Do Preschool Teachers Really Need a Bachelor’s Degree?

To our readers: Today GoodCall® wraps up its two-part examination of the ongoing shortage of teachers in the U.S. On Wednesday, writer Terri Williams examined the causes of the shortage and a potential solution starting at the high school level. Now Terri looks at the other end of the spectrum – preschool – with a question to education experts: Do preschool teachers need a bachelor’s degree?


The U.S. doesn’t just need teachers for students in kindergarten through 12th grades. Younger kids need teachers, too. But there’s an ongoing debate over exactly how much training they need. Specifically, how necessary is it for preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree?

Some of the debate revolves around money: The average salary for teachers with a bachelor’s degree who teach preschool for ages 0 to 3 is $27,200. It’s $28,900 for ages 3 to 5, and $33,000 for Head Start teachers. For grads with student loan debt, that’s not a lot to live on while paying back borrowed funds. In fact, these salaries are below the U.S. median annual wage ($37,040) for all occupations – including those that don’t require any degree.

So should preschool teachers be required to have a bachelor’s degree?

All the experts GoodCall® spoke with responded with a resounding, “Yes,” to the question about having a bachelor’s degree. Pamela J. Winton, Ph.D., senior scientist at the FPG Child Development Institute, and research professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells GoodCall®, “The early years are so incredibly important, and I’m concerned that we don’t value those early years and the level of development that takes place.”

Winton believes that children have a right to a high-quality education at every level. “All of the research points to the benefits of high quality teaching in the role of learning, and a part of that includes quality teachers.”

Development during the preschool years lays the foundation for the rest of that individual’s’ life. Dr. Lisa J. Lucas is an associate professor and graduate coordinator of early and middle grades education, and a faculty associate for the Teaching, Learning and Assessment Center at West Chester University. She tells GoodCall®, “The formative years are proven to be critical for the development and success of the child – no time in a child’s life is more important.”

In fact, Lucas says, “Neuroscience research confirms that development of a child’s brain in the first five years of life is more rapid and intensive and vulnerable to external influences than in any other time in their development.”

If this is the case, shouldn’t preschool teachers have a thorough understanding of the dynamics of early childhood education? “Every child should have the opportunity to be taught by a professional who is well versed in child development, appropriate practices, and can design opportunities for meaningful experiences for children to learn, grow and develop in an appropriate learning environment,” Lucas says.

A recent study by the University of Chicago reveals that children from low-income families who are exposed to quality child care have better outcomes. The study tracked children from birth to the age of 35 years old, and found that those who were exposed to daily educational activities (and healthy meals) out earned their peers who attended lower-quality preschool programs.

However, a high-quality program requires a higher caliber of teacher. And the best way to ensure the quality of preschool teachers is to provide a standard path – including a bachelor’s degree. Catherine Prudhoe, PhD, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the early childhood education program at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. She tells GoodCall®, “The general consensus is that early childhood teachers with a bachelor’s degree in ECE, or a related field such as Child Development, tend to be more knowledgeable about how young children develop and about ways to facilitate their learning that match their developmental abilities.”

The pay issue

But if preschool teachers need a bachelor’s degree, shouldn’t their pay reflect that need? “They should definitely get more than they’re being paid now,” Winton says. “Programs like Head Start are trying to increase standards by raising requirements, and if teachers get those degrees, they can leave for higher paying jobs.”

Winton says that some states are addressing pay equity and there are some promising movements afoot such as Power to the Profession, sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young People, that are trying to strengthen standards and increase wages.

However, overall, the current state of salaries for preschool teachers reveals serious problems.

“It shows how little the U.S. values the important work [early childhood education] teachers do,” Prudhoe says.  “It also may reflect that the vast majority of ECE teachers are women.” College majors dominated by women tend to pay less than those dominated by men. However, Lisa Kaess, founder and producer of Feminomics, tells GoodCall® that professions dominated by women also tend to be valued less than those primarily populated by men.

“The salaries for ECE teachers come directly from tuition paid by parents and the dilemma is affordability vs. quality,” Prudhoe explains. “If the government subsidized care and education for birth through five years old the way it does for K-12, then ECE teachers could earn salaries equal to public school teachers.” However, Prudhoe says she doesn’t see this happening in the near future.

In the meantime, parents are continuing to ask women to pursue their passion for preschool education, even though this path barely leads to a living wage and is consistently ranked on the list of the degrees leading to the lowest-paying jobs for college grads. While passion should be considered when choosing a major, it’s important to remember that landlords, mortgage companies, grocers, and car dealerships aren’t likely to provide a discount to noble employees who followed their passions.

“Whether or not pre-schools should be staffed by practitioners with bachelor’s degrees isn’t the question,” Lucas concludes. “The real question is why our society would condone paying so very little to those that are working with our most valuable resources – our children.”