“Rockstar Successful.” Why Early Ed Funders Are Backing This Unique Approach to Training Educators

Photo courtesy of Edvance College

There isn’t an easy fix for the crisis in early childhood education, but removing the obstacles facing early educators would get us at least part of the way there. EDvance College was created to tear down some of those barriers by making it easier and more affordable for early educators to earn a bachelor’s degree while remaining in the workforce.

The program aims to boost the supply of qualified early educators in California and beyond. Incubated at San Francisco State University and spun off as an independent 501(c)(3) in 2022, EDvance recently received accreditation from the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC). Because of its laser focus on educators themselves and an evidence-based approach that boasts a 95% graduation rate, the program is attracting prominent funders of K-12 education.

The Heising-Simons Foundation, which prioritizes young children (birth to age eight), is a committed EdVance backer, and has been for a number of years. The foundation has trained its sights specifically on the ECE workforce; it is a partner in the Early Educator Investment Collaborative, as IP has reported, and supports early education teacher preparation programs serving Native American communities. Heising-Simons is also part of a consortium of funders called Practioners’ Voice California, which recently unveiled a $2 million initiative “to build up the leadership power of early childhood practitioners” in the state.

“Being an early childhood teacher is incredibly complex work, and there is a failure in our system right now to recognize and value and compensate that complex work that really sets a trajectory for the rest of a child's life,” said September Jarrett, education program officer at Heising-Simons. “We are really bought in with EDvance because they’re doing things that there’s a strong evidence and experience base for, but aren't yet happening at scale. They are offering programs that are relevant to the current early childhood workforce, meeting people where they're at and offering rigorous, relevant theory and practice-based learning.”

Other EDvance supporters include Crankstart Foundation, the booming foundation of Bay Area billionaire Michael Moritz; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a longtime backer of children and families; the Harold L. Wyman Foundation, the Mimi and Peter Haas Fund, Silver Giving Foundation and Tides Foundation. A number of other early education funders also make educators a priority, including the Ballmer Group, the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Foundation for Child Development — and for good reason.

Our early childhood education system has not kept up with the latest science of brain development, which demonstrates the importance of the earliest years of life. We now know that babies’ brains are rapidly growing learning machines, and that quality early care — or a lack thereof — has lifelong implications. Early educators are an essential component to quality care, yet they remain undervalued and underpaid, while facing haphazard preparation and inconsistent certification requirements. 

An influential 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council found that: “Despite their shared objective of nurturing and securing the future success of young children, these [early childhood educators]... work in disparate systems, and the expectations and requirements for their preparation and credentials have not kept pace with what the science of child development and early learning indicates children need.” 

At the same time, poor working conditions for early educators undermine their wellbeing and financial security, and contribute to a serious teacher shortage. Many early educators left the profession during the pandemic, when sporadic lockdowns and increased hygiene and safety requirements made their jobs even more unstable and difficult. Many others lost their jobs when facilities closed down. A Politico report found that there were nearly 58,000 fewer child care workers in January 2023 than February 2020, threatening ambitious plans in California and other states to expand early care.

A relatively young effort, EDvance has a bold mission: “To create an ecosystem of equity-driven teachers, leaders and change agents working to transform the future of our children and communities.” 

Educating the early educators 

Today, most state-subsidized preschools require lead teachers to have a bachelor's degree, as do HeadStart Programs. Such requirements are intended to ensure that early educators are well prepared, but they also create obstacles that many find difficult to navigate. Early childhood educators are disproportionately women of color; many are from low-income families, and many are English-language learners. For most, earning a degree while working full time and juggling family responsibilities can be a long and winding road.

Lygia Stebbing, who founded EDvance and is now CEO, said that many early childhood educators spend years taking classes without earning a degree. She describes one EDvance student who immigrated from Honduras and was an English learner. She took classes at community college for nearly two decades. After enrolling in EDvance, she got her BA and went on to earn a doctorate.

