“The teachers don’t make that much money to begin with, and it’s been hard for them to find the time to work into their schedules to take the classes,” says one preschool director. (Illustration by Roberto Cigna )

"We are going to use a bear claw to hold our vegetable," instructs Miss Tara from Tiny Chefs, demonstrating the fearsome grip that each toddler should use on a slice of red pepper. The 2-year-old pupils at St. Albans Early Childhood Center stand at stations around long, rectangular, low-slung tables, plastic knives at the ready. Slowly, they begin slicing strips of red pepper into bite-size chunks as Miss Tara — guest instructor Tara Gesling, as she is more formally known — and four St. Albans teachers hover over them. The class is part of the Washington, D.C., center's enrichment program, which also features music, yoga and soccer, among other things. Today, the tiny chefs are making pasta salad.

Before my own daughter began preschool, I would have looked at this activity and seen nothing but play cooking. I had no idea what preschool might mean for her developmentally and had little appreciation for the educational techniques that went into her day-to-day experiences. Once I saw how those experiences were shaping her, I realized what a crucial job preschool teachers perform, and how thankless it is. They work long hours to plan developmentally appropriate lessons and then execute those plans with care and patience. And they do so for disturbingly little pay.

As it turns out, these challenges are part of the reason that American early-childhood education is in crisis. "Our system of preparing, supporting, and rewarding early educators in the United States remains largely ineffective, inefficient, and inequitable," states a 2016 report by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, "posing multiple obstacles to teachers' efforts to nurture children's optimal development and learning, as well as risks to their own well-being."

Here are just some of the problems: Demand for early-childhood programs outstrips supply. With their heavy staffing requirements and the cost of finding, outfitting and maintaining their facilities, the programs are expensive to run, which means fees are high. Meanwhile, tax credits for early-childhood programs are meager. On average, a family may earn only $35,000 or less to qualify for federal subsidies. Employees are not well-compensated: Median income for a preschool teacher in the United States is roughly $28,000 per year; median income for a child-care worker nationwide is $20,000. And perhaps most critically, many child-care programs don't provide an environment that ensures the most effective learning. "It's not that these programs are bad," says Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. "The children are safe, and the teachers care about them. But the programs are anemic; there's not a lot going on. It's a real missed opportunity."

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, early-childhood education (which it defines as from birth to age 8, though my focus here is on preschool) sets the stage for the rest of a child's schooling and affects how successful a child will be over the long term. Yet we relegate ECE to a patchwork of services, including in-home child-care programs, commercial child-care centers, privately run preschools, publicly funded Head Start programs and public school prekindergarten. This is because our society doesn't appreciate how highly skilled the individuals teaching those programs need to be, argues Sara Mead, of the nonprofit consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners. "We see this with the amount of public money that's allocated to early-childhood education," Mead says. "Higher education has the most, and at the very bottom is early childhood. It should really be the inverse of that."

Now, in an effort to raise the standards for early-childhood education, the District of Columbia has taken a bold step: The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education has become the first in the country to establish enhanced early-childhood-education requirements for all preschool teachers and child-care workers. While some states currently have college degree requirements for those who work in certain programs, such as pre-K or Head Start, experts say none has such a sweeping requirement. “D.C. is the first time anyone’s tried a degree requirement across the board for teachers, although some places have done this for directors,” Caitlin McLean, a research specialist at CSCCE, which is based at the University of California at Berkeley, told me in an email. Nationwide, about 35 percent of workers in child-care centers possess a bachelor’s degree, and 17 percent possess an associate degree, according to CSCCE, though those degrees are not necessarily in early-childhood education.

The new D.C. mandate has sent waves of excitement, anxiety and resentment throughout the city’s child-care centers, and the fallout is being watched nationally. If the requirement strengthens early-childhood education in the District, experts predict that other states will follow. But significant philosophical and financial hurdles await.

