Raising the Bar for Early Education

May 28, 2014

Is early education and care a profession or not? The debate has dogged the field for decades. Positions taken by the workforce and organizations representing their interests seldom come to full agreement in scenarios reminiscent of the “tastes great; less filling” debates. This in-fighting, often played out between public pre-K, Head Start, and child care, does not center around the acknowledged value of the workforce’s intentions, efforts or contributions; rather, it stems from the field’s failure to consider what actually qualifies as a profession and its willingness to take it to the next level. Too often, terms such as “job,” “occupation,” and “career” are used interchangeably with “profession,” only clouding the issue.

Sociologist Byrne Horton (1944) provides an interesting lens to examine the issue. Based on an analysis of characteristics found across professions, his “Ten Criteria or Earmarks of a Genuine Profession”[i] contend, that a profession must:

  1. Satisfy an indispensable social need and be based upon well­ established and socially acceptable scientific principles.

    Even stock photos make it clear: this job is tough. But is it a "profession?"

    Even stock photos make it clear: this job is tough. But is it a “profession?”

  2. Demand adequate pre-professional and cultural training.
  3. Demand a body of specialized and systematized knowledge.
  4. Give evidence of needed skills that the general public does not possess.
  5. Have developed a scientific technique that is the result of tested experience.
  6. Require the exercise of discretion and judgment as to the time and manner of the performance of duty .
  7. Be a type of beneficial work, the result of which is not subject to standardization in terms of unit performance or time element.
  8. Have a group consciousness designed to extend scientific knowledge in technical language.
  9. Have sufficient self-impelling power to retain its members throughout life. It must not be used for a mere steppingstone to other occupations.
  10. Recognize its obligations to society by insisting that its members live up to an established and accepted code of ethics.

Other sociologists and scholars (Katz, 1985; Moore, 1970; Rich, 1984) have echoed Horton’s criteria.

Obviously, for early childhood teachers, we can check off some of the above. The commitment to expanding a scientific knowledge base for early education is burgeoning and the work addresses an indispensable social need. Based on all the criteria, however, I’d be hard-pressed to issue a resounding “Yes” if asked whether the field of early education and care currently qualifies as a profession.

Many of Horton’s criteria, particularly those addressing professional training and knowledge, are not uniformly expected, met, or enforced across our field. In a field where high school graduates lacking adequate pre-professional training or specialized knowledge work immediately and independently on par with others who have invested years in specialized training and degrees, we have a problem.  When people enter the field without knowledge and skills beyond that of the general public, we have a problem. With a track record of high attrition confirming our field’s inability to retain its members throughout life – due in part to demanding responsibilities for which they were not prepared and low compensation – we have a problem. Let’s be honest: as a result of a well-meaning effort to open a wide early education and care umbrella inviting all comers with and without qualification, our field fails to meet requisite criteria to be recognized as a profession. The lowest common denominator defines our field and as such we stumble in advancing as a profession. More important, we do a disservice to children, families, and colleagues.

A profession establishes the gate through which only qualified and competent individuals may enter to provide service. We have too many gates lacking uniform standards of quality. The NIEER 2012 State of Preschool Yearbook reported only 30 publicly-funded preschool programs in 25 states require lead teachers to have a BA; New York requires a Master’s degree. Programs in 4 states (Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, one program in Vermont) did not require lead teachers to have either a BA or specialized training in pre-K. Several state-funded pre-K programs operating in partnership with community-based child care programs permit lead teachers to have high school degrees or certificates, creating an uneven professional field within the same state or community.  Head Start has made tremendous strides in advancing the qualifications and skills of its teaching corps, surpassing ambitious targets through a combination of policy and support. Alternate pathways are made possible for para-professionals who commit to becoming professionals. Years in the field may provide valuable experience, but if not systematically approached to attain knowledge and skills well beyond those held by the general public, such experience may simply reinforce unprofessional or ineffective behaviors.

In Early Childhood Education for a New Era: Leading for Our Profession, Stacie Goffin portrays early education and care as a field of practice where reform is driven by external and internal forces, arguing that we need to assume responsibility for elevating and accelerating internal change. Speaking at the Maryland Department of Education Research Forum (January 2014), she warned “(v)oluntary strategies (are) not leading to practitioners collectively capable of competent practice” and that change must come from the “inside out.” I agree. As a profession, we must hold ourselves to high standards of excellence and accountability, not justifications for mediocrity. The gauntlet has been thrown.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the need for adequate resources to elevate early education and care as a profession. Each of Horton’s 10 criteria has an associated price tag if an indispensable social need is to be addressed by knowledgeable, skillful, effective professionals who remain committed and supported throughout their professional lives. Parents cannot be expected to carry the full price any more than we can expect the children. As columnist Thomas Friedman said in a recent interview, “If we will the end, we must also will the means.” States, communities, business, and the federal government need to step up.

