The clock is ticking in Washington, D.C. By the end of 2023, workers who teach the littlest learners in the nation’s capital will be required to have advanced credentials in early childhood education.

For some teachers, this feels like pressure. For college leaders, it feels like opportunity. And so two of the city’s universities are setting aside cross-town rivalries to meet this regional workforce need together.

The partnership joins American University, Trinity Washington University and Martha’s Table, a nonprofit that runs child care programs and other social services. It creates a “stackable credentials” pathway for educators, who can earn a certificate at either institution, then apply the credits toward an associate degree at Trinity or a bachelor’s degree at either university.

“We’re meeting everyone where they are, to serve the needs of everyone at all levels,” says Karen Santos Rogers, associate dean of Trinity’s School of Education. “We’re really going to be a model and an example as this trend moves across the country.”

It’s unusual for private, national universities to respond to local labor market trends, and to offer credentials other than four-year degrees, says Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, dean of American University’s School of Education. Yet the institution created an online certificate course to meet the needs of D.C.’s early childhood educators, most of whom don’t fit the profile of a typical American University student.

The dean says it’s part of a broader shift in higher education to consider different business models focused on lifelong learning, “nontraditional students” and responsibility to address community needs.

It’s also surprising for two universities to collaborate rather than compete for students.

“It’s about us learning from one another and working together,” Holcomb-McCoy says. “There are enough students that are interested that we don’t have to worry about the competition—it’s just about getting this right.”

Teacher and child
Martha’s Table Head Start Early Childhood Education Program in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Martha’s Table.

Educating Educators

Credential standards for early childhood educators vary widely by state and setting, with different expectations for people who work in private homes, schools and centers. For example, a teacher at a child care center in Louisiana isn’t required to have any particular certificate or degree, but he or she would need a Child Development Associate credential to work in Georgia and an associate degree in Pennsylvania, according to the 2020 Early Childhood Workforce Index from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California at Berkeley.

Yet as recognition grows about the importance of early childhood learning, it’s increasingly common for states to require educators to have some kind of credential, says Ashley LiBetti, an associate partner at the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners.

Opponents of the policy shift argue it imposes unnecessary burdens on workers. But advocates hope credential requirements will strengthen the quality of instruction that young kids receive and improve working conditions for educators, who on average earn $11.65 an hour in the U.S., according to data from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

Those perspectives have clashed in D.C. since 2016, when the city approved policies to eventually require child care center directors to have a bachelor’s degree, lead teachers to have an associate degree and other educators to have a CDA. A lawsuit challenging those rules has been ricocheting through the courts for years. In March of this year, Republican members of Congress introduced bills aimed at overturning the requirements. (Local laws passed in D.C. are subject to review by Congress.)

Teria Powell understands both viewpoints. She has eight years of experience working at a public charter preschool in D.C., first as an operations manager and now as a family engagement specialist. She says that her lack of a degree has held her back from pay raises and job opportunities. It doesn’t always feel fair to her to see someone else who has less experience, but higher credentials, get hired or promoted.

“But I understand in that same vein the need to be able to say, ‘Our educators are educated,’” Powell adds.

That’s one reason why she’s been taking courses through Trinity for four years to earn her associate degree in early childhood education. Additionally, Powell appreciates the knowledge she’s gained through her college classes, which she applies whenever she designs activities and communicates with families and the broader community.

Before enrolling at Trinity, “I knew what we did, but I didn’t know the science and methodology behind why we did what we did,” Powell says. “I’ve been able not only to grow myself professionally, but provide a better service offering for my parents.”

For example, if a family worries that a child spends too much time “just playing,” Powell can draw on her studies to explain that inventing make-believe games and stories actually is learning. And if parents are discouraged to hear from the preschool that a child recognizes a few letters but not the entire alphabet, Powell can help them set age-appropriate expectations.

“What parent doesn’t think their 4-year-old is a genius?” Powell muses. “Reasonably, that is fine. Your child is at a good place.”

Teacher and child on slide
Courtesy of Martha’s Table.

Prioritizing Access

With nearly 500 licensed early childhood facilities in D.C., and possibly thousands of workers affected, the city’s plan for rolling out higher ed requirements is “pretty ambitious,” Holcomb-McCoy acknowledges. But it matches her belief that early learning is “the bedrock of everything else.”

