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Preschool teacher Kayla Pinto works with a 4-year-old student at the Somerville YMCA in Somerville, Massachusetts. Pinto is working toward a bachelor’s degree, with the support of state programs that aim to increase college access for early childhood educators. Suzanne Bouffard for The Hechinger Report.
Preschool teacher Kayla Pinto works with a 4-year-old student at the Somerville YMCA in Somerville, Massachusetts. Pinto is working toward a bachelor’s degree, with the support of state programs that aim to increase college access for early childhood educators. Suzanne Bouffard for The Hechinger Report.

Kayla Pinto knew she had found her calling from the first day she taught preschool at the YMCA in Somerville, Massachusetts. Pinto had grown up attending programs at the Y in this small city just north of Boston, and she started working there when she was 14. But it wasn’t until her early 20s, when she was asked to fill in for an absent preschool teacher, that she realized how much she connected with young children.

“My heart sang,” she said, remembering that first day. She soon decided to get credentialed as an early childhood teacher and make a career in preschool.

Pinto, 33, now a veteran teacher with 11 years’ experience, still has a passion for becoming a better teacher every day. One thing she doesn’t have is a bachelor’s degree. That limits the salary she can earn at a community center like the Y and prohibits her from working in the higher-paying public pre-kindergarten sector, where the qualifications required of a preschool teacher are similar to those needed to teach elementary school.

With a growing body of research showing that the early years are a critical window for brain development and learning, calls to require a bachelor’s degree for early childhood educators in both the public and private sectors have increased over the last decade. In 2007, the federal government required that at least 50 percent of Head Start teachers have a bachelor’s by 2013. (By 2015, almost 75 percent had bachelor’s degrees). An ongoing preschool expansion project in Massachusetts, funded by a federal grant in 2014, required all lead preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s. And in 2015, after a comprehensive review of early childhood research, the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, recommended that all lead teachers in early childhood settings have a bachelor’s. But many programs are having a hard time finding and hiring teachers who have attained one.

Pinto has always intended to get a bachelor’s degree. She enrolled at a state college after high school but after one semester was overwhelmed by financial obligations, a long commute and the stress of the transition. She has never given up on her goal, however, and thanks to some innovative state programs, she is now close to achieving it.

Education officials in Massachusetts recognize that the low pay of preschool and childcare jobs has put higher education out of reach for many early childhood educators. Would-be teachers are hard pressed to take out student loans, knowing that low-paying early childhood jobs will make it difficult or impossible to make the required payments after graduating. Many preschool teachers enter the field first and work toward a degree while employed, but they often struggle to stretch their salaries to cover college courses and living expenses. Nationally, a preschool teacher with a bachelor’s working in a community-based program can expect to earn just over half as much as a similarly qualified teacher in a school setting (with salaries for childcare providers of younger children significantly lower). In Massachusetts, the average preschool teacher salary, across settings, is just $31,000. Nationwide, 35 percent of early childhood educators are eligible for public assistance.

Advocates worry the low pay also discourages young people who can afford to go to college from working in preschools like the one at the Somerville Y. With the growth of public pre-kindergarten, those who have the ability to get a traditional four-year degree have an incentive to get a bachelor’s in elementary education and a Pre-K-to-second grade teaching certification. As a result, the most educated teachers tend to get hired by public programs, which serve only an estimated 13 percent of preschool-age children in Massachusetts.

“This bifurcated system of early childhood education is a problem,” said Winifred M. Hagan, an associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education and an expert in early childhood teaching. Hagan said there are “different qualitative requirements for teachers of different kids,” depending on whether the children attend public pre-kindergarten, Head Start, or community-based programs. This, she believes, contributes to achievement gaps across racial lines and between low-income children and their peers.

“If we say it’s OK for teachers to not know the canon of child development knowledge, our field is going to stay right where it is. It will continue to be seen as ‘just care’ rather than education.”

To ensure that all children have access to preschool teachers who have deep and practical knowledge, state officials are building multiple pathways to a bachelor’s degree in early education. One of them is an initiative called MassTransfer, which encourages students to earn an associate degree at a community college, then transfer to a bachelor’s program at a four-year school. The program, which offers a variety of majors, including early childhood education, guarantees that credits earned during an associate degree program will transfer to the bachelor’s, and waives some application requirements for enrollees who maintain a certain grade point average.

Not so long ago, the associate degree was seen as the end goal for early childhood teachers. That was why Cheryl McNulty, the director of the Somerville Y’s preschool program, encouraged Pinto and other employees who started in the early 2000s to focus on earning associate degrees. But child development experts have shifted to recommending preschool teachers earn a bachelor’s, both to increase their knowledge of a complex stage in children’s lives and to help boost the status of the profession. Today the associate degree is seen as a stepping stone rather than an endpoint. “Now we know it’s best practice [to get a bachelor’s],” said McNulty. She encourages all of her staff to get a four-year degree. “This work warrants continuous education,” she said. “I don’t think piecemeal professional development for 20 hours a year is enough to cover everything that comes up with preschoolers.”

Anne Douglass, who directs the bachelor’s degree and post-master’s certificate programs in early childhood education at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said that “the complexity of doing this work is grossly underestimated.” She explained the need for higher education and continuing education this way: “This isn’t the kind of job you can get trained for and then just go do. You have to be constantly upgrading your knowledge, because new research, curricula, and assessments are coming out all the time.”