Certainly, we are further along the path to being recognized and valued as a profession, but now is not the time to rest. Until the field of early education and care comes to agreement on criteria for its “profession” and commits to meeting exemplary standards differentiating it from a “job” or “occupation,” we are destined to be viewed by the public as a lesser profession and reap commensurate benefits. It’s time for us to raise the bar.

- Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow

[i] B. J. Horton. (1944). Ten criteria or earmarks of a genuine profession. Scientific Monthly, (58), p. 164.

Formative Assessment:  Points to Consider for Policy Makers, Teachers, and Researchers

April 16, 2014

Formative assessment is one area in early childhood education where policy is moving at lightning speed. There’s been a lot of support for the appropriateness of this approach to assessment for young learners. Many policy makers and data users have “talked the talk,” perfecting the lingo and pushing the implementation of policies for this approach. Yet there are essential questions to consider when rolling out a plan or process for a state. In the brief released by the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO), I outline several considerations for policy makers in moving such initiatives. They’re briefly outlined below, along with considerations for teachers and researchers.

For Policy Makers

Policies around formative assessment in early childhood education will be most successful when the below “top 10” items are considered thoughtfully before implementing.

Overall Considerations for Policymakers Responsible for Formative Assessment Systems

  1. Does the purpose of the assessment match the intended use of the assessment? Is it appropriate for the age and background of the children who will be assessed?
  2. Does the assessment combine information from multiple sources/caregivers?
  3. Are the necessary contextual supports in place to roll out the assessment and use data effectively? (e.g., training, time, ongoing support)
  4. Does the assessment have a base or trajectory/continuum aligned to child developmental expectations, standards, and curricula?  Does it include all key domains?
  5. Does the assessment have a systematic approach and acceptable reliability and validity data?   Has it been used successfully with similar children?
  6. Are the data easily collected and interpreted to effectively inform teaching and learning?
  7. What technology is necessary to gather data?
  8. Are the data useful to teachers and other stakeholders?
  9. What are the policies for implementation and what is the roll-out plan for the assessment?
  10.  Will data be gathered and maintained within FERPA and other security guidelines? Are there processes in place to inform stakeholders about how data are being gathered and held securely to allay concerns?

I encourage all stakeholders in assessment (policy makers, administrators, parents/caregivers, etc.) to exercise patience with teachers learning the science of this process and perfecting the art of implementing such an approach. Although many effective teachers across the decades have been doing this instinctively, as we make the approach more systematic, explicit, and transparent, teachers may have a steep learning curve. However, with the considerations above as a part of the decision-making process, teachers will find it easier to be successful.  This policy report provides a guide and framework to early childhood policymakers considering  formative assessment. The report defines formative assessment and outlines its process and  application in the context of early childhood. The substance of this document is the issues for  consideration in the implementation of the formative assessment process. This guide provides a  practical roadmap for decision-makers by offering several key questions to consider in the process of  selecting, supporting, and using data to inform and improve instruction.This policy report provides a guide and framework to early childhood policymakers considering formative assessment. This guide provides a practical roadmap for decision-makers by offering several key questions to consider in the process of selecting, supporting, and using data to inform and improve instruction.

For Teachers

The intent of formative assessment is to implement the process of using data (observation or other) to inform individualized instruction. The link between this type of embedded assessment and instruction should be seamless. Teachers work with great effort at this on several different levels. Effective early childhood teachers:

  • use immediate feedback from children in the moment and adjust the interaction based on this feedback.
  • collect evidence over time to evaluate the child’s growth and to plan long-term learning goals. These goals are reviewed periodically and adjusted based on new evidence.
  • look at aggregate data across their classrooms.  They examine the data for trends and self-reflect on their teaching practices based on what the data are showing.

For Researchers

We must move forward by setting a strong research agenda on the effects of formative assessment in early childhood classrooms–and not allow policy to outpace research.  We need further research around using formative assessment processes to collect, analyze, and use the data to improve teaching and learning in the early childhood classroom. This must first include randomized trials of formative assessment, to examine the impact on classroom quality and child outcomes. The field needs a clear understanding of how teachers are trained and supported in collecting and using the data, and just what supports are needed for success. This should be coupled with a qualitative understanding of how teachers are using data in their classrooms. Finally, an understanding of who is using the data, in what capacity–and how it fits within the larger assessment system–should be components of any examination of formative assessment.

