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Head Start Certification Law in Oklahoma Hits Snag

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A year-old Oklahoma law designed to permit some Head Start teachers to teach 4-year-olds in the public schools has run into roadblocks at the state education department, which says it cannot implement the measure until it resolves key salary issues.

The law, which experts say is the first of its kind in the nation, makes those who have been employed as early-childhood educators in a Head Start program for at least five years and have earned a Child Development Associate credential eligible for certification to teach children age 4 or younger in the public schools. The candidates also must pass the state early-childhood-certification test.

The C.D.A. is a credential awarded to child-care professionals through a federally sponsored, field-based system of individualized training, observation, and assessment based on competence standards set by early-childhood experts.

While in some states people with C.D.A.'s have been able to work under supervision in public pre-kindergarten programs, the Oklahoma law is believed to be the first to allow them to qualify for certification.

Source of Qualified Teachers

Although they recommend that such candidates still be urged to earn degrees, supporters say the law is a major step in recognizing the value of Head Start experience and ã.ä.á. training. Moving in that direction would ease the transition and improve coordination between Head Start and schools, supply personnel for the growing numbers of public school pre-K programs, and potentially serve more children, they suggest.

"Figuring out how we are going to find qualified teachers for what is an expanding area in the public schools is really an issue,'' said Sue Bredekamp, the director of professional development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

"What states are finding as they move into pre-K education is that the workforce in their state does exist with trained Head Start personnel,'' said Linda Likins, the director of government affairs for the National Head Start Association.

The Oklahoma law, Ms. Bredekamp said, not only acknowledges the need for specialized pre-K training but also recognizes "that there may be alternative ways of acquiring that competence.''

"I think this trend will be copied and followed by other states where child-care activists are trying to make it part of their agenda,'' said Marilyn Henry, the program-development director of the Council for Early-Childhood Professional Recognition, a group set up by the N.A.E.Y.C. that has managed the C.D.A. program since 1985.

"The reason we are expanding Head Start is because of its success,'' said Rep. Donald L. McCorkell Jr., the sponsor of the Oklahoma provision. "To turn around and say the people who made it a success are not qualified to teach is a little bit absurd.''

In Oklahoma, however, the law came as a "shock'' to some educators when it was tacked onto a teacher education measure at the end of the 1991 legislative session, noted Judy Franks Doebler, an early-childhood specialist for the state education department.

Lingering Salary Issues

The law has been eyed warily by some educators, who fear it could undermine the positions of teachers with bachelor's and master's degrees. Others have argued that it should be extended beyond Head Start to workers with comparable levels of experience and training in other preschool programs.

Another concern flagged by Ms. Bredekamp is that allowing schools to accept teachers without bachelor's degrees in pre-K programs could be used to "justify lower salaries'' to teachers of 4-year-olds.

Oklahoma education officials said last week that they have been working to resolve the question of how much Head Start teachers who become certified under the new law should be paid.

Data on how many Head Start teachers have taken and passed the certification test since the law was enacted in April 1991 were not available from the education department. But in one local program contacted for this article, eight teachers had taken the test and passed it, and 12 to 15 were planning to take it in February.

As of last week, however, no Head Start teacher had been granted certification.

The delay appears to stem in part from confusion or lack of information about the procedure for Head Start candidates to apply for certification. According to the education department, only a few candidates have formally applied.

While encouraging candidates to seek the department's help in applying, agency officials acknowledge that the main factor holding up certification for those who have applied is the salary issue.

"These are people who do not fit into the mold at all; they do not meet the regular standards for certification,'' said Ramona Paul, the assistant state superintendent for professional services.

The issue of salaries and benefits has taken time to work out but should be "settled very shortly,'' Ms. Paul added.

'Place for Both'

Oklahoma's comprehensive school-reform law, passed in 1990, gave school districts the option of offering programs for 4-year-olds and provided state formula aid for children who meet Head Start income criteria but are unable to enroll in Head Start.

In cases where the public schools contract with Head Start to provide programs for 4-year-olds, the salaries of Head Start teachers certified under the new law could be determined jointly by schools and Head Start programs, speculated Judy Towry, the director of the United Head Start program in Pawnee.

By supplementing Head Start money with state education aid, she added, such contracts would offer the chance to raise the salaries of Head Start workers employed in public school programs above their current wages, although not as high as entry-level teacher salaries.

The entry-level salary for an Oklahoma teacher in the 1992-93 school year is $20,460. A Head Start teacher working for nine months in the United Head Start program, by contrast, earns $9,306.

In addition to raising Head Start salaries, Ms. Towry suggested, some funds could be set aside under such contracts to help teachers pursue early-childhood-education degrees.

Joanne Hendrick, an emeritus associate professor of early-childhood education at the University of Oklahoma, said she supports the idea that teachers "doing the same work should receive the same pay.''

Ms. Hendrick expressed concern, however, that the law "might mean that school districts would go for the teacher who may end up being paid less because of this, and therefore other early-childhood teachers won't be employed to teach at the 4-year-old level.''

"There should be a place for both,'' said Ms. Hendrick, who serves on a state panel that is exploring establishing a career ladder that would offer incentives for early-childhood workers to advance in the field.

Some panel members also believe the law should be extended to recognize the experience of other early-care professionals, including those in private preschools, Ms. Hendrick said.

"We don't think it is fair just to restrict it to Head Start,'' she observed.

Ms. Doebler said state officials have been consulting with a wide range of early-childhood and child-care experts to come up with a career-ladder plan that would take into account both experience and educational levels.

Transitional Move

Ms. Paul said she supports the law as a "transitional move'' to improve collaboration between Head Start and the schools.

"The public schools can certainly benefit from the expertise Head Start persons bring,'' she said. But she emphasized that the department would still strongly encourage those seeking certification to pursue early-childhood degrees.

In addition to its K-8 certification, Oklahoma has offered a special early-childhood certification for teachers up to the 3rd-grade level since 1989. As of 1993, all kindergarten teachers will be required to hold such certificates.

Ms. Towry of the United Head Start program, which serves about 380 children in five counties, said all of the teachers in her program who are pursuing certification under the new law either hold or are working toward degrees.

"What they want is to have their knowledge validated by getting the certification,'' said Melba Douglas, an education specialist with the United Head Start program.

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