“We have an ocean theme today,” Miss Tara says. “What do you see here that looks like it’s from the ocean?” (Illustration by Roberto Cigna)

The new mandate includes several levels of educational requirements. By 2018, home care providers and assistant teachers in centers will be required to have at least a Child Development Associate Credential, which is a certification awarded after 120 hours of training by the Council for Professional Recognition, an organization that seeks to professionalize and improve early-childhood education. By 2019, larger home providers, known as "expanded" providers, will need an associate degree with at least 24 credit hours in early-childhood education or a similar field. By 2020, lead classroom teachers will be required to have at least an associate degree in ECE or a similar field, or a non-related associate degree with at least 24 semester credit hours in ECE or a similar field. By 2022, directors of preschool and child-care centers will be required to have at least a bachelor's degree in ECE or a similar field, or have a non-related bachelor's with at least 15 credit hours in ECE or a similar field.

Before the ruling, the District, which offers universal public pre-K, already had degree requirements for its lead and assistant teachers. (Public pre-K charter schools can set their own policies.) But private centers and home providers had much lower requirements. Lead teachers at centers were required only to have a CDA credential or another approved child-care training certificate and three years of supervised experience with children. Assistant teachers needed only a high school diploma or GED, along with a year of supervised experience caring for children. Home care providers were required to have a high school diploma or GED, and complete nine hours of child-care training yearly.

Proponents of the new D.C. requirement maintain that it will help ensure children are taught effectively, while also elevating the status of the profession — and, hopefully, accompanying salaries. Detractors say that a degree will not make an ECE teacher more effective and could shrink the already small group of people willing to do such a demanding job for such low pay, especially because there’s no guarantee teachers will be paid more. Both sides agree that the costs associated with this requirement will be high and likely will be passed on to already strapped parents, and that some teachers may be forced from the field. Some workers have staged protests against the requirement.

For those who do not understand how young children learn best, which Barnett tells me includes many parents, a good ECE program might look more like babysitting than teaching, which can contribute to the idea that no one needs a college degree to work in one. “At its core, it’s the development of strong relationships and rich interactions between teachers and children, and between the children themselves,” says Barnett. “There should be a lot of play, a lot of hands-on exploration, a lot of art — but it should be art that’s individualized, not everyone just doing the same thing.” The teachers are there to ask questions and talk to the kids about what they’re doing, encouraging them to express themselves.

Back at St. Albans, where, according to executive director Donna Mason, about two-thirds of the teachers have associate or bachelor’s degrees, I see this approach in practice. “We have an ocean theme today,” Miss Tara says. “What do you see here that looks like it’s from the ocean?” She points out that the pasta is seashell-shaped. Celery, basil leaves and some red onion make their way to the tables, where the children add them to the bowl.

“I did this, Colleen!” cries one child to her teacher, having successfully cut her celery into pieces. The four teachers, all of whom have at least an associate degree, are equal parts warm and encouraging, while also managing the 2-year-olds’ short attention spans. When the salad is finished, the chefs are encouraged to take a small bite and talk about the tastes. A teacher says, “Raise a quiet hand if you love it.” Little hands promptly shoot up in the air.

For the children, there’s a lot going on during this lesson. They are seeing, touching and smelling vegetables. They’re practicing patience and control by standing together and waiting their turn. By using a little plastic knife, or ripping up the basil leaves, they’re working on their fine motor skills. Their teachers, meanwhile, are helping them learn. “You can talk about, if you cut an apple in half, it goes from one piece to two, which is math,” says teacher Sebawit Yirsaw.

This doesn’t resemble the drilling in reading and math skills that some parents might be expecting. Focusing on letters and numbers in preschool is “a very attractive thing, on its face,” Barnett says. “Because a child goes in not knowing letters and comes out knowing them.” But if it stops there, those initial skills won’t take a child very far, he argues. “Once they reach kindergarten,” he says, “they hold an advantage for about six weeks. But not past that point.” To him, and other experts, readiness means, among other things, learning that they love learning. “Children inherently want to pursue learning,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, founder of Defending the Early Years, an education advocacy group. Especially at these early ages, she says, children develop at very different rates, and pushing children on skills that they simply are not developmentally ready for is dangerous. “We need to have really experienced teachers who understand this,” she says.

