Early Childhood

Obama Proposal Raises Issue of Pre-K Teacher Prep

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 05, 2013 6 min read
Queshonda Moore teaches Aria Nickens, 4, how to write letters during a lesson at the Apple Tree Early Learning Public Charter School in the District of Columbia.
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Amid the attention stemming from President Barack Obama’s focus on early-childhood education in his State of the Union address, some advocates are wondering what the proposal will mean in the way of expectations for teachers.

In particular, they are zeroing in on the president’s call for “qualified” teachers—a term that carries baggage in a field where debates loom large about how to simultaneously improve the quality of instruction, increase the number of children served, and raise the prestige and pay of pre-K’s approximately 1.8 million teachers.

While some advocates see the remark as an acknowledgment of the specialized training early-childhood educators need, others worry that it could signal a focus on pure credentials. That credentials-based approach, they say, is unlikely to improve outcomes for pupils unless it’s coupled with attention on improving how teachers interact with young children.

“What I am afraid is going to happen is that the phrase ‘qualified early-childhood teacher’ will become a metaphor for a degree-certified teacher,” said Susan J. Kimmel, the director of the Center for Early-Childhood Professional Development at the University of Oklahoma. “While I think an early-childhood degree should provide a solid foundation, there are many other aspects that we really need to have a conversation about.”

The prospects for a new and probably costly federal investment in early education remain mixed at best. Yet the issue has relevance beyond just that level: Multiple governors, Democratic and Republican alike, have proposed expanding access to early-childhood education in their budget plans this year, even as money remains generally tight.

Quality Control?

President Obama made early-childhood education the centerpiece of his education remarks in his Feb. 12 address, proposing a new federal grant competition to provide financial incentives for states to expand their preschool offerings to middle- and low-income children.

The White House has since revealed few details of the president’s proposal. A short summary noted that preschool teachers in the participating states would, in addition to being qualified, be “well trained” and “paid comparably to K-12 staff.”

For many, that is a signal that any new program would provide incentives to improve the educational levels of child-care workers. The field encompasses aides who have not finished high school to educators holding bachelor’s degrees and beyond.

“I think you can assume if you’re talking educated and comparable to K-3, you’re talking about education at the level of expectation that we have for K-3—some kind of college degree and certification process indicating people have competency in early education,” said Marcy Whitebook, the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the Institute for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

Pre-K advocacy organizations have generally supported increasing the number of preschool educators who hold four-year degrees with some content specialty in early-childhood education. And that push has influenced federal policy on early-childhood education already, including in Head Start.

By the end of September, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services expects half of Head Start teachers nationwide to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher in the field.

The empirical research is mixed on whether teachers with bachelor’s degrees contribute more to preschool children’s social, emotional, and academic well-being. But some researchers say that it is the best way to ensure a base level of training for those in the field, as well as ensure that they can earn a living wage.

“There’s no other level of teaching where we’d say, ‘Does a teacher need to have a college degree?’ ” Ms. Whitebook said. “People don’t tend to think of the work as skilled, and it does sort of live under a babysitting shadow.”

If the Obama administration requires higher credentials under the new initiative, it could open avenues for criticism on political grounds. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers heavily favor Democrats and have been strong supporters of early-childhood education. They also, some commentators say, stand to gain more members from an expansion of pre-K services.

The NEA, which does not permit private K-12 teachers to become members, moved in 2008 to allow private pre-K teachers to join the union.

“Requiring states to credential and pay pre-K teachers as they credential and pay K-12 teachers assures only two things: high costs and supportive teacher unions,” Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said in a commentary on the proposal.

Interactions Key

For experts such as Ms. Kimmel, the question is not only whether a new federal early-education initiative would encourage higher levels of education, but also whether teachers already in the classroom would be helped to deepen and strengthen their instruction. And she believes such a program should also emphasize ways to help teachers determine whether their teaching produces better cognitive and emotional outcomes for children.

“What does [a preschool] class look like, what’s going on, and what is the teacher doing?” Ms. Kimmel said.

Research indicates that children’s cognitive and social development are linked to the quality of interaction with preschool teachers, regardless of their educational levels. Such findings have spawned interest in frameworks that describe effective practices in such interactions, and can serve as the basis of professional development and coaching.

Those frameworks are gaining attention in the field, but while many states have moved to institute rating systems to give a sense of programs’ strengths, not all of them specifically look at interactions in classrooms.

“If they’re going to drive what we want them to drive, you’ve got to make sure what’s in them is going to matter for student learning,” said Robert C. Pianta, the dean of the University of Virginia’s school of education, in Charlottesville, and the creator of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, a popular early-childhood teaching framework.

He hopes that if a federal program comes to pass, it will spur policy experiments in credentialing—possibly by creating new competency measures for newly certified teachers to demonstrate that they can engage in high-quality interactions with young children.

W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., already sees signs that the administration will strike a balance between credentials and practice.

During a speech at an early-childhood center in Decatur, Ga., two days after his address to the nation, Mr. Obama said early-childhood teachers should have a “coach who’s coming in and working with them on best practices,” Mr. Barnett noted.

“In some ways, that’s pretty detailed for a president to say teachers need coaching,” he said. “I think they have thought it through, that it is not just about credentials. It’s about having this continuous improvement process that ensures quality teaching is going to happen.”

Library Intern Holly Peele contributed research assistance.
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Obama Preschool Proposal Stirs Debate Over Training


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