- Shannon Riley-Ayers, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER and CEELO

Pre-K Returns to Capitol Hill

November 13, 2013

Today, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY), Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and actress Jennifer Garner discussed a bipartisan proposal to expand access to quality, early childhood education programs for children from birth to age 5.snack time 2

The Harkin-Miller-Hanna proposal, the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, is intended to strengthen and add to the existing state-funded programs currently provided by 40 states and the District of Columbia, using the foundation of the framework outlined by President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union Address.

“The bill recognizes that every child needs a good early education and calls for quality by offering states incentives to take the lead rather than imposing mandates,” says Steve Barnett, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. “The bill seeks to enable every state to do what the best state programs already do for their children.”

The 10-year implementation bill would  “fund preschool for 4-year old children from families earning below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), and encourage states to spend their own funds to support preschool for young children with family incomes above that income level.”

It includes “a new federal-state partnership with formula funding for 4-year old preschool, with a state match, to all eligible states, based on each state’s proportion of 4-year olds under 200% of the FPL. States would provide subgrants to high-quality, local providers, including local educational agencies (LEAs) and community-based providers (such as child care and Head Start programs) that have partnerships with LEAs.”

There is an Early Head Start partnership proposed as well, to focus on providing services to infants and toddlers.

The proposal highlights critical elements of quality for birth-to-five programs, including several that NIEER has highlighted as essential for a federal program, requiring, among other things:

  • strong staff qualifications, including a bachelor’s degree for teachers;
  • developmentally appropriate, evidence-based curricular and learning environments aligned with the state’s early learning standards;
  • adequate salaries for well-trained staff, comparable with K-12 teacher salaries;
  • access to high-quality professional development;
  • accessible comprehensive serves, including health, mental health, dental, vision screening, referrals and assistance in obtaining services (when appropriate), family engagement, nutrition and other support services as determined in a local needs analysis; and
  • ongoing program evaluation.

The proposal is comprehensive, in encouraging alignment of early learning standards with K-12 standards and ensuring that standards cover all domains of readiness; that data from preschool are linked to K-12 data; and that state-funded kindergarten is provided. Links to encourage seamless provision of services to children from birth through five are also included.

Programs are asked to address the needs of children who are homeless, migrant, in foster care, needing reduced-price or free lunch, English language learners, or with disabilities.

In a recent column, Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times highlighted Oklahoma’s preschool program as an example of how states could provide quality preschool, along the lines of what’s included in the Harkin-Miller-Hannah proposal. He cites bipartisan support for that program:

It’s promising that here in Oklahoma, early education isn’t seen as a Republican or Democratic initiative. It is simply considered an experiment that works. After all, why should we squander human capacity and perpetuate social problems as happens when we don’t reach these kids in time?

“This isn’t a liberal issue,” said Skip Steele, a Republican who is a Tulsa City Council member and strong supporter of early education. “This is investing in our kids, in our future. It’s a no-brainer.”

Results of the Oklahoma program have been evaluated by NIEER and others, providing encouraging reasons to support this proposal. Preschool has increasingly taken a place in the national political spotlight, factoring in several major elections earlier this month. The introduction of this bill has the potential to spur major conversations and move pre-K further up the education agenda. Assisting states in providing universal access to comprehensive programs for children from birth to 5, can provide a powerful opportunity for positive outcomes and success for children throughout their school years.

-Kirsty Clarke Brown, Policy and Communications Advisor

Highly Qualified Teachers: The Workforce Early Education Needs and Deserves

June 3, 2013

Well-trained, responsive, and effective teachers are essential to a high-quality early education program. While research has sometimes been murky on what the appropriate training and credentialing for early educators should be, a lack of good data has made it difficult in the past to explore the current situation. Recent research has helped shed some light on what the characteristics of early childhood educators.

The 2012 State Preschool Yearbook indicates that progress has been made in increasing the qualifications of teaching staff. In the 2011-2012 school year, 58 percent of state pre-K programs required lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, increasing from 45 percent in 2001-2002. Eighty-five percent of programs now require lead teachers to have specialized training in early childhood, up from 74 percent a decade ago. For the first time in the 2012 Yearbook, NIEER asked for the breakdown of pre-K teachers by degree, which helps paint a picture of credentialing on the ground. While 22 programs were not able to report these figures, having some of this information is a step in the right direction. According to Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), the percent of Head Start teachers with a BA or higher increased from 45 percent in 2010 to 57 percent in 2011, indicating significant progress on teacher credentials in recent years. While the CLASP report goes into more detail, preliminary figures for the 2012 year can be gathered from the FY14 Congressional Justification for the Department of Health and Human Services (Head Start section beginning on page 95).  These figures are summarized in Figure 1.

