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New developments in the field and the drive to improve quality in some careers are pushing entry-level requirements to include degrees.

Take, for instance, jobs in child care or early-childhood development.

A new regulation in Washington sets an associate degree as the minimum credential for a lead teacher in a child-care center. The District of Columbia’s child-care providers have until December 2020 to meet the new regulation. Child-care directors must also earn at least a bachelor’s degree, and home-care providers and assistant teachers must have a child development associate credential, which is an entry-level certificate for providers.

“We know the economy has changed, and by 2020, 75 percent of jobs in the District will require some postsecondary credential,” said Elizabeth Groginsky, assistant superintendent of early learning for the nation's capital. “We’re keeping up with the research, and having a policy that shows brain development in young children is incredible … Teachers will need this knowledge and skill base to work with this population.”

Although there are scholarships available in the District for child-care providers pursuing their CDAs or degrees, some critics say pushing for more education may lead to providers pursuing higher-paying jobs in elementary schools. That could mean wage increases at day-care centers will be passed on to families, who may find the child-care centers unaffordable.

For example, Preston Cooper, an education data analyst for the American Enterprise Institute, in an essay called the District's policy "nonsensical" and said the only winners are the "colleges that get to charge child-care workers thousands of dollars to churn out those credentials."

Research into children’s learning and early development has progressed rapidly, but the standards and the child-care work force have failed to keep pace, according to a 2015 report from the National Academy of Sciences.

“Those who provide for the care and education of children from birth through age 8 are not acknowledged as a cohesive work force, unified by the shared knowledge and competencies needed to do their jobs well,” the report said. “Expectations for these professionals often have not kept pace with what the science indicates children need, and many current policies do not place enough value on the significant contributions these professionals make to children’s long-term success.”

Nationwide, requirements for child-care providers have increased in recent years, said Christine Schull, a professor of early-childhood education at Northern Virginia Community College. She said years ago degree requirements also increased for Head Start providers.

“What we know about young children and their brain development makes it crucial to say there need to be increased education requirements,” she said. “We know a lot more about brain development and early learning, and just saying, ‘I kept your kid alive and they’re not crying’ is not enough. There is a misperception that maybe anybody can do this.”

Schull compares the transition the field is undergoing today to how educators were viewed in the past. An elementary school teacher didn’t always need a degree to teach, she said.

But increasing degree requirements for a career that traditionally doesn’t pay high -- or even sufficient -- wages is also concerning. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national average annual wage of a day-care provider is $21,340.

“The industry used to be looked at like it was babysitting, and it hasn’t been given the importance it really deserves,” said Dede Marshall, department chair for education and social services and an assistant professor of early-childhood education at Montgomery College in Maryland. “It is an issue requiring teachers to get a certain level of education because they’re often not going to get the increase in their salary, and this a problem nationally.”

Yet Marshall said it’s also a good thing to encourage more education for child-care providers, because research shows that higher-quality instructors lead to better outcomes for children.

“It is a contentious issue whether or not we have too much licensing,” said Anthony Carnevale, a research professor and director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, adding that, for instance, Virginia requires a license to be a yoga instructor. “But most people would agree increased credentialing does reflect real upscaling. It reflects a demand for more skills from entry-level workers.”

Following the Lead of Nursing

For many child-care experts and teachers, the hope is that the profession will shift in similar ways to how nursing has shifted in the last 60 years.

In the 1950s, nurses learned on the job and weren't required to hold as many degrees or certifications as they do today. But that shift in the nursing profession to requiring more education eventually led to better compensation, Carnevale said, which is what early-education experts and educators hope will happen to the day-care industry.

But today, wages for child-care jobs don't have a relation to the value of the work, he said. “This is work that is overwhelmingly women’s work, which we keep increasing the education standards of, but we don’t increase wages.”

At the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), there is hope that the national shift to “professionalizing” child care will play out like nursing, but the field doesn’t have a consistent list of standards or a programmatic accrediting agency.

In contrast, there may be variations across some states, but requirements for registered nurses or certified nursing assistants generally are consistent across the country and regulated, said Marica Mitchell, deputy executive director for early learning systems at NAEYC.

“These two conversations need to happen simultaneously,” she said. “We need to have a unified framework for credentials and qualifications because we’ll need significant public investments to reach significant compensation. But making a case for compensation is difficult when you can’t show or provide evidence that the profession you’re advocating for has comparable education, accountability and preparation.”

When it comes to professional standards, NAEYC does offer voluntary accreditation of early-childhood programs; about 20 percent of early childhood education degree programs across the country have NAEYC recognition or accreditation status, Mitchell said.

The CDA, which is the entry-level credential in early-childhood development, is overseen by the Council for Professional Recognition. The council works with providers, colleges and universities to offer the credential, which costs about $425 to earn. CDA applicants have to have completed 120 hours of professional education or an equivalent number of college credits. About 20,000 child-care providers earn it each year.

“The CDA is the best first step even for someone who has been in the field for 30 years,” said Valora Washington, chief executive at the council. “We find a lot of colleges and universities use the CDA standard as part of what they’re teaching … It’s really important to not have just any degree, but specialized training and experience working with young children.”

But Washington said colleges and universities need to be more prepared to handle this transition as the field professionalizes.

“Higher education is going to have some real capacity issues in terms of dealing with the early-childhood work force, in terms of course offerings and in having full-time faculty,” she said, adding that many of these programs are staffed by adjuncts and there will need to be stronger transfer agreements between two- and four-year institutions.

In places like D.C., where the new requirement may be burdensome on longtime child-care providers, competency-based education programs may come in handy, said Courtney Brown, vice president of strategic impact at the Lumina Foundation.

“All of these people have probably learned on the job and should get credit for learning, wherever it takes place,” she said.

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