Do Pre-K Teachers Need a Bachelor’s Degree? National Initiative Seeks Consensus on Decades-Old Debate

Should preschool teachers be required to have a bachelor’s degree? A national collaborative of early childhood educators says no, and is issuing recommendations in an effort to reach consensus in a decades-old debate on qualifications for teachers of America’s youngest students.

The current draft of the recommendations, written as part of a two-year initiative called Power to the Profession, supports multiple education levels for preschool teachers, including associate’s and bachelor’s degrees — flexibility that opponents say could hurt a profession fighting to gain recognition and better pay. Fifteen education organizations, among them the National Education Association, the National Head Start Association, and the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators, created the document with input from dozens of stakeholders.

It’s a critical moment for preschool teachers, who are poorly paid despite research that underlines the importance of early education for student success — especially for children in poverty. Leaders in the Power to the Profession effort say the profession is fragmented, fragile, and misunderstood by the public.

“This developmental period is one of the most important developmental periods that sets the stage for lifelong learning, and the work of early childhood educators in this space requires specialized competencies,” said Marica Cox Mitchell, deputy executive director of early learning systems at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “That intentionality and specialized skills is not seen by the public and devalued.”

Preschool teachers earn significantly less than their K-12 counterparts: a median hourly income of $13.74, compared with the $24.83 kindergarten teachers make and the $26.39 earned by elementary school teachers, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. The preschool workforce is also almost entirely female and is more diverse than the K-12 teacher population.

Maintaining this diversity is one of the central arguments for allowing for a broader range of education credentialing for preschool teachers, and it is an important goal of the Power to the Profession initiative, Mitchell said.

“In advancing as a unified, effective profession, we’re going to make intentional decisions to ensure that we maintain and expand diversity,” she said. “That will require acknowledging institutional barriers and systemic and individual racism and elitism that need to be addressed and being intentional about how we make decisions that reduce the impact of that.”

Research shows that requiring a bachelor’s degree would do little to improve pay — the Berkeley report found that holders of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees receive similar compensation. A recent New America and Bellwether Education Partners report argued that degree attainment for early educators should be addressed alongside other factors, including pay, the quality of a bachelor’s degree, and recruitment.

There’s been no definitive research analyzing whether a bachelor’s degree alone has an effect on a preschool program’s success. However, studies have shown the importance of early education in changing students’ lives. Most notably, the Perry Preschool study followed children in poverty who attended a high-quality preschool and those who did not. By age 40, those who had attended the high-quality preschool earned better wages, committed fewer crimes, and were more likely to have graduated high school.

The National Institute of Early Education Research found that of 61 state-funded preschool programs (some states have multiple programs), 34 require teachers to have bachelor’s degrees. The organization, which creates an annual yearbook of the state of preschool, supports the bachelor’s degree as a minimum requirement for lead preschool teachers, marking it as an indicator of quality in their review of state programs.

The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council also support bachelor’s degrees for early childhood educators and issued a report stating, “Holding lower educational expectations for early childhood educators than for those working in early elementary grades perpetuates the perception that educating children before kindergarten requires less expertise than educating older students, which helps to justify policies — such as for compensation, program funding, and professional supports — that make it difficult to maximize the potential of young children and the early learning programs that serve them.”

Steve Barnett, senior co-director and founder of the early education research institute, said he is concerned that if the Power to the Profession report advocates for a wider range of credentialing, it could discredit the policy work being done in states requiring early educators to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

“I do think it matters because I think early childhood is a fragile and relatively weak field, and if … all these organizations come out and say, ‘No, you don’t need it … you don’t need a four-year degree to teach preschool,’ I could see a lot of legislators saying, ‘What are we paying for that for? Let’s get rid of it,’ ” Barnett said.

He pointed to New Jersey’s Abbott preschools as an example of a successful transition to a workforce with bachelor’s degrees. In 1998, the state Supreme Court ruled in Abbott v. Burke that 31 of the state’s highest-poverty districts had to offer full-day preschool, and that the teachers had to have at least a bachelor’s degree. The state offered a loan program to help the teachers afford college, and a study that looked at the impacts of the ruling found gains in state test scores for fourth- and fifth-graders who had attended these preschools. All state-funded preschool programs in New Jersey now require a bachelor’s.

Mitchell said these discussions are exactly what the Power to the Profession authors hoped would be spurred by the draft, which is one of several documents addressing various issues, including compensation, accountability, and preschool teacher responsibilities. The authors are encouraging early childhood education stakeholders to submit comments by Monday, and Mitchell expects another draft and comment period to follow.

A final document is expected by December. After that, the group plans to launch a policy and public image campaign to promote its vision of the profession.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides financial support to the Power to the Profession initiative and The 74.

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