Teacher Degrees, State Pre-K and Head Start

For both state-funded pre-K (when reported) and Head Start, the majority of teachers have at least a Bachelor’s degree, with 79 percent of pre-K teachers holding a BA or higher compared to 62 percent in Head Start. Interestingly, a greater proportion of state-funded pre-K teachers have less than an Associate’s degree, with 15 percent holding a CDA.  While a CDA does require some specialized training in early childhood or a related field, it requires fewer credit hours than does an AA. If the goal is to ensure all lead teachers have a BA, state-funded pre-K may face a longer road in supporting these teachers through the additional coursework.

Any discussion of teacher credentials must also discuss compensation: without adequate compensation, early education programs will likely see high turnover and difficulty in recruiting the best teachers who could be paid higher in K-12 classrooms. It is also difficult to require teachers to meet higher degree requirements without increasing salary. According to 2009 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary across settings for a Preschool teacher (not including special education) was just $27,450, compared to $50,380 for a Kindergarten teacher and $53,150 for Elementary School teachers generally. Information specific to both state-funded pre-K and Head Start programs bear out this trend of comparably low pay. Data from the 2009 Yearbook (the last year for which salary information was collected) indicates that for state-funded programs which could report data on salaries, 83 percent of pre-K teachers in public school settings and 88 percent in nonpublic school settings were paid below $50,000l, as seen in Table 1 below. For those reporting, the median salary category was $40-44,999 for those in public schools and $30-34,999 for those in nonpublic school settings.

Table 1: Lead Teacher Salary Ranges in Public and Nonpublic Settings, 2008-2009 School YearHead Start programs also pay low salaries, even lower than those of state pre-K teachers outside the public schools; even Head Start teachers with graduate degrees are paid at rates lower than Kindergarten teachers in public schools, as seen in Table 2.

Table 2: Head Start Teacher Salaries by Degree, National Average, 2011-2012

What does this all mean for the field? A new paper from Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) found that the turnover rate from 2009 to 2010 among school-based early childhood care and education workers was 13.6, while center- and home-based workers had turnover rates of 24.4 percent and 28.5 percent, respectively. These data may include providers and teachers not included in state-funded pre-K or Head Start data, but coupled with reports from Georgia’s highly regarded state pre-K program that teachers left in droves when salaries were cut due to a shortened school year, it is clear that teacher turnover is an issue of continued concern in early education.  The CEPA paper goes on to examine trends in the field across sectors from 1990 to 2010 and found that despite significant attention and investment in the field during this time period, the “workforce remains a low‐education, low‐compensation, and high‐turnover workforce.” As researchers and policymakers alike consider complex issues like teacher effectiveness and evaluation, aligning across sectors, and best reaching traditionally undeserved students, it bears reminding them that a well-educated, well-respected, professional workforce is essential to getting the most bang for the public’s buck in early education.

—Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator

Learning about Teaching: What We Know about Early Ed Professionals

May 8, 2012

Our 2011 State Preschool Yearbook got a lot of attention for sounding the alarm on decreasing per-child funding threatening program quality. Nothing is more important for providing a high-quality early education than highly effective teachers and assistant teachers. NIEER’s research-based quality standards benchmarks credit teacher requirements in five different ways:

· Lead teachers must have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent;

· Lead teachers must have specialized training in early childhood education;

· Assistant teachers must have a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential or equivalent;

· Lead teachers must receive at least 15 clock hours per year (or 6 credit hours per 5 years) of professional development; and,

· Regular site visits are conducted to monitor program implementation.

Of the 39 states offering state-funded pre-K in the 2010-2011 year, only eight states (plus the Louisiana NSECD program) met all five of these benchmarks for lead and assistant teachers. A related issue is teacher pay, which is on average much lower in preschools than in elementary schools. Although 19 states required all lead teachers to have a BA with specialized training, a mere 7 states had this requirement and pay them comparably to kindergarten teacher salary as of 2009-2010.

As can be seen in the graph below, the percent of programs meeting each teacher qualification benchmark has certainly increased over time, though some more so than others. For example, the increase in programs requiring at least 15 hours per year of professional development—from 64 percent to 84 percent—indicates a growing understanding that continued support for teachers is necessary beyond just initial training. The growth in requiring lead teachers to have a BA has been comparatively slow, but is especially laudable considering the economic difficulties of the last decade and the fact that more advanced teacher degrees likely drive up the program costs.

This table displays programs meeting the teacher qualification benchmarks over a 10-year period as a percent, to take into account the changing number of total programs each year. Information on site visits was not collected until the 2004-2005 year.

