Study: Pre-K Teachers Need 4 Years of College

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The best action policymakers can take to foster high-quality prekindergarten programs is to make sure classrooms are led by teachers with four-year degrees, preferably with a concentration in teaching young children, concludes a report released last week.

The report's conclusions have significant implications for the reauthorization of the federal Head Start program, which is currently awaiting action in the Senate, said Amy Wilkins, the executive director of the Trust for Early Education, the Washington-based advocacy group that commissioned the study.

"What we know about Head Start kids and all poor kids is that vocabulary is a big building block toward later literacy skills," Ms. Wilkins said during a conference call with reporters.

As a consequence, she said, it's important to get teachers with "big fat" vocabularies who speak in more complex sentences to work with those children.

The report is an analysis of eight research studies on preschool quality.

"The evidence to date suggests that the most effective teaching in center-based settings and the skill and knowledge that defines it, are best achieved through a four-year college degree, which includes specialized content in early-childhood education or child development," writes Marcy Whitebook, the author of the report. She is the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, located at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ms. Whitebook's report cites research showing that adults with associate's degrees are twice as likely to have less-than-competent literacy skills than adults who have bachelor's degrees.

A Republican-sponsored bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives over the summer—called the School Readiness Act—would require half of all Head Start teachers to have four-year degrees by 2008, and the rest of them to have two-year degrees.

While Head Start advocates generally welcome efforts to improve teacher quality, they criticize the bill as lacking authorization of additional funds to pay teachers higher wages for completing four years of college. And they estimate that it would take $2 billion over five years for 50 percent of Head Start teachers to have salaries comparable to those of public school teachers.

Head Start Debates

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., has introduced a bill in the Senate that would also require higher credentials for teachers. But his proposed Head Start School Readiness and Coordination Act would provide additional money to act as an incentive to keep better-trained teachers from leaving the program.

Sen. Dodd's bill has been referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

But Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who chairs the committee, would still prefer to have a bipartisan bill to bring before the other members, Erin Rath, his spokeswoman, said last week.

Meanwhile, two Democratic governors joined others last week in denouncing the Republican plan for Head Start changes, which would give as many as eight states control over program funding.

"We want to strengthen Head Start, but frankly, we don't want to preside over it," Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa said during a separate conference call.

Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania added that a block grant usually signals a decline in spending.

Vol. 23, Issue 5, Page 10

Published in Print: October 1, 2003, as Study: Pre-K Teachers Need 4 Years of College
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