the received wisdom, based on earlier studies, which held that higher levels of formal education and specialized training in early childhood education and child development produced higher quality and better outcomes for children. And did I mention that early childhood practitioners are paid less than tree trimmers and valet parking attendants? With annual average wages for child care workers at $20,940, and for preschool teachers, at $27,450, we're looking at a sector filled with some of the most economically and socially marginalized professionals in the country.

Mead and Carey adroitly maneuver around the existing body of research, deploying the evidence to make their case for "brand-new organizations, built from the ground up specifically to give early childhood workers the education they need." The current system of higher education, they argue, is inadequate to the task. Bachelor's degrees, they maintain, are beside the point. Mandatory B.A. policies could "force hundreds of thousands of women... into a deeply flawed and inordinately expensive higher education system, all for a degree that research suggests has no impact on how much young children learn." Moreover, they argue, if B.A.s did raise salaries, as they concede might be the case, the results would be all for naught, breeding cynicism among policymakers, who, seeking a better bang for the buck, might not see better outcomes for children.

Talk about a cynical argument.

The report's guidelines for the creation of charter colleges offer nada in the way of new ideas. Competencies, career lattices, coaching, and school-based intern opportunities are already high on the agenda for early childhood professional preparation, with states working tirelessly, as we speak, to build the systems and infrastructure for all of the above. Ditto for valid and reliable observational measures of teachers' practice, which are catching on like wildfire at the early end of the spectrum. The authors' vision of these colleges is, at best, cloudy and unformed, grounded in the misguided belief in the infinite possibility of flexibility and standards-based accountability. Not to mention the market-based rhetoric of breaking "the existing higher education system's monopoly [italics mine] on the awarding of recognized postsecondary credentials for early childhood educators."

This debate about the links between teacher credentials, effective practice and student outcomes has been raging for years, across the education spectrum, and there's no end in sight. The race to find every last factor that influences teacher quality is on, with all parties desperately seeking a silver bullet. Innovative solutions are imperative, including radical restructuring of existing modes of teacher preparation. But here's my beef:

No one ever asks if teachers in the K-12 system should have a B.A. And frankly, we're never going to change the calculus for compensation without raising the bar. Moreover, early childhood practitioners have long been outliers in the nation's efforts to move our children, successfully, from cradle to career. This cannot hold. "College is pricey," Mead and Carey breezily assert. Indeed. But its value, as the authors well know, is far greater than the sticker price.

To suggest that B.A.s are superfluous, that early childhood practitioners opt out of the current system of higher education, and that they be segregated in another maze of preparation is to perpetuate long-standing divisions and inequities between birth-to-five educators and their colleagues along the K-12 spectrum. Their professional future, including their leadership capacity, is at stake, as is the success of the entire educational enterprise.