Where programs still consistently fall short is in the qualifications required of assistant teachers—only 26 percent of programs required assistant teachers to have a CDA in 2001-2002, which increased to only 31 percent of programs in 2010-2011. Only two programs exceeded the benchmark by requiring an AA for assistant teachers in all settings of their preschool programs (i.e., nonpublic and public), while at least four programs had no formal educational requirements for their assistant teachers. It is clear that the focus over the last decade has been strengthening lead teacher requirements, perhaps out of the assumption that these teachers have the bulk of the interaction with children. However, considering that most programs require an assistant teacher in order to meet the 1:10 staff-to-child ratio we look for, assistant teachers have a clear presence in the early childhood classroom. If preschool programs are truly to have effective team teaching, states must provide adequate pay, supports and training for assistant teachers to ensure all staff interactions with children are of high-quality and developmentally appropriate.

The question of how to ensure we have great teachers in pre-K classrooms is not only for program administrators to answer; teacher preparation programs need to step up. A recent study from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment explored higher education programs that prepare early childhood education teachers. As noted by Laura Bornfreund of the New America Foundation, diversity across states makes good data hard to come by:

“…[E]arly childhood preparation programs vary greatly for a few reasons. States lack common education and licensing    standards for teachers of children, birth to 5. Some states don’t require student teaching at all. At the institution level, preparation programs are often housed in different departments. Some may be based in the School of Education but often they are located elsewhere, such as Family and Consumer Science Departments, for example. And when early childhood preparation programs say that they are including infants and toddlers in their scope, they may primarily address K-3.”

In educational settings, diversity is a wonderful thing—there’s hardly a loftier educational goal than students and staff from different backgrounds working and learning together. But the current diversity in the requirements and quality of teacher preparation programs has nothing to do with ensuring that the teaching force is diverse and produces a cacophony of bureaucracy and lack of standardization in preparation that serves neither teachers nor students well.

All this comes on the heels of a Government Accountability Office report on the early child care and education (ECCE) workforce that found the 1.8 million employees in pre-K, child care, and Head Start are still faced with low levels of education and compensation. The report found that preschool teachers, who were the highest paid among these professionals, still only made about $18,000 per year (excluding pre-K teachers in elementary schools). Data from the American Communities Survey indicated that 72 percent of these workers lacked an associate’s degree or higher. Clearly, the preparation, support, and compensation of today’s early childhood workforce is out of sync with what we know is best to provide our children with a high-quality early education.  Despite these challenges, ECCE teaching staff do the best they can for our children, understanding that, as Garrison Keillor said, “Nothing you do for children is ever wasted. They seem not to notice us, hovering, averting our eyes, and they seldom offer thanks, but what we do for them is never wasted.”

So to the 1.8 million ECCE teachers out there—thanks on behalf of the millions of young children you serve everyday!

- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

The Pre-K Debates: What the Research Says About Teacher Quality

February 10, 2012

The body of research on teacher quality is, if nothing else, a mixed bag, in terms of both quality and approach. Studies of the effects of preschool education levels have employed techniques ranging from simple correlations to complex statistical analyses that seek to account for the complexities of interrelated policies and practices that affect teaching and learning. Given just how complex policy and practice are, it may be that the simple correlations are just as informative for policy purposes, but neither approach is particularly satisfactory.  Controlled randomized trials that look at teacher quality might get us farther, but even these may not tell us what we really want to know, and they are few and far between in any case.  Little wonder, then, that some studies find that teachers with higher levels of education have stronger effects on children’s learning while others do not. A 2007 NIEER quantitative summary (meta-analysis) of the literature found a modest positive effect of teachers with a bachelor’s degree compared to those with less education. A few studies in that analysis deserve extra attention because they have obvious strengths:

1. The Cost, Quality and Outcomes Study of child care found that higher levels of teacher education and pay were associated with higher quality as measured by structured observations, and children’s cognitive test scores. A reanalysis that controlled for location and center found no differences between teachers with bachelor’s degrees and those with associate’s degrees or high school diplomas. However, the reanalysis fails to take into account that programs basically hire all their teachers under the same budget constraint, that teachers within a center are not independent performers, and that centers like to assign difficult-to-teach kids to better teachers.

2. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) study of early care and education has an advantage over most studies because it includes measures of education in the home, thereby more completely modeling the processes that contribute to children’s learning and development. And, it does so over multiple years and not just a few months. Several NICHD studies have found that teacher education contributes to children’s learning and development.

