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Facing a shortage of early childhood educators, states look to competency-based education

A growing number of colleges and entire states have zeroed in on competency-based education as a way to prepare more workers for the field.

The early pandemic sent young schoolchildren home to finish their education online and shuttered childcare centers. Even now, many schools and centers remain short-staffed and unable to safely accommodate all the children who need early education. This shift highlighted the importance of quality early education not only to children’s development—but also to the workforce.

Unfortunately, however, states across the country face a shortage of early childhood educators, and it isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Even before the pandemic, schools and childcare centers were struggling to fill those roles due to strict training and licensing requirements, the demands of the job, and relatively low compensation. And many of the women who were working in the field were locked in low-wage jobs, without the time or the training to advance.

The big idea: Now, a growing number of colleges, with the support of states and philanthropies, are rethinking pathways in the field. Researchers and educators in California are working with colleges, state agencies, and provider partners to address workforce diversity and compensation. And institutions from Hawaii to Georgia are redesigning the education and training programs they offer for early childhood educators, while places like Illinois are taking a state-led approach.

A number have zeroed in on competency-based education as a way to more quickly and effectively prepare workers for the field.

“Competency based education by definition does not mean one size fits all,” said Stephanie Bernoteit, executive deputy director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education. The approach can “help us meet more students where they are.”

Need for more flexible pathways

The theory: Competency-based education focuses on what a student knows and can do, rather than the time they spent learning or even where they learned something. 

Competencies—knowledge, skills, abilities, and intellectual behaviors—are measured and certified by well-defined assessments rather than by time in a class. In that way, students can potentially move more quickly and are better able to incorporate prior learning or continued learning on the job into their degree programs.

Charla Long, executive director of the Competency-Based Education Network, says that pedagogical approach allows faculty to focus their teaching and mentoring on filling gaps in students’ existing knowledge, rather than trying to cover a prescribed set of material. And it frees up students to focus their effort on the parts of the curriculum they don’t know.

For early childhood educators, that provides more flexibility with when and where they study. It also allows them to demonstrate—and receive credit for—the college-level learning they’ve already done on the job. Both help increase persistence and completion, Long said, and can potentially speed up the time it takes to earn a credential. The latter can be especially critical for lower-income workers who need to quickly increase their skills in order to advance in their careers.

“Time is the enemy of the poor,” Long said. “When we remove time-based measures of learning it does help on the diversity and equity and inclusion piece.”

Moving to competency-based education

The Early Educator Investment Collaborative is one of several groups working to expand competency-based programs for early childhood educators. The collaborative, a collective of eight national foundations, recently gave more than $10 million to six institutions to transform early educator preparation.

Ola J. Friday, director of the collaborative, said the organization is interested in CBE because it respects and recognizes students’ existing knowledge and accelerates their way through the degree pathway. “At the outset we know that it recognizes the experiences students are bringing into the classroom,” Friday said.

Across higher education, she said, students face many barriers to completing credentials: time to access coursework, cost, and even institutional barriers like placement exams. The Collaborative’s hope is that the grant recipients will put forward bold strategies to address those barriers in early childhood programs.

“There’s a lot of momentum in this space,” Friday said. 

The University of Hawaii at Manoa, a grant recipient, is looking to expand capacity statewide in teacher education pathways, including through competency-based bachelor’s and associate degrees. The goal is to examine and address “the systemic barriers that prevent diverse populations from entering college and going through an early childhood education program,” said Theresa Lock, an instructor at the university and project director of the Hawaii Early Child Educator Excellence and Equity Project.

The new grant-funded project will run for two years, but Lock already knows the university needs to address how it assesses and talks about credit for prior learning, whether in competency-based or traditional time-based programs. The university has prior learning assessments in place, but she said their design isn’t as attractive to incoming students in early childhood education as it needs to be.

Training only goes so far

The Limits: For all its potential to speed up education and training, competency-based education is not a fix-all for worker shortages. For one, it can take a lot of thought, time, and structure to get right. That’s one reason that a recent survey by the American Institutes for Research found that 82 percent of responding institutions expect competency-based education to grow over the next five years, but only 13 percent have already launched full CBE programs.

No state knows the challenges like California, where Calbright College, an online, competency-based college for the entire state, has struggled to get off the ground. Many factors, including political infighting and the lack of a regional-toehold, have been at play, but the institution has a hard time demonstrating its value proposition to students. It enrolled just 900 students in its first year, and graduated only 12.

It’s against that backdrop that Sacramento State, another grantee of the Early Educator Investment Collaborative, will work with a coalition of other California State University campuses, community colleges, and other partners to revise the current early childhood education curriculum and pilot a new competency assessment tool.

JaNay Brown-Wood, an assistant professor of child and adolescent development at Sacramento State, is leading the effort—and said that, while the design of education pathways are critical, the challenges facing early childhood educators can’t be solved by training alone.

Other factors: The reputation of early educators as “babysitters” has been damaging, she said, and it has staying power even though it doesn’t accurately reflect the critical developmental work those teachers do. In part because of this misunderstanding of the work, compensation for early childhood educators is much lower than that for other teachers.

“One of the largest challenges in filling the positions and finding quality teachers is compensation,” said Brown-Wood.

The national median wage for an early childhood educator in a childcare setting is $11.65 an hour and only $14.67 for pre-school teachers in all settings—despite the fact that many roles require formal education, training, and licensing. The early education field is dominated by women, and the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment found that 40 percent of the its workforce is women of color, many of whom are in the lowest-paying jobs.

Brown-Wood and her colleagues at Sacramento State are working to address those challenges in California. Part of the new grant money will go to examining and making recommendations around workforce diversity and compensation in the state. The University of Hawaii at Manoa will also be digging into those issues.

Putting it all together

Illinois is taking a state-led approach. It has examined the compensation of early childhood educators, and the state and its licensing body for ECE credentials have been working together to have institutions adopt the same set of credentials, with a unified set of competencies and definitions embedded in their curriculum.

So far 76 institutions across the state have adopted the same set of credentials, and have even begun to share assessment tools. “That’s huge,” said Long of C-BEN. “That is like revolutionary.”

The standardized set of credentials are designed to create a stacked pathway, from some college credit all the way up to master’s degrees, said Bernoteit, of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

“We are working very hard to help employers, institutions of higher education, advocates, funders and other stakeholders see the potential of competency based approaches for solving problems they encounter,” she said. “When we position competency-based education as a tool to solve problems we all care about, that helps with collaboration.”

Parting thought: Johnna Darragh Ernst, a professor of early childhood education at Heartland Community College, said she’s seen “extensive communication and collaboration” across institutions and agencies in the state.

At her own institution, Darragh Ernst said, early childhood programs have seen 7.7 percent growth over the past two years by using a CBE approach. “It provides the opportunity for personalized learning,” she said. 

That’s allowed faculty like her to be more agile in responding to individual student needs. Her institution is now reaching out to students who stopped out, and asking them to come back and finish their degrees with a competency-based approach. As an educator, she said, it’s “what you dream of.”

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