By using a little plastic knife, or ripping up the basil leaves, the children are working on their fine motor skills. (Illustration by Roberto Cigna)

While the D.C. officials and ECE experts I talked to support the new requirement, not everyone in the field is as enthusiastic. When I asked Wanda Rosado, who was then the director of Our Redeemer Preschool and Infant Care Center in Northeast Washington, about the degree mandate, she was careful with her words. "There is uneasiness for some," she said. "It's money, and it's time. There's no way around that." She added that the requirement will likely have a ripple effect financially, because the Our Redeemer center is subsidized by the church that houses it. Parents, most of whom, Rosado said, are teachers or other young professionals, pay about $200 per week per child; St. Albans, located in the tony Northwest Washington neighborhood of Tenleytown, costs about twice that. Rosado anticipates that the center will have to increase pay for its teachers, who start at minimum wage, and that those added costs will have to be passed along to the families it serves.

Since my visit, Rosado has left the program. But interim director Kim Woods shares these concerns. Woods, who says that only one of the teachers at Our Redeemer has a college degree, worries the requirement could drive away those who don’t. “The teachers don’t make that much money to begin with, and it’s been hard for them to find the time to work into their schedules to take the classes to get the requirements done in the time allotted,” she says. “No one has left yet, but some have talked to me about the fact that they might have to leave the job because of it.” She also worries the center will have difficulty replacing any who do leave. “It could be harder to find teachers in the future. I’m afraid that they’ll say, ‘Well, I have a degree, I’ll just go to the public school system where the pay and benefits are better.’ ”

The pay issue is one of the main reasons that Shaun Rose, president of the Rock Spring Children’s Center in Bethesda, Md., would oppose an education requirement. Plus, he says, he and his staff are more interested in a teacher’s experience than a piece of paper. What they have noticed, he says, is that some new teachers with degrees, even those with degrees in early-childhood education, often haven’t been taught how to appropriately interact with children of that age group. “A lot of time we get people in here with degrees, and they want to structure their room like a school-age classroom,” which is not developmentally appropriate, he says.

If you're wondering why someone with an early-childhood education degree might not know how to appropriately interact with small children, it could be because not all ECE degree programs are equal. "Varying levels of quality can be seen, in part, in how the graduates work effectively, or not, with young children," Mary Harrill, a director at NAEYC, said in an email. To that end, NAEYC operates a voluntary accreditation system as well as a recognition system, in partnership with the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, for early-childhood degree programs that it certifies have met "national standards of quality." It hopes to eventually make accredited programs the norm. About 20 percent of ECE programs in the United States have met accreditation or recognition standards thus far. (Others aren't necessarily poor programs, Harrill says; they may not yet have applied or may be in the pipeline.)

On a Wednesday evening, I make a visit to the Rockville campus of Montgomery College to observe a lecture in its associate degree program for early-childhood education. There are 10 students for a 6:30 to 9:10 p.m. child development class, which is a requirement for those seeking the degree. Many of the students are coming right from work. “Everyone here is working in the field in some sort of way,” says one of them, 28-year-old Judith Collado, who works with infants and toddlers in Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services. She says the class is useful in her current job and could help with career advancement down the road. But, she acknowledges, working full time and taking classes is tough. “It’s hard,” she says, “to find that balance.”

“We’re going to talk a lot about challenging behaviors,” adjunct professor Chrissy Shawver, who also works with children at the Arc Montgomery County, an organization that serves people with intellectual disabilities, tells the class. “We need to find out the purpose of the behavior and help the child develop skills to communicate what it is that they’re feeling.” Techniques for dealing with behavior and understanding how children are motivated are key to effective teaching, Shawver explains to her students. “If you’ve got behaviors in your room ... the learning is not happening.”

