In a speech earlier this week at the University of Virginia, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan harshly criticized the nation’s education schools. “In far too many universities, education schools are the neglected stepchild," Duncan said. "Too often they don’t attract the best students or faculty." He added: "Many ed schools do relatively little to prepare students for the rigor of teaching in high-poverty and high-need schools.”
Duncan has a point. Numerous studies and reports have documented the failures of our nation’s system for preparing prospective educators. In brief, our education schools enroll some of the least academically promising students; provide them with little practical teaching experience or grounding in evidence-based practice; don’t prepare them to work in high-poverty schools or serve students with special needs; and are not accountable for the performance of their graduates in the classroom — or whether they even make it there at all. While there's substantial disagreement in education policy circles about many issues, the shortcomings of our approach to preparing and training the nation's teachers are one issue that critics both across the policy and political spectrum can agree on -- although they have radically different prescriptions for how to fix the problem.
Duncan's harsh criticisms of ed schools have gotten considerable attention from the K-12 education policy community, but early childhood advocates -- particularly those seeking to expand access to universal pre-K programs -- should take heed as well.
Over the past decade, early childhood advocates have fought tirelessly to raise the educational credentials of early childhood educators. Universal pre-k advocates, in particular, have pushed to require a bachelor's degree -- and in some cases state teacher certification as well -- for all teachers in state pre-K programs. The 2007 Head Start reauthorization gave a boost to these efforts, by mandating that half of all Head Start teachers should have a bachelor's degree by 2013. And the Early Learning Challenge Grants currently before Congress as part of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act include requirements for states to build systems that raise the credentials of early childhood educators and provide greater compensation to preschool and childcare teachers who earn postsecondary degrees.
There are good reasons for this focus on raising the skills and qualifications of early childhood educators. Research documents the tremendous amount of learning that takes place in children’s earliest years, as well as the importance of nurturing, consistent and stimulating caregivers to children’s development during this time. Yet childcare and preschool teachers often earn less than parking lot attendants or hotel maids, and many also have correspondingly low education levels.
This is particularly perverse because in many ways we know more from research about the skills early educators need than we do about the qualities and skills that are essential for educators working at higher grade levels. Yet we tend to have higher -- and more specific -- education requirements for teachers in K-12 schools than we do in early childhood.
A growing number of states require teachers in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs to hold qualifications on par with those of elementary school teachers. But some of the states that enroll the most children in pre-K — Texas, California, Florida — set the bar lower. Education requirements for teachers in private preschool and childcare settings are often minimal. Low-income, English language learner, and minority preschoolers — the ones who most benefit from skilled teaching in the early childhood years — are the least likely to have well-trained teachers.
All these factors point to a need to raise the skills and education levels of many of our nation’s early educators. But, unfortunately, our nation’s schools of education -- where states and reformers expect early childhood educators will turn to earn these credentials -- by and large aren’t up to the task.
Beyond the problems that Duncan called out in his speech, our nation’s schools of education are particularly ill-suited to prepare the next generation of early childhood educators. To be sure, there are some excellent programs preparing early childhood educators out there, but they are not the norm, and are insufficient to serve the growing demand. If, as Duncan says, education schools are the "neglected stepchildren" of our nation's universities, then early childhood programs are the neglected children of ed schools. Because preschool teaching jobs have historically paid much less — and required fewer educational credentials — than those in public K-12 settings, early childhood education programs have tended to be fewer, smaller, and more focused on preparing future researchers than prospective educators. Too many faculty in these programs are out-of-touch with the needs and realities of the field, or subscribe to outdated philosophies of child development that are not informed by recent research on how young brains develop and how children acquire language, pre-literacy, and social skills. And we need many more options for nontraditional students seeking to raise their credentials and skills after years of working in preschool classrooms.
None of this is to say policymakers should give up on raising the skills and qualifications of early childhood educators. Rather, it means we need to take a much more critical look at the programs on which we’re relying to do the difficult but important work of educating and training early childhood professionals. For a long time, universal pre-K advocates have pushed to mandate bachelor’s degrees for all pre-K teachers — but have focused much less attention on the quality of those BA programs, or what prospective teachers should learn in them.
Early childhood advocates and policymakers should take heed of the complaints Duncan aired recently about our nation’s system for preparing K-12 educators and should avoid replicating that same flawed system at the pre-K and early childhood level.
That means that initiatives — like those under the Early Learning Challenge Grant program — to raise the qualifications of early childhood educators should also improve the quality of programs preparing those early educators. States that receive Early Learning Challenge Grants should be required to put in place systems that evaluate the quality of bachelor’s and associate’s degree programs that train early educators in the state, and track both how long their graduates stay in the early childhood field and their performance in the classroom.
Federal policymakers should also fund the development of new, innovative programs -- based in solid evidence about how young children learn and the skills that early educators need to teach them effectively -- to prepare early childhood educators and raise the credentials of existing teachers, including expedited alternative routes to credentials that take into account the considerable skills many early childhood professionals already possess -- even if they currently lack bachelor's degrees.
The Classroom Assessment Scoring System -- developed by researchers at the University of Virginia, where Duncan spoke -- and its accompanying professional development tools provide one compelling model. CLASS is a validated, reliable observational tool that measures the quality of teachers' emotional and instructional interactions with children in the classroom. Research documents that teachers who score better on CLASS produce better student learning gains -- regardless of their level of formal schooling. And teachers who participate in targeted professional development and coaching linked to CLASS can also raise their teaching skills and student outcomes -- again regardless of formal education levels. Rather than requiring all pre-k teachers to complete a one-size-fits all early childhood degree program, why not allow existing teachers an opportunity to earn credentials by demonstrating their skills on CLASS, while also providing customized professional development and coursework to supplement areas where teachers need additional skills? And this is just one of many innovative approaches universities and states could develop to build early educators' skills and credentials.
Ultimately, such innovative models could provide a strategy not just for improving the qualifications of early childhood educators, but also for transforming our entire system of teacher education to address the concerns that Duncan raises. Here at Early Ed Watch, we advocate the creation of PreK-3rd teacher credentials that reflect the unique needs of children in this age range. But while we believe more states should establish such credentials, we don’t think that programs to prepare teachers for these credentials should simply replicate the weaknesses of existing programs. Rather, policymakers and higher education institutions should use the creation of such new credentials as an opportunity to also support the creation of new, better models of teacher preparation - -ultimately spreading effective innovations to prepare early educators upward to reform our K-12 teacher preparation system.