EDvance works to ease the pathway to a degree for early childhood educators in a number of ways. Classes are held in the evenings and online to accommodate work schedules and family demands. Students receive college credit for their work in early care settings, which expedites the degree process. 

In addition, EDvance classes are contextualized, meaning they relate directly to early education. “When you think about general education requirements, typically, you might take a math class like advanced algebra,” Stebbing said. “What we offer instead is math for educators: That is, what type of math do you need to know, and how do you directly apply it in the classroom? Or with a written communication course — rather than writing about Shakespeare, a student might be looking at social determinants of health in young children and writing about that.”

EDvance students have access to tutoring, academic and career advising, and a community of peers. Finally, EDvance provides grants and scholarships to make school affordable; now that the program is accredited, students will also be able to apply for financial aid. 

“Prior to EDvance, I spent almost a decade trying to complete a bachelor’s degree, but it was impossible to work and attend school at the same time,” said student Loren Smith in a recent EDvance announcement. “EDvance allows me to keep my job at The Community School, Grace Cathedral, and to attend remote classes in the evenings. There is so much support along the way, and now I will be able to complete my degree within two years.”

EDvance has an impressive track record in terms of student achievement: The graduation rate was 95% and students’ average GPA was 3.48 while the program was still part of San Francisco State University. EDvance doesn’t have complete student data as an independent organization because students are only now completing their second semester.

September Jarrett of Heising-Simons calls EDvance “‘rockstar successful.’ They are creating pathways to a degree that are customized to the workforce, and graduating high-quality teachers in a short amount of time.” she said. “That’s huge.” 

Ecosystem of change agents

Today, EDvance operates in San Francisco and Alameda counties, and is working to expand into San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, and to the Central Valley after that. The program has more applicants than it has slots, and the model has attracted interest from around the country. Stebbing hopes to see the program scale nationally, which will require considerable financial support. 

“We really need a lot of general operating support right now,” she said. “We're looking to raise $3 million this year for our infrastructure build. Our ability to be able to scale and grow and meet the demand will be predicated upon how quickly and efficiently and effectively we build the infrastructure. The more support we get for infrastructure, the quicker we can scale and grow.”

Heising-Simons’ support for EDvance totaled $1.25 million since 2021, including investments to help EDvance become a standalone nonprofit and earn its accreditation. The foundation has offered general operating support and helped EDvance build its organizational capacity by supporting executive coaching for Stebbing and her executive team. “This has been an opportunity to make a bet on a program that’s working and help it scale,” Jarrett said.

Jarrett hopes other funders will bet on EDvance, too. “EDvance’s limits right now are resources. There are more communities that want to partner with this model than they have resources to serve. Our field can benefit from more philanthropic investment in best practice models to prepare early educators efficiently and affordably. There are some bright spots out there in terms of teacher preparation, but they are few and far between, and they're generating only a small numbers of graduates.”

Stebbing and Jarrett and most of those working in early education rarely forget the gigantic elephant in the room, and that is the matter of compensation. How can we build a pipeline of diverse and qualified early educators when the sector doesn’t provide a living wage? Over the last few years, the media has featured stories of early educators leaving their jobs for higher paying positions at fast food restaurants and big-box stores. And it’s hard to blame them. According to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, early educators make $27,000 on average, putting child care workers in the lowest 2% of jobs, and leaving many relying on social services to make ends meet.

Lygia Stebbing believes EDvance and other efforts to streamline and improve early educator preparation will, over time, help boost wages. But she knows it will likely take more than that — which is why EDvance includes an advocacy component as part of its curriculum. 

“Many early childhood teacher preparation programs just focus on teaching in the classroom,” she said. “At EDvance, we talk about policy and how to testify and write letters to lawmakers. We want to create an ecosystem of change agents who understand policy on a local, state and federal level. And know how to organize and advocate. We’re trying to field advocates for fair wages, fair pay, and to raise awareness about the importance of early childhood.”