With children’s early years increasingly recognized as a critical time for learning, more policymakers see a four-year college degree as a necessity for teachers in preschool programs receiving state and federal money.
Many state-financed preschool programs require teachers to have four-year degrees. And as federal lawmakers debate renewing the Head Start program for disadvantaged preschoolers, they are mulling proposals to move toward a similar requirement for at least a portion of that program’s teachers.
Yet while those policies reflect what some leading experts in early-childhood education have been advocating in recent years, other researchers say the link between teacher credentials in preschool and outcomes for children is not clear-cut. Indeed, scholars are vigorously debating whether a bachelor’s degree should be the standard for teaching in the nation’s early-childhood classrooms.
“The bachelor’s degree has become the holy grail—the sacred symbol of quality—among born-again universal-preschool advocates,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley. But he says research is insufficient to justify a broad push to require preschool teachers to hold such degrees.
And in a paper slated for publication next week in the journal Child Development, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill say that, at this point, there is not “convincing evidence of an association between [preschool] teachers’ education or major and either classroom quality or children’s academic gains.”
The paper was the result of a 2005 meeting in Chapel Hill at which researchers gathered to take another look at what studies so far were saying on the issue.
Advocating a B.A.
The drive to expect roughly the same credentials for those who work with 3- and 4-year-olds as for those who work in K-12 schools picked up steam after the National Research Council issued a report in 2000 calling for lead teachers in preschool classes to have four-year degrees, as well as special training in early-childhood education. Since that NRC report, Eager to Learn, other studies have backed up the recommendation.
The education required of preschool teachers varies among states.
Twenty states require that teachers in at least one state-financed prekindergarten program have a bachelor’s degree. *
* In some cases, states have more than one state-financed prekindergarten program, and not all necessarily require a bachelor’s degree.
Thirty-one states require that teachers in state-financed prekindergarten programs have specialized early-childhood training, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree.
SOURCE: National Institute for Early Education Research
The Trust for Early Education, which later became the Washington-based advocacy group Pre-K Now, issued a report four years ago concluding that preschool teachers with four-year degrees and early-childhood training did the best job of preparing children for kindergarten.
“Such teachers are more likely to be sensitive and attentive to their young students; they are less directive and more responsive; and their interactions with children are more constructive,” Marcy Whitebook, the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, also at Berkeley, wrote in that 2003 report, “Bachelor’s Degrees Are Best.” The report added that language scores were also higher for students in classrooms led by teachers with four-year degrees.
The National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., issued a report before Ms. Whitebook’s that reached similar conclusions.
“Better-educated teachers have more knowledge and skills,” wrote W. Steven Barnett, the director of the center. “This makes them more effective teachers for many reasons.”
The American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education went even further in a 2004 white paper, recommending that even programs for infants and toddlers be led by teachers with bachelor’s degrees.
‘No Clear Pattern’
Yet Diane M. Early, a researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill—and one of 19 authors of the new paper in Child Development—said there is “no clear pattern” showing a relationship between a four-year degree and positive academic outcomes for children.
One reason, she said, could be that even if teachers have bachelor’s degrees, their training may not have focused on working with preschoolers.
Moreover, added Robert C. Pianta, an education professor at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, and another contributor, no consensus exists on what students need to earn a bachelor’s degree.
“The B.A.-non-B.A. debate in preschool is symptomatic of this larger issue of how we ensure that what we are doing in teacher education contributes to teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom,” he said.
The early-childhood debate parallels the one in K-12 education, where the research is unclear over whether earning a master’s degree makes a difference in student learning, Mr. Pianta added. “Even when all teachers have a B.A., as they do in K-12, kids’ learning and the nature and quality of experiences in classrooms is incredibly variable,” he said.
Another reason for the lack of evidence, Ms. Early said, could be that many teachers earned their degrees when it was considered inappropriate to stress early reading and math skills in preschool.
Her findings may also differ from Ms. Whitebook’s earlier work in part because the two projects reviewed different sets of studies, Ms. Early suggested. While “Bachelor Degrees Are Best” stressed studies on center-based child-care programs, for example, the new analysis focuses more strongly on public prekindergarten programs and on academic outcomes.
“I do not mean [the new paper] as an indictment of that project at all,” Ms. Early said about Ms. Whitebook’s study. “She was clearly working with the best information she had.”
A Juggling Act
Beyond the research questions, practical considerations make it hard to quickly impose degree requirements on preschool teachers, especially those who have worked in the classroom for years.
Current preschool teachers may have anything from a high school diploma to a graduate degree. That’s in part because programs require different minimum levels of training. And among those who don’t have a bachelor’s degree, the amount of time it would take them to earn one varies.
Sonia Cedeño, who teaches 3-year-olds at the Egenolf Early Childhood Center in Elizabeth, N.J., said earning her bachelor’s degree after four years of preschool teaching made a difference in her approach.
“It’s like a doctor. You have to go and keep learning,” she said, adding that she values having a greater understanding of the research on child development. Ms. Cedeño, 40, also got a $10,000 boost in her salary once she earned her degree.
But even though Ms. Cedeño already had some college credit, earning her degree took three years and involved taking a full load of evening classes after working all day, while she and her husband juggled care for their two children.
Another obstacle is that four-year institutions have not been the main providers of coursework in early-childhood education. Early-childhood educators may have trouble transferring credits from community colleges, where much of such training occurs, to four-year colleges.
And when preschool or Head Start teachers earn four-year degrees, experts say, they often eventually leave for K-12 schools, where they can earn more.
Special Training Cited
In a new book, Standardized Childhood, Mr. Fuller of Berkeley cites research showing that teachers with bachelor’s degrees and training in early-childhood education were rated more highly by researchers than those with bachelor’s degrees but no special training.
“These findings suggested that specialized training contributes significantly to child outcomes among teachers with less than a four-year degree, and that the additional investment in a bachelor’s degree may not yield an additional boost for preschoolers,” he writes.
Because much of Mr. Fuller’s work has also focused on child-care and preschool supply in Latino communities, he also suggests that to require all state-funded preschool programs to hire teachers with bachelor’s degrees—especially those operated by community-based centers—would risk “a purge of teachers with bilingual skills and cultural sensitivities.”
Meanwhile, in a new paper on the educational levels of early-childhood teachers, Ms. Whitebook, who wrote “Bachelor’s Degrees Are Best,” acknowledges Ms. Early’s findings. But she says more data on the impact of both two- and four-year degrees are needed. Ms. Whitebook also argues that the field of early-childhood education is at a critical point.
The “enormous explosion” of prekindergarten in the states has largely been carried out without “significant wage increases” or spending on training to improve quality, she says in a 2006 paper on policies on early-childhood teaching.
And that lack of progress, she suggests, reflects confusion over whether preschool should be seen chiefly as day care or school; if it is the latter, then the case for bachelor’s degrees seems stronger.
“Fundamentally, public policy has not created higher expectations for this workforce overall, because policymakers have remained stuck” between those two views, Ms. Whitebook writes.
Ms. Early said even though the new paper raises doubts about whether four-year degrees make preschool teachers more effective, she doesn’t want people to “leap to the other extreme” of thinking that in-service training is all they need.
“I get scared that people are going to use this to cut salaries,” she said, “under the assumption that that will get us to high quality.”
Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Scholars Split on Pre-K Teachers With B.A.s