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Higher Ed’s Monopoly is Crumbling--Will Early Childhood Educators Benefit?

By Sara Mead — March 15, 2012 3 min read

My friend and colleague Kevin Carey has a must-read piece in The New Republic this week about how a series of innovative initiatives are slowly beginning to chip away at traditional colleges and universities’ monopoly on delivering postsecondary credentials--and the potential for “creative destruction” to transform the postsecondary education sector and expand learning options for student populations that have traditionally been left out of or poorly served by higher education.

Many of the offerings that Kevin mentions seem oriented towards STEM fields, which is not particularly surprising. But, as Kevin and I argued last year, policymakers and funders interested in improving early childhood education should also be paying close attention to, capitalizing on, and even developing these new higher education and credentialing models.

Efforts to improve early childhood education face a vexing problem: We know that the skills, knowledge, and behavior of the individuals who work with young children are the most important factor determining quality in early ed settings, but this is a field beset with low-wages and low-skilled workers. Policymakers and advocates have pushed to raise credential requirements for early childhood workers, but, as many Head Start grantees have learned, actually getting people through postsecondary coursework is incredibly difficult and there are tons of barriers to doing so. If we don’t want to radically change the composition of the field, and if we do want higher credentials to be a pathway to better lives for current workers rather than a closed door, then we need to think about other ways to build the skills of the early childhood workforce and give them access to meaningful workforce credentials.

In other words, we need destructive innovation in the postsecondary sphere. To be clear, I’m not arguing that we should move towards purely online or technology-based training for early childhood educators; a field that’s so heavily independent on interaction probably requires some human interaction as part of training (although some evidence is starting to suggest that technology-enabled coaching can do a lot more than many folks might assume). But the emergence of destructive innovations in the higher ed space also creates an opportunity to for new models that combine technology with the kinds of job-embedded learning experiences that we know are best aligned with how adults actually learn and most likely to translate into actual changes in practice and behavior.

At an even simpler level, we know that weaknesses in basic math and writing can often be a barrier to early childhood workers even accessing higher education coursework--and this seems like a clear area where disruptive innovation can come in handy. What if, say, the Office of Head Start, or a state interested in building early childhood workforce skills, negotiated a deal with providers of engaging online content in these basic skills to offer free or very cheap access for Head Start staff who need to pass placement exams to work towards their AA or BA degrees? (This is also something states or funders could do).

The reality is that, even as we know we need to improve the educational credentials of early childhood educators, we also know the conventional higher ed system is not that good at it. New models of delivering postsecondary training and credentials offer the opportunity to build something better. Smart entrepreneurs who find a way to deliver effective, affordable learning experiences for early childhood educators could also have real market opportunities. But all of this is dependent in part on the actions and insitght of states, policymakers, and funders to make that happen. And because of silos in how we think about education, very few people who care about early childhood are paying close attention to what’s going on in the postsecondary space--which could be a huge missed opportunity.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.