This blog post was originally published by New America and the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO).

High-quality early learning requires a high-quality workforce with specialized knowledge and skills. To better support this under-resourced and complex workforce, state education agencies (SEAs) and state boards of education can use their policy levers to investigate and influence workforce quality in four areas: qualifications and licensure, preparation programs, professional development, and compensation. And they can leverage provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to advance changes in their states.

There are many obstacles to building a high-quality workforce: inadequate career advancement opportunities, lack of effective professional development, inconsistent policies and standards across different settings from birth to age eight due to varied funding streams, low wages and benefits, and low public perceptions of teachers’ skill sets.

In most states, it doesn’t take much to become an early childhood teacher. Among the 43 states and DC with state-funded pre-K, only 23 require lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree. Outside the state pre-K programs, only a few states require child development associate credentials or vocational training. Most states require only a high school diploma or nothing at all. Before they change policies affecting the early education workforce, however, state policymakers must understand what core competencies are needed and what resources they can provide to help educators attain those competencies and become highly qualified.

 ESSA opens up great opportunities to support this workforce. For the first time, early childhood educators are included in the definition of professional development under Title II. The U.S. Department of Education released nonregulatory early learning guidance on ESSA last year urging SEAs and districts to take advantage of the law’s opportunities to support these educators—particularly through use of funds under Title I, II, and III to support professional development.

As of May 2017, 16 states and the District of Columbia had submitted their plans for implementing ESSA. Eight of these proposed early learning workforce investments: Arizona, Delaware, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey, and Oregon. In this post, I’ll highlight four states. 

Louisiana developed and adopted new teacher preparation competencies in October 2016, including early childhood education competencies. To help teacher preparation providers and their preK-12 partners transition to the new requirements, Louisiana will use Title II funds to organize biannual community meetings on establishing strong district preparation partnerships and on developing competency-based teacher preparation programs that include a year-long teaching residency. This summer, Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will also consider a five-year plan for transitioning to a teacher preparation accountability system that rewards preparation programs placing year-long teaching residents in rural and high-need schools. 

Michigan is developing a statewide system to align professional development for educators serving children from birth to age eight. They want to use Title II to develop on-demand professional learning modules for all early childhood educators. Michigan also encourages its districts to apply Title II, Part A subgrants toward collaborations with professional learning providers that support educators in the birth to third grade space. Michigan’s plan is noteworthy in its calls for greater pay equity for the early childhood workforce. It encourages districts to blend or braid state and federal resources (e.g., Child Care Development Fund, ESSA Title II, state funding, etc.) to solve the deeply rooted pay parity issue. Michigan is one of the NASBE Network Statesthat will develop a framework to strengthen the state’s early childhood education workforce.

The chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, James Meeks, recently said during an NASBE webinar that the board was keen to ensure through their ESSA plan that children in Illinois are ready to enter kindergarten. Illinois is committed to using Title I and II dollars to develop resources that support early learning environments and aid in transitions throughout the preK-16 continuum. Their plan highlighted school leaders’ and administrators’ needs for knowledge of child development, pedagogical content and practice, and differentiation of instruction. The Illinois state board will offer resources emphasizing school leaders’ roles as instructional leaders, particularly for teachers in the early grades.

Oregon aligned its ESSA plan with the 2016 Educator Advancement Report, which promotes a seamless system across the pre-K and early elementary grades. A high level of commitment to supporting Oregon’s preK-12 educators infuses the state’s plan. Oregon seeks to link early learning providers with the K-3 public school systems, and it wants to invest in developmentally appropriate, culturally responsive, and aligned professional learning across preK-12. The state will invest in induction and mentoring programs, and it will increase scholarships to recruit linguistically and culturally diverse educators. Oregon also will offer in-service training to strengthen early childhood standards alignment and early literacy.

With their public commitments to the early learning workforce, these states underscore the central importance of early childhood education. We hope more states will make similar commitments to early learning in their ESSA plans to support educators in round two, set for submission in September. For now, these early plans are undergoing peer review with the U.S. Department of Education.

Even more important than the public commitments in ESSA plans, for analysts and advocates, will be maintaining a watchful eye on implementation in the 2017–18 school year. This summer, 17 states will hold ESSA trainings for district superintendents and teachers, a critical step for getting the right message out and making ESSA successful.

Winona Hao, project manager, manages NASBE’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) work. You can reach her with any questions or comments at winona.hao@nasbe.org.