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New Rules For Pre-K

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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 few states required much training geared specifically toward the youngest children. That is now changing. An increase in the number of schools offering prekindergarten and a wave of research deploring the lack of age-appropriate training in the child-care industry have led almost a dozen state legislatures to upgrade their licensing requirements for early childhood teachers or to begin doing so.

In Tennessee, for example, prekindergarten teachers must now 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,'' says Sue Bredekamp, director of professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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 work force. 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, that number jumped to 133.

National experts believe the licensing changes will make a dent in one of the biggest barriers to high-quality care: poor professional training. 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,'' says Earline Kendall, 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,'' says John 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.''

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--Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, among them--have since made at least some effort to do the same.

The standards Tennessee adopted parallel those of the NAEYC perhaps more than any other. 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. Observers there are starting 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,'' Johnson says.

But while advocates expect such changes to make a big difference in public schools, they will directly influence only a fraction of preschool centers nationwide. About 11 million children attend preschools, child-care centers, and family child-care homes. Only about 8 percent of the facilities are part of the public school system. 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.

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.

"We're getting what we pay for,'' says 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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