After class, when I ask Shawver about the District’s new mandate, her first question is, “Are they going to pay [the workers] more?” In theory, she says, she agrees with requiring child-care workers to obtain degrees. “It makes a more rich staff. The fact they’re listening and learning and taking what they’re learning and applying it and looking at children in a different light and maybe they’re going to change some of those teaching skills — great! That’s what we do need, and that’s the benefit of coming to school.” But when they’re done with school, she says, they want to be compensated, which is difficult because the families paying for day care are strapped themselves. “I know people are robbing Peter to pay Paul, on both sides,” she says. “I assist my staff with finding outside sources of support, and I know that families are doing without in some areas, just to pay for child care.”

According to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, there are about 2 million early-childhood workers in center-based and home-based programs across the United States, and they are “almost exclusively” women. Nearly three-quarters of these early-childhood workers earn less than $15 per hour, the center says, and almost half are in families receiving some kind of public assistance, including food stamps. These realities, along with the costliness of higher education, make the District’s degree requirement a tough sell for many. For instance, while Carlsson-Paige supports the requirement in theory, she also believes that “it’s unfair to ask someone to take on that kind of debt, when they’re not going to see an appreciable increase in compensation.”

To help workers financially, the District is putting forward a variety of resources. It already provides free access to online training courses, including those required to earn the CDA, and has increased scholarship opportunities. “The new regulations approach the new minimum education requirements in a supportive manner to account for a variety of education levels and fields of study [with which] an educator may be entering the D.C. early-childhood workforce,” Fred Lewis, a community relations specialist with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, wrote in an email. But when asked about possible legislation to ensure better pay for workers, Lewis responded, “All child development facilities are private businesses and determine independently how much to pay for salaries and raises. We can’t dictate and control the wages that facilities pay their employees other than the minimum wage required by the federal or district laws and regulations.”

Donna Mason, the executive director at St. Albans, thinks the new requirement is a positive move, and says she has encouraged her teachers to pursue higher education for years. "I see it as a confidence booster for the individual," she says. "They learn to express themselves better to the parents and learn new methods for reaching the kids." She says the school pays up to 25 percent of the tuition for those seeking a degree. But she, too, acknowledges the challenges. Recounting her own tale of commuting two hours each way for her job at a child-care center and taking classes at the same time, she says, "I was sleeping about four hours per night. And I was incredibly well-organized." The financial rewards, she notes, can be slim. "No one gets into this to get rich," she says. "And it's very demanding — you have to be on top of your game at all times."

Sebawit Yirsaw, who has been at St. Albans for a little over a year, has a similar story. The mother of two, now ages 7 and 8, worked full time as an ECE teaching assistant while she got an associate degree in early-childhood education and then a bachelor’s degree in human development from the University of the District of Columbia. She says she received financial aid, but it didn’t cover everything, so she took out loans to cover books and supplies. Plus, she had to pay for child care. Still, Yirsaw says, she is committed to bettering herself. She plans to start a master’s program in early-childhood education and intends to continue working as a preschool teacher. “It’s my passion,” she tells me.

The education requirement clearly will be a challenge for the District’s preschool teachers, operators and parents. The hurdles include whether teachers will have the time and means to attend school, whether those schools will offer them the best training, and whether their sacrifice will be rewarded with an increase in stature and pay — without putting early-childhood programs out of reach for parents. The D.C. Council recently held a hearing on proposed legislation that would help address some of those issues by, among other things, increasing reimbursement rates for providers that accept vouchers — which sponsors hope will lead to increased pay for workers and access for children. The bill also would create a task force to establish a salary scale for infant and toddler educators and an office of early-childhood development within the superintendent’s office. (As of press time, it was in committee.)

The bill makes ECE supporters hopeful. “Overall this is a huge step in the right direction,” says Judy Berman, deputy director of DC Appleseed, an advocacy group that focuses on public policy issues that affect working families. “We need to value the people who do this work, and the education that they provide to our youngest children. The District has been a leader in early-childhood education, and I hope that other states follow its example on this issue.”

Lia Kvatum is a writer in Silver Spring, Md.

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