Lisa Kuh, who oversees Somerville’s public preschool programs and also supports center-based programs in the city, agrees. “There are trajectories of how children learn concepts, and it’s important for teachers to understand those,” she said. “They need to understand why children make certain mistakes and how to help.”

$31,000 per year — Average salary of Massachusetts preschool teachers.

She added that increasing the number of preschool teachers with bachelor’s degrees is important for professionalizing the field so that it will be viewed on par with other professions, like nursing and law. That is a goal the early childhood field has been grappling with for decades, Kuh said. “If we say it’s OK for teachers to not know the canon of child development knowledge, our field is going to stay right where it is,” she said. “It will continue to be seen as ‘just care’ rather than education.”

After completing an associate degree, Pinto believed there was more to learn to be the best teacher she could be. She is taking advantage of the chance to transfer credits she earned over seven challenging years of night classes at the end of her workdays at the Y. Because community college courses tend to be cheaper than those at four-year institutions, transferring credits saves students money. But for Pinto and many other early childhood educators, the cost savings from MassTransfer are still not enough to put a bachelor’s degree within reach.

To address this, the state legislature in 2005 approved the Early Childhood Educators Scholarship Program. It covers all or almost all of the cost of tuition for any Massachusetts early educator who is working in the field and obtaining a degree. Once applicants are approved, the state provides funds directly to the college or university so that students, who often live paycheck to paycheck, don’t have to pay out of pocket and wait to be reimbursed. Pinto is one of 539 students receiving the scholarship this year.

Hagan said the scholarship also gives colleges an incentive to meet the lifestyle needs of non-traditional students, including night and weekend classes that don’t interfere with students’ day jobs. Colleges have also expanded their advising programs, which are particularly helpful for the first-generation college-goers who comprise a large share of the pre-K workforce. UMass Boston has two advisors dedicated to working with early childhood undergraduates. The advisers help students obtain the scholarship and find job opportunities.

The goal of these efforts is to increase the qualifications of early childhood educators while maintaining the current diversity of the workforce. Early educators are more likely than elementary school teachers to reflect the diverse backgrounds of the children they serve, especially in communities with high percentages of low-income families and children of color — in part because of the historically low barriers to entry into the field. Efforts to improve the quantity and quality of preschool teachers must honor and preserve that diversity, experts agree. Removing the financial barriers to higher education is one strategy for doing that.

Another strategy is an approach known as competency-based education. Based on the idea that learning doesn’t necessarily mean “seat time” in courses, this approach awards college credits for knowledge and skills already mastered. Massachusetts is testing out a new, competency-based pathway with a small group of early childhood educators who have already been in the field for many years. Those educators can earn college credits by successfully completing assessments demonstrating their knowledge or by completing online coursework. It’s a way to ensure that early childhood educators have the knowledge and skills they need while acknowledging the experience that seasoned teachers have gained already.

“I don’t think piecemeal professional development for 20 hours a year is enough to cover everything that comes up with preschoolers.”

While that approach appeals to some educators, others feel they would miss important learning opportunities that college affords. Teddy Kokoros, a 34-year-old preschool teacher at Transportation Children’s Center in Boston, earned his bachelor’s after spending seven years dividing his time between teaching in the classroom and taking courses part-time, but he doesn’t regret any of that time. A big part of his education came from what he calls “incidental teaching moments” from faculty and peers between classes and during snack breaks.

Kokoros said he values the depth of knowledge he gained from taking courses outside his major in early childhood education. He uses what he learned in a course about the history and biology of Boston’s Charles River when designing science activities for his preschool classroom. And, he said, “having a broad base of knowledge of the world can be important” when teaching a diverse group of children, like those in his center. His students come from all walks of life, some from low-income families who receive state tuition vouchers for preschool and some from highly educated international families who are in Boston for a few years to receive advanced academic training.

Pinto credits the state’s initiatives with her ability to stay on the path to a bachelor’s degree. “I don’t think I would be as far along as I am without the scholarship,” she said. Still, it hasn’t been an easy road. She had to put her educational plans on hold when a romantic relationship ended and she moved out on her own. To cover her bills, she took a second job, working nights as a grocery cashier, and had to stop taking evening classes. The Boston area is among the most expensive places in the country to live, so even with the scholarship covering her tuition, Pinto’s preschool teacher salary was simply not high enough to cover her living expenses.

The low pay of early childhood teachers is a major obstacle to increasing the educational qualifications of preschool teachers. Early childhood experts and officials know that for higher education initiatives to work, they must ultimately be accompanied by efforts to improve teachers’ salaries. Charlene Mara, the coordinator of early childhood programs at Quinsigamond Community College in central Massachusetts, emphasized that an increase in pay “can’t be on the backs of parents, but it can’t be on the backs of teachers, either.”

Hagan believes both public and private institutions should play a role in addressing the compensation problem. “Here in Massachusetts, we have a robust economy and we have all these industries benefiting from the early childhood system,” she said, noting that employees of these industries have access to low-cost, high-quality childcare. “But no one pays into the system.” The result, she said, is a situation that is “unethical and immoral.” The private sector bears some responsibility in her view, but there is plenty of blame to go around. She added that state and federal regulations have kept early educators’ qualifications low in part to keep the cost of childcare down.

While officials debate solutions, Pinto is counting on a salary increase once she completes her bachelor’s. But, she said she would want to earn the degree, even without a pay increase. After more than 10 years, she said, “it’s been such a long road, like a boulder being shoved up a hill. But it’s also something to aspire to.”

This story about preschool was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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