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Online Degrees Primed to Help Early Ed Teachers Meet New Credential Reqs

Preschool isn't just babysitting. The quality of everyday interactions between a young child and a caring adult helps that child's development in numerous areas: socioemotional learning, early literacy, early math, fine motor skills, cognition and approaches to learning. So it makes sense that education policymakers are pushing the early childhood field to professionalize its workforce and raise the credential requirements to four-year degrees for the people interacting with children in those settings.

A report recently published by New America posed a set of questions related to how those policies affect the early education teachers who need to attain bachelor's degrees, especially in areas of quality and access — and whether online education could provide a leg up. As "When Degree Programs for Pre-K Teachers Go Online: Challenges and Opportunities" put it, "What do we know about the availability and quality of existing degree programs? Could they be offered in a way that would enable a teacher to earn her degree at night without disrupting her work with children? Could online degree programs provide new opportunities? Or do they simply represent a new set of challenges related to quality and access?"

The findings are based on research from other reports on the state of teacher preparation, interviews with experts, information pulled from websites of colleges offering online degree programs, analysis of national data sets on early childhood teacher preparation programs and surveys of the early childhood workforce. This project targeted early childhood workers who are closest to achieving their bachelor's degrees: pre-K "lead teachers."

According to author Shayna Cook, a New America policy analyst, while online degrees can give greater program access to teachers, schools need to produce better data and target this set of students — often non-traditional learners — with financial help.

Online degree programs have surfaced as a "more flexible and accessible pathway" to degree attainment, Cook wrote, since students can complete coursework from anywhere, at any time, and without having to wait for class availability on campus. Online courses can also provide ways for them to finish remedial coursework before they tackle full loads of credit-bearing classes.

Financial considerations can impair the ability of students to achieve their degrees and even affect the availability of programs altogether. Currently, the average hourly wage for a pre-K teacher is $15.11 (about $31,400 annually); yet four-year degrees cost $43,000 on average. While programs such as the Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (TEACH) Early Childhood Scholarships do exist, many students end up taking loans to cover the costs of their education. On top of that, the availability of degree programs — online or face-to-face — is in jeopardy. As Cook explained, "Institutions of higher education are wary of programs that place students in serious debt because this debt can negatively affect the school's ability to offer federal financial aid." As an example, non-profit institution Western Governors University ended its competency-based online early childhood program in 2013 "due to a lack of available jobs and low wages."

Another barrier is a lack of data. While IPEDS, the national Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, accrues and publishes information about whole schools, it doesn't collect data on individual students or their specific programs. As a result, the report asserted, it's "impossible to determine the total number of online bachelor's degree programs in early childhood education" or to link "outcomes data with online degree programs." Without such data, the quality of specific programs is difficult to assess.

Cook offered several recommendations for how institutions and early childhood education organizations could get over hurdles that are preventing online degree programs from being seen as "viable pathways for lead educators."

One suggestion: to assign advisors who can "help teachers to better understand their financial aid options, provide information about high-quality programs and offer emotional support along the way."

Another suggestion: for accrediting bodies to "aim for full transparency to avoid conflicts of interest." Cook advised that teachers "should be able to easily navigate websites to quickly discover whether programs to which they are applying are accredited."

Cook also recommended that programs be tailored to leverage the current skills and expertise the teachers have. "The workforce is already teaching young children. Successful programs will recognize and build upon these skills in order to help teachers improve their practice and learn more effective ways to work with their young students," she wrote.

"Online bachelor's degree programs have the potential to help build the skills and core competencies of lead early childhood educators if policymakers and program developers help teachers to overcome the many barriers to accessing an affordable, high-quality degree," the report stated. "These barriers, such as the need for greater teacher compensation and access to broadband, must be addressed in an equitable way to ensure that every member of the field has the opportunity to attain a quality degree."

The report is openly available on the New America website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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