Mary Alice McCarthy tackles this question in "Rethinking Credential Requirements in Early Education: Equity-based Strategies for Professionalizinga Vulnerable Workforce," written for the New America think tank (June 2017). Her proposal is that an expansion of paid apprenticeships may be a more functional way of getting high-quality teachers in place for early childhood education. She describes the underlying dilemma this way:
Few people question degree requirements for teachers in elementary schools, including in kindergarten and first grade. Advocates for degree requirements for early educators ask why we would expect anything less for the teachers of our youngest children. If a bachelor’s degree is required to teach a five-year-old, why not a four-year-old? Or a three-year-old? Teachers are teachers, according to this view, and all of them need professional training before they are ready for the classroom. ...
However, the argument that teachers in early childhood centers are the same as teachers in elementary schools and should be held to similar qualification requirements is deeply problematic. Both might be groups of teachers, but they do not represent a single workforce. Just as high school teachers and college faculty both educate, they do so in such different settings and under such distinct expectations that we do not generally think of them as a single workforce. Teachers in early childhood centers operate in a vastly different segment of the labor market than their elementary school peers. The majority work in private settings marked by rules, funding sources, and employer relationships distinct from those of public school teachers. Most importantly, they generally earn significantly lower wages and enjoy far fewer benefits than their counterparts in elementary schools. These two groups of workers are not even represented by the same unions. ...McCarthy suggests a structured and organized two-year apprenticeship program instead, which would lead to outside evaluations and a certificate of completion, and points to a pilot study in Philadelphia for evidence of workability. She makes a very strong case.
Degree requirements might change who qualifies for a job as a lead teacher for young children, but they can’t change the underlying realities of the labor market—and that is the real problem with degree requirements in early childhood education and other low-wage occupations. The way the early education market is structured, the costs of any degree requirement will be borne almost entirely by workers who will see little, if any, increase in wages. And college isn’t getting any cheaper. An average associate degree at a two-year public college costs around $9,500 a year. A bachelor’s degree from a
four-year public institution costs about $18,600 a year. That is a steep entry price for a profession where hourly wages average less than $10 an hour.
Requiring a college degree for early childhood education workers is not likely to raise wages for those workers.
"The working conditions of early educators, meanwhile, are also unlikely to be affected by a degree requirement. The system of funding in the early education field—not the perception of its teachers—is what drives its fragmentation and decentralization. A degree requirement will not make state and local school systems expand the size and scope of their early childhood education centers, where working conditions and pay tend to be better. Nor will it change how federal and state programs channel their funding for early education through a decentralized system of public and private early education centers. Unless those funding sources, particularly the public programs, move toward more school-based provision of early education, there is little reason to expect a degree requirement will spark a recalibration of the early education market."A college degree is an inefficient way to learn the specific jobs skills needed for a job working with very young children.
"A bachelor’s degree is a very time-consuming credential to earn. It is also a remarkably inefficient way to equip early educators with the knowledge, skills, and competencies outlined in the National Academies report and identified by key stakeholders like the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) and NAEYC [the National Association for the Education of Young Children] ..."Requiring a college degree for early childhood education would have the effect that those working in these positions are younger, whiter, and tend to come from families with higher income levels.
"In other words, we can expect that the workforce will become more stratified along race, income, and age. Early childhood educators holding degrees are more likely to be young and white, and educators without degrees more likely to be older and from communities of color. That is the case for our elementary teaching workforce, which is more than 80 percent white. A bachelor’s degree requirement has the potential to reduce the likelihood that children from low-income and racially diverse backgrounds will have teachers from their communities."I agree with the broad direction of McCarthy's proposal, but the application of this insight extends well beyond workers in early childhood education. A substantial number of those who graduate from high school have no reason to view additional academic classwork with anticipation or enjoyment. Throughout their K-12 school careers, they have mostly been in the bottom half, or bottom quarter, of the academic distribution. If a job requires additional years of classroom study, it will appear to them as a heavy burden and a strong discouragement. For many of these students, a well-structured rigorous learning-on-the-job program will be a more attractive option. Our economy needs more alternative career pathways that don't require piling up academic degrees as a starting point.