Starting in fall 2013, Head Start and Early Head Start lead teachers in community agencies around the city will have to have bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education. The city expects that 14 percent won’t meet the requirement, and could potentially lose their jobs or be demoted.

Child care agencies’ own policies will determine what happens to staff who don’t meet the requirements, says Chicago Department of Family and Support Services spokesman Matt Smith.

Federal regulations call for half of Head Start teachers nationwide to have bachelor’s degrees by fall 2013. But the regulations also appear to prohibit the government from sanctioning any program that fails to comply.

The city requirements, Smith points out, exceed federal guidelines but are in line with the mayor’s Early Childhood Initiative, which will include teacher qualifications as among the criteria that determine whether programs are able to keep their funding in the 2013-2014 school year.

Assistants, too, will be required to have an associate’s degree or a CDA (Child Development Associate) credential. The city estimates that 8.5 percent of these staff might not meet the requirement. 

During the 2011-2012 school year, there were 837 Head Start preschool classroom lead teachers and 130 Early Head Start infant and toddler lead teachers in Chicago, according to federal program data.

A total of 263 lead teachers have enrolled in city-funded bachelor’s degree programs. Of those, 113 have graduated and the rest are pursuing degrees. Just 60 teacher assistants have earned associates or CDA credentials, but 200 more are working on them through city-funded programs.

A number of studies have supported the idea that bachelor’s degrees among teachers might lead to improved learning for preschool students, but it’s been tough for researchers to find definitive proof – largely because teachers with bachelor’s degrees tend to be in programs that are better-quality for other reasons, like more resources. 

Academics, time, money keep teachers from completing degree

Some early childhood quality advocates also promote a bachelor’s degree requirement as a way to professionalize preschool teaching.

But there are many obstacles to achieving the goal.

A 2010 Illinois Education Research Council policy brief, “Examining the Chicago Early Childhood Teacher Pipeline,” found that a backlog of students who had not yet made it into education methods classes are slowing down the pipeline. Many students don’t even make it into early childhood education programs, sometimes because of prerequisites like the Basic Skills Test required of all prospective teachers.

Lack of academic preparation is one reason why students don’t make it into programs.  Other candidates are side-tracked because they need to work.

The study found that one-third of students who planned to enroll in early childhood classes reported that conflicts between work and class time impeded their progress; one-quarter said financial issues did.

Norma Jones, a former Head Start lead teacher who now works in the infant and toddler program at Centers for New Horizons’ Effie Ellis Early Care and Work Center, says short staffing and 40 hours a week of teaching has kept her from having time to finish a degree.

Jones testified at one of the City Council Progressive Caucus budget hearings in October with several of her coworkers and half a dozen other SEIU members, and said the city isn’t providing enough funding for teachers to meet the new requirements.

Jones is currently working on a CDA credential. Of the lead teachers at her school who lack degrees, she says, some are cramming in online courses on their lunch break in an effort to meet the requirements.

But she believes “you can have the experience and be just as qualified.”

“I have been in child care since [age] 16. It’s a passion, it’s a gift, it’s a calling,” Jones says.

Brynn Seibert, director of the Child Care and Early Learning division of SEIU Healthcare Illinois-Indiana, says the union is concerned that experienced teachers will lose their jobs when the city’s mandate takes effect. “Time, money, access – they’re all factors and we certainly wouldn’t want to see teachers with years of experience in classrooms, and relationships with kids and families, getting pushed out,” Seibert says.

She says state-funded Gateways to Opportunity scholarships and city-funded programs haven’t been enough to help teachers who lack degrees. “There needs to be greater investment in scholarship programs and supports for teachers who are in the classroom,” she says.

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