“An individual’s learning capacity and career options are based on getting a really great head start in their education,” she says. “I believe to invest in early childhood education is the way to improve the lives of people.”

Yet for requirements like the ones in D.C. to truly improve early care and education, LiBetti says that higher ed programs must be of high quality—which is hard to measure, according to her research.

And she believes that training programs must be accessible to educators who find themselves needing to go back to school. That may mean courses are offered outside of normal working hours, or online, or at early childhood programs where students already work. It may mean colleges make child care available for students who need it. And it may involve offering scholarships and making sure transportation subsidies are available to help cover costs.

“There are a lot of different things you can do to help early educators access and complete some of these credential programs,” LiBetti says. Failing to use those strategies, she adds, “will have a negative effect on current early educators.”

It’s a concern that leaders at Trinity and American universities say influenced their partnership.

Considering child care workers’ low wages, “adding any kind of loans is impossible,” Rogers says. So to keep costs down for students, American agreed to match the lower tuition rates charged by Trinity, and the institutions solicited financial support for student scholarships from the Clark Foundation, which supports nonprofits in D.C.

To accommodate students who work full-time, the universities considered how to make courses available to complete during evenings and on weekends.

“The reason we decided to put the CDA online is accessibility,” Holcomb-McCoy says. “It’s interactive, but students can do it at their own pace. They can be anywhere, and do it on their phones.”

Other barriers may be psychological rather than logistical. Even with their professional experience, students may need a confidence boost to start or return to higher education, the deans say.

“Some students will be coming back after being away from school for quite a while. They’ll be getting over that hump of the intimidation of the entire college ‘thing,’” Holcomb-McCoy says. “We have written into our budget coaches and advisors and support networks to be accessible to students, to help them get over some hurdles.”

Among the most significant components of the university partnership, LiBetti says, is their agreement to honor each other’s courses.

“Often you won’t be able to transfer credits,” between two different higher ed institutions, LiBetti explains. “The fact that Trinity and American are structuring it this way intentionally is very, very thoughtful.”

Powell, the Trinity student, has a lot to balance with her coursework: She’s a full-time worker, a mother, a foster parent and a wife.

“Finding the time to actually be in classes, finding the time to do the homework, is definitely a challenge,” she acknowledges.

Yet city support programs and Trinity’s accommodations have made college accessible to her, Powell says. She is pursuing her degree with a D.C. scholarship for working early childhood educators called T.E.A.C.H., or Teacher Education and Compensation Helps. And she takes her courses at the same large community center campus where her preschool is located.

“Most days going to class just means walking across the parking lot,” Powell explains. “I don’t really have to adjust my work schedule. I don’t have to frantically get from one side of town to the next. Most classes are from 6 to 9 p.m. So even if I have to come home, I have time to come home and get back to where I need to be.”

Teacher and child
Courtesy of Martha’s Table.

‘A Slow-Burning Fire’

With their partnership now in place, Trinity and American are seeking students.

They’ve started getting the word out, adding their programs to the city’s official list of higher ed providers and advocating for more financial support at city council meetings. Yet the deans think that “organic” marketing will be their most successful strategy.

“Once this really gets established, word of mouth is going to be huge,” Rogers says. “It will start a slow-burning fire I’m hoping will take off.”

The students they’re looking for won’t necessarily stand out at Trinity, which largely enrolls women of color, many of whom are low-income and from D.C. But recruiting early childhood workers from the region will be a demographic “pendulum swing” for American, Holcomb-McCoy says.

The university’s education school tends to enroll young, white women from around the country, many of whom pay close to $50,000 for a degree. In contrast, the D.C. early ed workforce is one-eighth Latino and more than half Black, and more than 70 percent of workers are older than age 30.

“We’re paying very close attention to making sure we have a welcoming community,” Holcomb-McCoy says, adding that faculty at American recently committed to becoming an anti-racist learning commmunity. “We see this as part of our mission and vision now: creating opportunity to all people to have successful lives.”

A decade from now, if that mission succeeds and that vision becomes reality, the deans say there will be high-quality early education available in every part of D.C. There will be more people of color working as lead preschool teachers. There will be more kids ready to thrive in kindergarten.

“I’m hopeful that the work we’re doing will have a long-standing impact in the city,” Holcomb-McCoy says.

And if more D.C. universities want to set aside rivalries and join the effort, she adds, the invitation is open—“It doesn’t have to be just us.”