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Helping Solve Illinois' Early Childhood Teacher Shortage

by Tom Hanlon / Feb 16, 2022

Early Childhood educator and student

The College of Education is part of a statewide consortium offering new pathways for early childhood professionals to attain their bachelor’s degrees to address a shortage of early childhood educators.

A new bill was signed into law this past summer to combat a shortage of early childhood educators in Illinois.

The bill, co-sponsored by Education at Illinois alumna State Senator Cristina Pacione-Zayas, streamlines the process to earn a bachelor’s degree, thereby increasing the number of teachers.

“The bill targets eight thousand working early childhood education professionals in the state with AAS or AA degrees in early childhood education, and creates a pathway to a bachelor’s degree for these adults working in the field,” says Nancy Latham, associate dean for Undergraduate Programs and Teacher Education in the College of Education.

“This degree pathway will build on the participant’s associate’s degree and Illinois Gateways Level Four credential by providing the professional training needed for Illinois Professional Educator Licensure and/or the Illinois Gateways Level Five credential,” Latham says.

Statewide Consortium Formed

The Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) formed a statewide higher education consortium of two- and four-year institutions to determine the education model and curriculum that is optimal for the final two years of study in early childhood education. In addition, the IBHE is asking institutions involved to increase current enrollment in early childhood education programs by 60 to 80 percent by 2025.

Dean (Jim) Anderson, a strong early childhood advocate, communicated from the beginning his objective that UIUC be the model for this innovative programming and commit high with an 80 percent increase from our current ECE program enrollment,” Latham says. “This means by 2025, we need 144 students in our pipeline. That’s a massive increase, but it’s an important project for the early childhood education workforce and our state, and we believe UIUC should be the model.”

Early Childhood Program Created

To facilitate the undertaking, the College has created an Early Childhood Professional Education Program (ECPE), which is part of the bill, known as the Illinois Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity Act. The College has hired Anne Pradzinski as program director.

“I am very excited about the Early Childhood Professional Education program,” Pradzinski says. “The program will provide a pathway for early childhood professionals to earn additional credentials and a bachelor’s degree, as well as providing opportunities to improve their own instructional practices. For a variety of reasons, many individuals in the early childhood field have been unable to advance beyond their current credentials. This program will help to remove some of those barriers and will provide them with supports to better enable them to successfully complete their degrees.”

The College, Latham says, is creating two 60-hour pathways. “One will lead to a bachelor’s degree in early childhood with a licensure in early childhood. The other will lead to a bachelor’s degree without the licensure,” she says. “Both paths will lead to the Illinois Gateways Level Five credential.”

“Different positions require different levels of credentials in the state of Illinois,” Pradzinski explains. “Holding the professional educator’s license enables early childhood graduates to work in public school systems in grades preK-2. However, not all early childhood professionals are interested in working in these grades or in public schools, so by giving them the option of a non-licensure track, they may not be required to meet some of the state licensure requirements while still earning the Gateways Level 5 credential, which will enable them to be lead teachers in other early childhood classrooms.”

The ECPE classes will be all online, eight-week classes, with both synchronous and asynchronous features. “We also will have remote clinical supervision, so hopefully students can do their clinicals anywhere in the state,” Latham says.

A leadership team of Latham, Sarah McCarthey (department head and professor in Curriculum & Instruction), Micki Ostrosky (Grayce Wicall Gauthier Professor of Education in Special Education), Stephanie Sanders-Smith (associate professor in Curriculum & Instruction), and Pradzinski is working on curriculum revisions now.

“We are revising some of our current coursework, and we have also added some new courses to the current program offerings that will build upon the coursework the students will have already completed through their associate’s degree programs,” Pradzinski says.

Latham projects a “soft admit” for the pathway classes in the fall of 2022, with an “absolute, all-in starting in spring of 2023.”

Significant Scholarship Backing

The state is backing this bill with a $200 million scholarship investment from American Rescue Plan Act funds. “This is one of the most incredible scholarships that I’ve ever seen,” Latham says. “The scholarship money can be used to pay full tuition, to pay fees, housing, childcare, stipends, for substitutes if somebody has to be in a clinical. If people owe on their associate’s degree, it can pay for that. I’ve never seen funding support that tries to get all the financial barriers for a person out of the way.”

Positive Impact on Early Childhood Education

Latham is hopeful the bill will have a positive impact on early childhood education.

“It has the potential to do some really innovative, precedent-setting things,” she says. “When we start legislating teacher licensure, that can get pretty scary, but it is going to move a needle that has been trying to move for years as far as giving more people access to opportunities they have not had before. It’s moving the needle on that exponentially.”

Still, Latham notes, the big elephant in the room—salary—remains. “Students prepared in this program will be competitive for school district positions as well as positions outside of education that offer significantly higher salaries and benefits,” Latham says.

“So, I don’t know if this is going to completely solve the problem, but it is going to serve this population well. And it’s going to serve the state of Illinois workforce well.

“I hope we see great things come out of this.”