3. Two studies that found no effects of teacher education on children’s learning are a University of Nebraska study of child care centers in four Midwest states and a University of North Carolina study using data from the National Center for Early Development and Learning (NCEDL) Multi-State Study of Pre-K. The latter involved more than 230 classrooms and 800 children. While both have relatively large samples, nether takes into account teacher assignment, apparently assuming that it is random and they do not measure home learning processes. In the Nebraska study, only about seven teachers out of the hundreds interviewed had salaries above $30,000.

To my mind, the most informative evidence comes from real policy changes such as when the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered high-quality preschool provided to all children in 31 low-income school districts. This “natural experiment” was implemented in a public system wherein most children were served by private providers under contract to the districts. Teachers lacking the necessary credentials received scholarships to attend more schooling so they could meet the new standard of a bachelor’s degree and early childhood certification. Salaries were raised to public school levels.  Teachers received coaching on a regular basis. It comes as no surprise to many involved in this dramatic, albeit painful, transition that the quality of teaching as measured by direct observation was transformed, changing from poor-mediocre to good-excellent.

Of course, we can’t pinpoint teacher qualifications as the sole source of success in New Jersey, and I wouldn’t.  Raising qualifications requirements without raising pay from its typically abysmal level is a recipe for disaster.  Honestly, would the field really be debating whether preschool teachers needed to be well-educated if wages were not at issue?  In addition, coaching and a continuous improvement process are certainly important, but it would be equally misguided to conclude that specialized training and professional development alone could produce quality teaching over the long-run with low wages and poorly educated teachers.

Education research rarely provides a basis for certainty and this is particularly true of studies looking at teacher effectiveness where so many variables matter. If policymakers want greater certainty than the existing evidence provides, different sorts of studies will be needed that are based on real policy changes. In the meantime, leading experts in the field provide us with well-reasoned arguments for and sometimes against requiring higher levels of education for preschool teachers than is currently the case in most classrooms across the nation. Their arguments are well represented in The Pre-K Debates, a new book edited by Ed Zigler and Walter Gilliam at Yale and me.  If nothing else, it is always interesting to see university professors argue that their students don’t learn anything useful or that minority students can’t make it in higher education. I’m always happy to put forward Rutgers University as a counterexample.

- Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

Note: This post is part of a series discussing issues of contention from The Pre-K Debates. For my analysis of universal preschool’s role in economic mobility, see this earlier post in the series.

This Week: Thank a Teacher

May 4, 2011

From elementary school students to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, people across the nation are taking time to thank a teacher throughout the week. That’s because this week is Teacher Appreciation Week, a time to not only celebrate our educators but also to learn more about teaching as a profession.

Years of research have found that teachers play an extremely important role in the preschool classroom. Teacher qualifications are often an indicator of a pre-K program’s quality. Better education and training for teachers can improve the interaction between children and teachers, which in turn benefits children’s learning. The most effective preschool educators have at least a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in early childhood. But while this is the norm in kindergarten classrooms, this is not always the case in preschool classrooms.

When we analyzed data from the latest State Preschool Yearbook, we found that 27 of 52 state-funded pre-K initiatives require that pre-K classroom teachers have a bachelor’s degree and 45 require lead teachers to have specialized training in early childhood. Only 16 state-funded programs require assistant teachers to have at least a child development credential or equivalent. While progress has been made in state policies regarding teacher qualifications since we first started analyzing data in 2002, still more can be done. The figure below provides a visual representation of the number of state programs meeting our benchmarks regarding teacher policies over the past eight years.

Since NIEER began tracking teacher qualification requirements, we’ve seen the most improvement in requiring 15 hours of professional development each year for lead teachers as well as more states requiring specialized early childhood training for lead teachers. Progress has been slower in requiring BAs for lead teachers, and fewer than half of all state-funded programs require a CDA for assistant teachers. And, when we moved away from state-funded preschool initiatives and looked at child care, the picture was bleaker. Only 16 of 50 states have any teacher education requirements, and none of those states require a bachelor’s degree.

A newly released policy brief from NIEER and the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, written by Marcy Whitebook and Sharon Ryan, says it’s not just the quantity of teachers’ formal education but also the quality and content of that education. Whitebook and Ryan find a mismatch between the qualifications for the most effective teachers and the supports that these teachers receive to improve upon their work. Indeed, the latest Yearbook shows that only 44 of 52 state-funded pre-K programs have a policy requiring teachers have at least 15 hours of professional development for lead teachers per year; only about half of programs require professional development for assistant teachers. States provide some supports for pre-K teachers to enhance their skills and credentials; notably, almost three quarters of programs provide some scholarships to teachers enrolling in training, though requirements and amounts vary considerably by state. Three programs provide no support to teachers, despite the benefit to students and teachers of keeping up with the latest in the early education field. See the figure below for percents of the 52 state-funded pre-K initiatives offering specific supports for their teachers.

