The Real Cost of High-Quality Early Childhood Education

We can all agree, that a high quality early childhood education is in the best interest of not only all children and their families, but also benefits society. Most of us can agree on what delineates a high-quality program from one that needs improvement: a child-centered, play-based, developmentally appropriate curriculum; a clean supportive learning environment; positive relationships between teachers, children, and their families; and early childhood teachers who are knowledgeable about child development, early childhood curriculum, and know how to assess learning and plan worthwhile learning experiences. Where we disagree, is on who should bear the costs of ensuring that all children receive high-quality early childhood education. As one of the only advanced countries, without universal early childhood care and education, we lack a central aspect needed to make high-quality early care and education a reality…federal funding. As a result, we have a hodgepodge of free market and government programs where quality is based on how much a parent can pay and how much we believe poor people are deserving of low-cost child care.

Nonetheless, we know quality is important, so many cities and states are moving forward demanding the early childhood community increase quality regardless of whether there is funding to support these initiatives. The District of Columbia, where I live and work, has jumped out ahead of everyone else, increasing the educational requirements for all early childhood teachers. Although the Office of State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) has proposed a gradual phase in of the new requirements, many in the early childhood sector are worried about the real costs of the these requirements.  Everyone from family day care home providers to directors of child care centers will need to reach a higher level of education that can range from a Child Development Associate to a bachelor’s degree. And of course, there is one missing ingredient: who is to pay for the additional education requirements?

Is it realistic, to expect someone who makes $9 to $12 an hour to go into debt to earn a degree with no guarantee of a higher salary when all is said and done? Even with a bachelor’s degree, early childhood teachers in non-public school settings are paid significantly less than the $51,000 a year, public school teachers make on average. But DC’s plan does not include subsidizing the cost of the new educational requirements. So, when the teacher graduates with their degree and needs a higher salary so they can pay their loans and still take care of their family, their only option will be to move to the public-school sector. On the other hand, we cannot expect parents who already pay $1,000 a month or more for child care, to pay even more so their child can have a teacher with a bachelor’s degree. But if high-quality is what we want then we must be willing to address the real cost.

As a professor of early childhood education, I believe in the value of a bachelor’s degree for young women and men who want to become teachers. I even recognize the value of requiring these young people to spend a significant time enrolled in general education courses. However, when it comes to women currently working in early childhood settings, who tend to be low-income women of color, I have serious reservations about demanding that they spend time and money taking biology, history, and college algebra. If we are going to increase the requirements of early childhood educators, we must work with universities and colleges to create affordable options that ensure early childhood teachers receive the knowledge they need to be an excellent teacher. I for one will work with my university to move away from the liberal arts and general education requirements that are not relevant to the needs of early childhood teachers.  The plan is to develop a program that focuses on skills early childhood teachers truly need, such as conducting functional behavioral assessments and documenting learning through authentic assessment. And to remove the requirements that will increase their debt just so they can demonstrate their knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem. No offense, to math teachers everywhere, but let’s be honest, there are many things childhood teachers need to know, but a2 + b2 = c2 is not one of them.