The Council for Professional Recognition has reached a new milestone: We recently issued the millionth Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential.
High schoolers who earn a CDA give us high hopes for the future of our field. That is especially true if they’re as committed to children as Jada Vargas. Our millionth CDA is an 18-year-old from Arizona and a member of the Apache Tribe who graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School last May. Now she urges other high school students to also earn their CDA. It takes some work, she admits, “but it’s so worth it” if you share Jada’s passion for serving our youngest learners.
“Earning my CDA taught me new and different ways to work effectively in the classroom, so I continued pushing myself each day—and last month I finally received my CDA certificate in the mail.” This cause for celebration also showed Jada that persistence pays off. “If you keep going forward, you will see the benefit of your CDA journey to a career in ECE.”
Foundations of the Child Development Associate Credential
This is an achievement no one would have imagined when an educator named Margaret E. Wright was awarded the first CDA in 1975.
Qualified and credentialed educators like Wright filled a crucial need following the launch of Head Start, the massive federal program to advance equity in early learning for all young children, especially those from the many underserved communities nationwide. Achieving our equity goals depends on teachers with the competence to help children learn and be ready for school.
“We must develop a middle-level profession to care for our country’s children,” Edward R. Zigler, director of the U.S. Office of Child Development and architect of the CDA told the National Association for the Education of Young Children at its annual meeting in 1971.
Zigler went on to explain, “The need for the Child Development Associate, an individual who has not had as much scholastic training as those with college degrees but nevertheless has the competencies to care independently for children, is central to a major issue in child care. Are we going to provide the children of this nation with developmental child care or are we going to provide them merely with babysitting?”—a question that has come to strike an even deeper chord in the decades since then.
Benefits and Barriers to Quality Teacher Training
Over the years, education leaders have explored the training and traits that prepare teachers to work successfully with young children. The formation of the CDA was a pioneering response to the roadblocks we faced in building a highly qualified early childhood workforce for our nation. The need for systematic training of child care providers has always been tremendous. “Providing child care is a profession,” insisted Ellen Galinsky, a child care specialist with Bank Street College. The New York institution administered the CDA in its early years before the Council took the helm in 1985. “Child care,” she explained “is a profession that requires a solid background in such fundamentals of child development as knowing what curriculum is appropriate to a particular age group, the basics of health and safety, and how to form effective partnerships with parents.”
Teachers wanted these skills but faced challenges accessing training that would prepare them fully for the early childhood classroom. There can be multiple barriers for adult learners with family and full-time jobs. One such constraint is the insecurity and uncertainty felt by first-generation who may not know if they can complete college coursework. Teachers, especially those of color, might also face cultural and language barriers to improving their qualifications. Many can’t afford the investment of money and time required to earn a college degree in early education. In addition, many training programs don’t connect theory and real-life practice in ways that would make teachers ready on day one in the early childhood classroom. There is a “danger,” according to education reformer John Dewey, “of creating an undesirable split between the experience gained in more direct associations and what is acquired in school.”
CDA addressed this split by providing an efficient, cost-effective, and engaging way to boost the ranks of the early childhood workforce. The CDA requires candidates to gain 480 hours of experience in the classroom, besides taking 120 hours of coursework either in person or online, so CDA holders know the demands of a real-world classroom and increasingly have what it takes to meet them.
According to a recent Council survey, 87 percent of CDA holders feel more prepared for the classroom because they’ve gained a foundation in early learning and best practices for the profession. “The CDA was a wonderful way to get into my current position“and get into the job market I wanted to be in,” one teacher shared in a recent focus group with the Council,
In response to our 2023 survey, 79 percent of owners and directors find that CDA holders are more prepared for the classroom. The top benefits of earning a CDA, according to these respondents, are increased knowledge of evidence-based practices, specialized knowledge of child development, and readiness to handle difficult classroom situations. Center owners and directors emphasized, “CDA holders appear to be better at interacting with children and communicating with parents,” one focus group participant stated, “They also stay on the job longer and seem more committed to their work.”
CDAs have the skills employers need now. Council is a pioneer in career development and credentialing, ensuring the training teachers receive is in tune with the latest trends. Today, the rest of the world is also acknowledging the necessity of credentials.
Investing in the Future of Early Child Care
By 2016, what the Chronicle of Higher Education christened the “credentials craze” in early child care, was in full swing. Education policy leaders at the federal level and beyond began exploring the growing role of competency-based education, as demand boomed for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and educational platforms like Coursera and 2U. Concurrently, employers seeking to reduce the employment opportunity gap among communities of color turned toward skills-based hiring over degree-based decisions.
The forces that drove interest in new credentials have grown even stronger: the increasing cost of traditional degrees, the demand for more practical skills, and employers’ need to find new pipelines of talent—a strong force in the understaffed early childhood field. There’s now a push for continued professional growth so employees keep investing in their education and updating their skills. Remote learning is on the rise, especially for working adults.
There’s more recognition of the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, with an emphasis on advancing communities that are underserved. True to our mission, the Council is committed to ensuring equity for all children and for the teachers who provide them with the quality learning they need.
These teachers have shown their commitment to the CDA even in recent years as COVID drove the early learning field into crisis. Applications to renew the credential remained strong and even spiked several times from 2020 to 2022. Additionally, support for the credential is especially strong in Puerto Rico, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, Wyoming, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and Washington, DC. Each of these 10 U.S. states and territories has embedded the CDA in their child care licensure and career ladder for professionals in the early learning field. In Florida, for example, a law that took effect way back in 1995 requires every child care center to have at least one staff member with a CDA. In Washington, D.C., a 2016 law mandates that all assistant teachers must have a CDA.
More scholarships and support are making it easier for teachers to earn a valued credential that can help advance their careers. Oregon provides training and technical assistance to help assistant teachers obtain their CDAs within two years of hire. The Council for Professional Recognition and the Maryland State Department of Education are now partnering to provide thousands of the state’s early childhood teachers with financial support to help them earn or renew their CDA. These financial awards will cover application and other fees, as well as books required for the program, and the state considers this a wise investment in the future.
The goal of the grant is to build the pipeline of Maryland teachers, and another step toward boosting the early childhood workforce is the high school CDA. It helps young folks imagine a productive future at a time when they’re searching for a path from high school to careers. The CDA helps them take their first steps into the early learning field because it “provides you with knowledge if you have no knowledge of child care,” as one novice teacher said in our recent survey. And many young people agree. The number of CDA earners between 18 and 34 has been increasing, in part because high school CTE programs have ramped up their CDA instruction in the past few years. This means that students can graduate career-ready for a field that urgently needs staff.
The Council continues its journey by taking steps to improve the credentialing process for the CDA. We’re now reimagining the CDA to turn the child care crisis into an opportunity for the early learning field by helping more rising teachers reach a personal milestone: earning a CDA—and we’re not doing it alone. Nearly 5,500 members of our CDA community lent their voices and views on ways to bring more equity, ease, and access to the CDA process. The crisis has brought us together as a community and crystallized our resolve to make the CDA fulfill its enduring purpose—ignite the imagination and instill the love of learning in all young children. A million CDAs have already done this, and their hard work has led to a historical milestone for our pioneering credential. Here’s to a million more!