Does the state provide any of the following types of supports to teachers to help them attain credentials or enhance their skills?
Scholarships 73%
Mentors 63%
Other 40%
Loan forgiveness 21%
None 6%

Whitebook and Ryan also note the disconnect between expectations for teachers and compensation policies. When asked if pre-K teachers are required to be paid on the same scale as public school teachers, only 17 of 52 state programs ensured this for all teachers; another 20 programs extended this guarantee only to teachers who classrooms were in public settings. And, the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that in 2009, child care workers nationwide had an average salary of $20,940, ranging from only $16,750 in Arkansas to $24,480 in Massachusetts. In a staggering 40 states, the average child care worker salary is below the federal poverty level set by the Department of Health and Human Services for a family of four in 2009.

Research tells us what credentials make for the highest quality early educators, but state policy has a way to go in fully supporting them. State budgets continue to be tight, but states must prioritize a well-educated, well-compensated early childhood workforce to receive all the benefits we know pre-K can yield. As a nation, when it comes to thanking pre-K teachers, we might consider more than a shiny red apple.

- Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER
- Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

Teachers Must Get the Facts Out and Support Smart Evaluation, Pay and Tenure Reform

February 17, 2011

These days teachers find themselves swept up in the cross currents of an education debate about how to evaluate and pay teachers that is more polarizing and ugly by the day. Some days the debate generates much more heat than light, and this topic is greatly in need of illumination. Without at doubt, change is needed. The single salary schedule, which mandates the same salaries for teachers regardless of field, creates shortages of math, science, and special education teachers, and prevents some of the best from entering teaching. It makes sense for “star” teachers to earn more at the same level of experience. Tenure ought not to endlessly protect teachers who end up performing poorly or worse. Yet, that doesn’t mean that every proposed solution is a good idea; and some could turn things from bad to worse. Teachers should take the lead in helping the public understand their jobs and what works. For example, explaining how teaching is not just a matter of each teacher in her own classroom working independently and the many ways in which test scores really don’t capture all that is important about a child’s education.

The most recent example in need of illumination is a proposal released this week by New Jersey’s acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. I find the basic ideas he proposes a pretty good list: more nuanced evaluations of teachers, no moving poorly performing teachers into “less important” teaching positions rather than out of schools altogether, and more clear reliance on supervisor observations and children’s learning to evaluate teachers. Doing this well is not going to be easy, however. Simply calling for teachers to be judged on value-added (VA) evaluations won’t do the job. Broadly speaking, VA calls for using student test scores in deciding how well teachers are doing. This approach has already become policy in some districts and it is beginning to affect which teachers stay, which teachers go, and whether they get a raise. Yet it is highly questionable whether any progress in improving the teacher corps can be made the way that VA is currently done. Too much depends on the children assigned to the teacher and our ability to correctly estimate the teacher’s contribution is far too weak. It matters who else teaches in the same school. First- and second-year teachers are early works in progress and their trajectory matters as much as the level of their performance.

The move to VA teacher evaluation across the country appears to be driven more by political agendas dedicated to blaming teachers and their unions rather than finding effective solutions. I don’t know what else could explain the way VA’s proponents gloss over the fact that as currently implemented it is built on a shaky scientific foundation. However, given this problem it seems likely that public servants like New Jersey’s Commissioner have not been fully informed about the limitations, presenting an opportunity for more illumination to benefit the policy debate.

The VA method calls for estimating through analyses of standardized test scores how much any given teacher helps or hinders the academic progress of students. The Los Angeles Times drew national attention to VA evaluation in a series in which an economist paid by the newspaper rated elementary school teachers according to this method, using a detailed set of data from the Los Angeles Unified School District. Based on this work, the Times then published a 6,000-name list of teachers and their ratings.

Enter the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado. Researchers there analyzed the work done at the Times’ behest and found that, while the VA model yielded different outcomes for different teachers, it did not tell them whether those outcomes measured what is important (teacher effectiveness) or something else, such as whether students benefited from other learning resources outside of school. One way to test the validity of the VA model is to investigate whether using it, a student’s future teacher would appear to have an effect on a student’s test performance in the past — something that is impossible in the world most of us inhabit. They found that future teachers did indeed affect the past learning of students, especially in reading, indicating the VA model is faulty. Read the rest of this entry »

Three Easy Pieces (of Research) for Budget Deciders

August 27, 2010

As the recession drags on, it becomes ever-more-obvious the ABC (across-the-board cuts) approach to controlling government expenditures is harming our chances for a robust economy in the future. That’s because ABC looks at everything as a cost, ignoring investments in areas like early childhood education that are critical to future economic growth. ABC has been in especially heavy use at the state level. Over the past two years, some states have spared pre-K from ABC while others have not.  Other early childhood programs have suffered from ABC, as well.  Next year could see more of the same.

