Research for Action (RFA), in partnership with the Council for Professional Recognition, undertook a comprehensive mixed-methods study to assess the feasibility of implementing a national competency-based lead teacher certification system for educators in early childhood programs serving children from birth to eight years old. The study explored the potential benefits, challenges, and equity concerns associated with such a certification system. The project involved more than 100 interviews and a national survey, which garnered the perspectives of more than 4,200 stakeholders from various segments of the early childhood education (ECE) field.
The ECE field plays a pivotal role in the learning and development of young children, with the quality of ECE programs directly linked to the qualifications and knowledge of educators. A persistent misconception of ECE has resulted in the undervaluing of the skills and knowledge of early educators. They are not leading playtime with toddlers. Rather, they are shaping the impressionable, elastic, and developing minds of young people.
To address this issue and ensure the success of ECE, it has become crucial to consider factors such as certifications, which will influence career pathways for a dominantly Black and Hispanic woman workforce who are underpaid relative to their counterparts. These disparities, rooted in centuries of discriminatory policies, have led to low wages, long working hours, and challenging working conditions, which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. These conditions affect not only the well-being of educators but also the overall quality of ECE.
- Support for a National Lead Teacher Certification (NLTC): The study revealed that a majority of surveyed stakeholders, including educators, program leaders, policymakers, and staff at higher education institutions, expressed support for the concept of a competency-based NLTC. When asked whether an NLTC credential should exist, about 75% of all surveyed individuals expressed that there “probably” or “definitely” should be an NLTC, with educators showing the highest level of support at 77%.
- Competency-Based Approach: Interviewees appreciated the competency-based nature of the potential certification system, as it focuses on acquiring and demonstrating knowledge through real-world practice rather than relying solely on exams. This approach was seen as a way to clarify the specific skills and abilities required for effective early childhood education.
- Conditions for Feasibility: Stakeholders identified several key conditions for the feasibility of an NLTC system, including compensation. Addressing compensation concerns was considered crucial not only for the successful implementation of the NLTC but also for remedying existing inequities within the field.
- Equity Concerns: Nearly all participants expressed concerns about equity, including access to higher education, support, and outcomes associated with an NLTC. There were concerns that some groups of teachers may face barriers in accessing information about NLTC certification, qualifying for programs, and securing resources to fulfill NLTC requirements, thereby exacerbating existing inequities. Interviewees expressed significant equity concerns about educators, including those from the following groups: educators of color and low-income educators; family child care providers (FCCs); educators learning English; educators in need of individualized learning supports; educators without formal education beyond high school; educators in rural areas; and older educators.
- Systemic Racism: System-level interviewees also voiced concerns that an NLTC could primarily benefit white, advantaged teachers, further widening the racial disparities within the ECE workforce. These concerns stem from the fact that some teachers have greater access to resources and opportunities for professional growth than others.
Our Results in Action
The study findings underscore the need to address compensation and equity concerns before proceeding with an NLTC system. The Early Educator Investment Collaborative is working to tackle these challenges through grant programs and projects focused on increasing compensation for ECE professionals and enhancing access to higher education. Some additional proposed steps include:
- Policy Actions: National, state, and local policymakers should invest in the ECE workforce by providing scholarships, loan forgiveness, tax credits, and universal pay increases.
- Higher Education Support: Institutions of higher education should expand access to programs, including alternative locations, times, and support for diverse student needs.
- Innovative Financing: Governments should explore innovative financing approaches to increase compensation, including the use of atypical funds such as Medicaid and the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funds.
- Early Childhood Employers: Employers can support staff through paid release time for professional development and higher education courses, high-quality practicum experiences, and apprenticeship programs.
- Advocacy: Parents, caregivers, and organizers should advocate for greater public investment to increase compensation for the ECE workforce.
The study’s results provide a nuanced picture of the feasibility of an NLTC, bringing together perspectives from a wide range of system-level stakeholders, including policymakers, union leaders, institutions of higher education, as well as frontline stakeholders—program leaders, educators, and parents/caregivers. The report offers an analysis of perspectives about the demand for a national, competency-based lead teacher credential, the potential value of the credential for the field, and concerns about how widely it could be implemented, given systemic constraints and opportunities.
To access the full report, contact the Council for Professional Recognition.