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States Upgrade Licensure for Pre-K Teachers

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Five years ago, all you needed to manage a squirming group of 3- and 4-year-olds in the preschool programs that have sprung up in many public elementary schools was a general degree in elementary education.

Teachers may have had to take a class or two in child development, but generally states did not require much training geared specifically toward the youngest of children.

However, after an increase in the number of schools offering pre-kindergarten and a wave of research deploring the lack of age-appropriate training in the early-childhood industry, many states are changing their ways.

Now, pre-kindergarten teachers in states such as Tennessee must complete a specialized degree program, at an approved university, that focuses on children from birth to age 3.

"The trend is definitely toward realizing that the preparation should be separate from an elementary degree and not just an add-on," said Sue Bredekamp, the director of professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Almost a dozen state legislatures have upgraded their licensing requirements for early-childhood teachers over the past several years or are in the process of doing so.

Since most preschool centers are not part of the public school system, the changes affect only a small portion of the child-care industry. But colleges and universities have followed the new requirements with comprehensive programs that could provide the infrastructure--and the model--for the entire workforce.

In 1993, 113 postsecondary institutions offered some kind of degree program in early-childhood education that met the standards of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. This year, there are 133.

Serving More Children

Early-childhood experts believe the licensing changes will make a dent in one of the biggest barriers to high-quality care.

Over the past several years, a number of studies have linked the overall mediocre level of services in the nation's child-care centers in part to a lack of professional training for workers. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1995.)

Early-childhood teachers in the public schools generally have had more training than those in other public and private centers, where requirements are less stringent. But advocates for young children are pushing for the requirements for public school teachers to become more specific and thorough.

"We have to understand that a 3-month-old's needs are different from a 3-year-old's needs and certainly from a 3rd grader's needs," said Earline Kendall, the director of teacher education at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College in Nashville, Tenn.

More than 30 states now serve 4-year-olds in the public schools, and some serve 3-year-olds.

A large percentage of these programs are for at-risk children. Many stem from efforts to comply with a federal law that requires states to provide an appropriate public education for all infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children with special-education needs.

"If history is any guide," said John M. Johnson, a professor of early-childhood education at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, "it won't be long before all parents will want those kinds of services for their children."

Leading the Way

In the context of such changing demographics, the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children has for years set rigorous standards for early-childhood teachers that span the development of children from birth to age 8.

About eight years ago, New Hampshire became one of the first states to align its early-childhood licensing requirements closely with those of the naeyc. A number of states have since made at least some effort to do the same, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

In Tennessee, Mr. Johnson said, the changes had a fairly easy sail through the state bureaucracy. In the late 1980s, the state school board decided to renew all of its teacher-licensing requirements and appointed a committee of early-childhood experts to write new standards. The board approved the changes in May 1990.

The standards Tennessee adopted for licensing teachers of pre-kindergarten through grade 3 parallel those of the naeyc--perhaps more than any other state's. They place special emphasis on knowledge of human development, child-centered activities that support growth and learning, the importance of family, child observation and assessment, and special-needs children.

Last year, Florida began to offer two different early-childhood licenses, also based on naeyc guidelines: one to teach children ages 3 to 8, and one to teach children from birth to age 4.

The state does not require pre-kindergarten teachers to have these licenses to teach in public schools. However, "there would be a preference for these teachers," said Jan McCarthy, the director of the Center for Child and Family Studies and a professor of early-childhood education at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

In other states, such as Pennsylvania, the road to licensure revision has not been an easy one. Earlier this month, advocates met with members of the state school board to discuss revisions in licensing requirements that failed in the legislature last year.

Becky Gorton, the coordinator of early-childhood education for Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa., said the state board was leaving the matter open for discussion. "When you have a more specific certification requirement, it makes it more difficult to move staff around in a building," she said. "It's not something that is particularly popular with school boards, unions, and political leaders."

A Catch-22

In Tennessee, observers are beginning to see results from the changes. "We're slowly beginning to fill up the system with teachers who think the new way and have the new skills," said Mr. Johnson.

But while advocates expect such changes to make a big difference in public schools, they will directly influence only a fraction of all preschool centers nationwide.

About 11 million children attend preschools, child-care centers, and family child-care homes. Of those centers, only about 8 percent are part of the public school system, according to researchers at Wheelock College in Boston.

The rest are regulated by state agencies and are generally subject only to basic health and safety standards. Workers in these settings are seldom required to hold more than a high school diploma or its equivalent.

"It's a sorry situation," said Anne Mitchell, a policy analyst for her New York City-based company, Early Childhood Policy Research. "Even your beautician has to have a license."

Changing these requirements might seem a simple cure for poor quality. But experts say such efforts are inevitably stunted by a kind of Catch-22: While there is an urgent need to improve training for early-childhood professionals, there is virtually no possibility of compensating them with increased pay.

Salaries are restricted by what parents can afford for services, and the resulting low pay leaves little financial incentive or opportunity for workers to seek professional development.

A few notable improvements have occurred over the years. This summer, a Florida law took effect that requires every child-care center to have at least one staff member with a Child Development Associate Credential, a nationally recognized program for caregivers, for every 20 children. And Massachusetts and Wisconsin now have registries that track the credentials of child-care workers in those states.

Generally, though, "we're getting what we pay for," said Ms. Kendall of Peabody College. "I don't think we have any chance [of improving child care] until we get federal support."

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