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Published in Print: July 10, 2002, as Early-Childhood Advocates Seek A Stronger Alliance With Higher Ed.

Early-Childhood Advocates Seek A Stronger Alliance With Higher Ed.

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Year after year, they greet each other at the same conferences, and peruse the same research papers. They bemoan the same budget woes, and decry the same political setbacks.

But if they don't eventually sell their ideas to new sets of decisionmakers, some early-childhood advocates argued forcefully at a recent summit here, they will never get what they want: access to school for more children before they reach kindergarten, and higher standards for what they are taught.

Forging new alliances—specifically with the nation's colleges and universities—was a front-and-center theme at the June 24 gathering of experts in the field, called "Joining Forces: The Role of Higher Education in Preparing the Early Childhood Workforce."

Four-year colleges can provide the academic degrees and training needed to help professionalize an early-childhood field sorely lacking that expertise, many of the attendees said.

The trick is convincing colleges they can help, without having to overhaul their course schedules, curricula, or admissions policies to accommodate new students.

"There is clearly a sense that if higher education were to somehow embrace early- childhood education as part of its mission, we could certainly enhance the quality of teaching," said Ann Lieberman, a visiting professor at Stanford University and a well-known author on K-12 education, who attended the conference.

"At the same time, we [hear] people talking about how we have to be realistic," she said. "I'm for small wins, rather than trying to shoot for the moon."

Four-Year Degrees

The barriers to improving preschool education are well-documented. Funding for such programs is often spotty, despite research showing their importance in helping children later in school, many experts say. Government support varies from state to state, as do requirements on teaching standards and for what is taught in class.

To make matters worse, early-childhood-education programs typically pay much less than K-12 teaching jobs. As a result, finding good instructors is a struggle. And experts say luring minority teachers, and those fluent in Spanish, is becoming more crucial than ever.

While many community colleges already offer associate's degrees in fields leading to early-childhood teaching, advocates say four-year institutions need to provide programs, too.

Adding four-year degrees would give aspiring teachers an opportunity to advance professionally, supporters of the idea say, rather than regarding early-childhood teaching positions as dead-end jobs.

Some efforts already under way gave the people meeting in New York City hope.

In New Mexico, for example, aspiring early- childhood teachers can earn four-year degrees at five state universities, as part of an effort that emerged from cooperation by state officials, the academic community, and other organizations.

Nancy Baptiste

Teachers who attend a community college are encouraged to seek four-year degrees in specialized early-childhood fields, and later pursue master's and doctoral degrees, said Nancy Baptiste, an assistant professor of early- childhood education at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

New Mexico has no statewide policy requiring early-childhood teachers to have licenses, but supporters say the current program is raising teaching standards across the board, according to Ms. Baptiste.

"A lot of it has to do with perceptions—too many people still call early-childhood education babysitting, and say, 'Why do people need a degree?'" she said. "Our program is growing by leaps and bounds."

'Have a Strategy'

The educators, state officials, and policy gurus who gathered here wish more states would follow New Mexico's example. But they also acknowledge that colleges and universities harbor many questions about offering early-childhood degrees.

For instance, higher education officials worry about having to change admissions requirements to accommodate students seeking such degrees, or to shuffle course schedules to accommodate students with children or those who work.

In addition, colleges and universities do not have a good history of supporting changes in state and federal policy that would force them to rethink their missions, one national observer at the conference argued.

Two of the 20th century's most sweeping initiatives to improve access to college—the GI Bill and the creation of the Pell Grant program—met with resistance from many colleges at the time they were adopted, said Pat Callan, the executive director of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, in San Jose, Calif. The nonpartisan organization's aim is to improve the performance and accessibility of colleges.

"Major changes in higher education have drawn major opposition, historically, from people who thought it would lower standards," Mr. Callan said.

Congress is slated to reauthorize the Higher Education Act next year, and early-childhood advocates could try to secure some funding or policy changes during that process, he said.

But competition for federal dollars will be fierce, Mr. Callan predicted, and advocates for early education would be well-advised to be "focused, disciplined, and have a strategy."

Vol. 21, Issue 42, Page 16

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