Back To School For Kids And Early Childhood Teachers

My 4-year-old daughter started pre-kindergarten at a new school this past week. It was exciting and different for her, but at the same time, sort of old hat. Because both her mom and I work full-time, she’s been in some sort of institutional setting every weekday since she was 3 months old. That means for nearly two-thirds of her days on Earth, our daughter has been entrusted to someone else’s care.

For all that, I admit to not knowing a great deal about the educational and experience backgrounds of the teachers who have minded Erica over the past three-plus years. I have largely trusted her care-giving organizations (mainly Bright Horizons and D.C. Public Schools) to retain qualified early childhood professionals who will promote her social and intellectual development. As far as I can tell, so far, so good.

But perhaps we’ve been lucky. From in-home care, to Head Start, to community nursery schools, to corporate-sponsored day care centers, to state-provided pre-kindergarten, early childhood education is a highly uneven field. As Sara Mead and Kevin Carey describe in a new paper for Brookings, average pay for preschool teachers is quite low (about $24,000), in part reflecting (and contributing to) the low quality of education provided in much of the sector. This is particularly problematic, as low-quality early education will do little to help narrow, and could even exacerbate, the cognitive gaps that separate kids by race and income when they begin kindergarten.

Some in the field have responded to these challenges by calling for preschool teachers to become more like K-12 teachers, earning bachelor’s degrees and corresponding state certification. This, they argue, would boost quality and pay in the sector.

But as Sara and Kevin argue, there’s little reason to think that’s the right model for this sector. There’s no research evidence linking bachelor’s degree completion with early childhood teacher effectiveness. Early childhood has been an underdeveloped focus in university schools of education. What’s more, aspiring early childhood educators are more likely to come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and thus less able to shoulder the debt burden of traditional higher education and more likely never to complete a degree.

And to be honest, I couldn’t give a fig whether or not Erica’s teacher has a four-year degree from a college of education. I do care that he/she understands the state-of-the-art on early childhood development, is practiced in the techniques for helping kids like her to learn new concepts and develop social skills, and can effectively manage a classroom.

Thankfully, innovators in the field are developing tools and pathways for early childhood educators to gain this sort of knowledge and experience outside of traditional bachelor’s degree programs. Sara and Kevin profile the Texas School Ready! Project, which research has shown is producing meaningful improvement in the quality of early childhood education, regardless of teachers’ prior education levels. MyTeachingPartner provides early childhood teachers with intensive, personalized feedback focused on effective interactions with children. Measures of such effective interaction have been shown to correlate with learning among preschool children.

Requiring bachelor’s degrees among early childhood teachers is just falling back on what we know, when we don’t even know that it would work very well. Why not instead create an education and credentialing system better suited for the needs of a different, growing, and increasingly important workforce? And why not hold it accountable for results, which we have largely failed to do with the traditional teacher training system?

That’s precisely what the authors recommend in their call for charter colleges of early childhood education. You should look at the full paper and/or policy brief, or read Sara’s and Kevin’s own blog posts, for further details. Suffice it to say, it couldn’t come at a more opportune time, with the Obama administration officially launching the Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge grant last week. The proposal should inform state applications and Department of Education awards for the grant.

Meanwhile, I will continue to conduct my own informal assessment of what Erica is learning in the classroom this year. Unfortunately, the “Nothing, dad” answer to the question, “What did you learn in school today?” has emerged at a much earlier age than I had hoped.