These cuts come at a time when evidence continues to mount on the critical importance of investments in children before they reach school. For budget deciders who may be considering future cuts and may not be not up on the latest findings, I offer three important, easy-to-understand pieces of research that have turned up just this year. Each looks at different impacts of investments on young children and underscores the importance of prioritizing investments in early learning and development.

1.  Poverty’s Negative Effect on the Very Young. A University of California study tracking the lives of children born between 1968 and 1975 found that poverty during the period when children are infants to age 5 has a lasting detrimental impact on outcomes related to attainment such as earnings and hours worked. Negative impacts from poverty during this early period could be measured as late as age 37. Subsequent periods of poverty, when children were older, had fewer detrimental effects.

2.  Why Good Teachers for Young Children Pay Off. Harvard economist Raj Chetty and colleagues have made public findings from a yet-to-be-published study of the life paths of children who were part of Tennessee’s 1980s-era Project Star. Chetty says students who learned more in kindergarten were more likely to attend college than kids with similar backgrounds and more likely to save for retirement and earn more. Here is his Power Point presentation: http://obs.rc.fas.harvard.edu/chetty/STAR_slides.pdf.

3.  Negative Early Experiences Last a Lifetime. A research paper just out from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child presents evidence on how children’s early experiences become integrated into their response systems, leading to long-term effects in areas such as their overall physical health and ability to respond to stress and achieve. The authors call for, among other things, improving the quality of child care and preschool education.

Steve Barnett
Co-director, NIEER

Is Preschool Too Early for Science? No!

August 6, 2010

For Curious Young Minds Eager to Understand Their World, This Age is Just Right

Related Reading

Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS)Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS)

Facilitating Scientific Ways of Thinking, Talking, Doing, and Understanding

Rochel Gelman
Kimberly Brenneman
Gay Macdonald
Moisés Román

Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co., Inc.
Baltimore, MD
144 pages, ISBN 978-1-59857-044-1

Until recently, science has been the ignored academic stepchild of language and math. Mandated state testing as part of No Child Left Behind initially focused on language, expanded to math, and now includes science.  Concern over U.S. students’ poor science scores has brought science teaching to the forefront and a 2007 National Research Council (NRC) report, Taking Science to School, calls for broad sweeping changes in how science should be taught and organized.  States are now revising science standards to be less fragmented, fewer in number, and organized around “big ideas.”

As was the case with its academic siblings, where the preschool years became a focus for providing critical foundations for language, emergent literacy and math, educators are now asking whether science should be introduced in preschool.  Science is not “new” to preschool since many states include science as part of their “cognition and general knowledge” school readiness domain and Head Start includes “nature and science” as one of eight designated readiness domains.  However, a recent analysis of Head Start school readiness data in one state (Greenfield et al., 2009) finds that on average, children leave the Head Start program for kindergarten with science readiness scores significantly lower than scores on the other seven school readiness domains.  Follow-up focus groups with Head Start teachers pinpoint lack of time and not feeling prepared or comfortable teaching science as two possible reasons why this mandated readiness domain receives short shrift.  Is preschool, however, too early for introducing science?  A “strict” interpretation of Piaget would suggest so.  More recent research on children’s thinking, however, clearly show that despite much of young children’s thinking being tied to the perceptual here and now, young children can think and talk about many science-related topics.  The 2007 NRC report reviews this research and argues for the importance and timeliness of introducing science to young children.  This urgency has important relevance beyond its direct impact on science readiness, since part of learning science involves important domain general skills that are relevant in other areas of learning.

Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS) is a new publication that arrives on this scene, not as a rushed attempt to fill this gap, but rather as a mature program whose initial development began 20 years ago in preschool programs serving families at an Air Force base near Los Angeles.  The development of PrePS has also benefited from its use at UCLA and in New Jersey, including programs serving ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged preschool populations.  A central premise of PrePS is that young children are “scientists-in-waiting … naturally curious and actively involved in exploring the world around them” (p.2).  A goal of PrePS is to foster these predispositions in the “privileged domain” of science where children have a natural proclivity to learn, experiment and explore.  Teachers also play a critical role in PrePS guiding children in organized investigations of their everyday world, building on existing knowledge, and connecting this knowledge into deeper levels of understanding.  As one PrePS teacher reflects, “It is not about what, as a teacher, do I want the children to be doing, but what I want the children to be thinking about … Then (I ask myself), what should they be doing to better understand the concept?” (p.18). Read the rest of this entry »


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