Imagine a new teacher—Emily. She just graduated from a four-year university with an elementary education degree and a K–5 teaching license. Most of her field experiences were in 3rd through 5th grade classrooms, and her student teaching was in 4th grade. But Emily is offered a position in a 1st grade classroom. She is a little nervous about teaching children so young, but she accepts the job. "How different can it be?" she thinks to herself.
A month later, she realizes that she is woefully unprepared to teach 5- and 6-year-olds. The school district only offers half-day kindergarten, so many of her students come to her unready for a full day of learning. Her students have difficulty sitting at their desks during math lessons, and Emily spends what feels like half the day helping students transition from one activity to the next. The majority of her students are still emergent readers, but Emily doesn't know how to teach them to read.
In short, despite two years of coursework, field experiences, student teaching, and a license that says she is qualified to teach any grade from kindergarten through 5th, she is not. Why not?
In an in-depth investigation, the New America Foundation found two reasons for this predicament: weak preparation for K–3 teachers and an inconsistent licensing structure for these grades (Bornfreund, 2011). As it stands now, potential elementary teachers can take one of two paths: They can enroll in early childhood degree programs, which typically focus on developing and teaching children age 3 through grade 3 and emphasize such concepts as how young children grasp new ideas and how to engage families in literacy activities, with less attention given to content areas like science, history, and math. Or they can enroll in elementary degree programs, which stress teaching specific subjects like math and science in grades K–5, with more emphasis on upper elementary grades and less on how children develop. Graduates of either program can earn licenses that enable them to teach in kindergarten and the early grades.
The Preparation Problem
Disparate preparation of early-grade teachers has set up an either/or scenario: Young children either have a teacher who understands how they learn but lacks subject-area expertise, or they have a teacher who understands what knowledge and skills they need but lacks insight on how they soak up new knowledge and skills. Either way, these teachers are missing important pieces of what they need to be effective.
According to a survey by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE, 2010), 20 percent of NCATE-accredited schools do not offer a specific course on child development. Among those that do, the most frequently used textbook in early childhood and elementary programs covers the stages of development but does not explain how this information should inform instruction. Worse, these courses are usually offered during the freshman and sophomore year as a prerequisite for entering a preparation program, meaning they are not connected to any methods courses or field experiences.
Because early interactions with teachers set the course for how families will be involved as their children progress through the grades, family engagement is another topic that should be central to preparation of teachers of young children (Halgunseth, Peterson, Stark, & Moodie, 2009). Yet although early childhood preparation programs tend to emphasize family engagement, elementary preparation programs often do not.
Courses in how to teach reading are also lacking. We talked with kindergarten and 1st grade teachers in Florida and Virginia who expressed frustration about their reading courses. One teacher with a K–5 license said, "My elementary preparation program focused more on the older grades. When I moved from 4th grade to 2nd grade, I realized I didn't have enough preparation in how to teach phonics." Another elementary-licensed teacher who was assigned to kindergarten said she had no training in teaching beginner readers. She was lost.
Courses on teaching reading can look different depending on whether they are taught in elementary or early childhood preparation programs. At one New Jersey university, for example, the early childhood reading course focuses on what may affect literacy and language development, including cultural and social issues. The course also emphasizes the role of oral language, play, and teacher talk in early literacy development. In contrast, the elementary course emphasizes instructional methods or strategies for teaching literacy, with a focus on vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. Research suggests that teachers working with prekindergarten through 3rd grade students need grounding in the concepts and strategies taught in both of these classes (Guernsey, 2010; National Center for Family Literacy, 2009).
To become effective teachers of children in prekindergarten through 3rd grade, prospective teachers also need courses that provide them with a deep knowledge of this age group. Too often, however, content and methods courses lean toward the upper elementary grades. Fewer than two-thirds of preparation programs require a course in numeracy and math for young children (Maxwell, Lim, & Early, 2006).
Most states offer two overlapping licenses for teachers of young elementary students: a K–5 or K–6 license to teach in elementary schools and an early childhood license to teach prekindergarten and the early elementary grades. A new approach would be to offer one license that spans prekindergarten through 3rd grade and another license that begins at 3rd or 4th grade and extends into middle school. This shift would drive changes in colleges of education that would better ensure that all teachers are equipped to educate the children in their classrooms.
A new licensing structure may not sound like something teachers would want. Many teachers opt for a K–5 or K–6 license because it covers a large span of grades—making them more desirable to future employers. But eliminating the overlap should spur teachers to be more thoughtful about the levels of children they want to teach. At the same time, it wouldn't close the door on teachers who are interested in pursuing broader expertise; they could always complete the coursework to obtain both licenses.
Superintendents and principals may resist restructuring because they want the flexibility that the overlapping licenses allow. Many principals move teachers across grade levels to ensure that their most effective teachers are in grades that count for state tests and accountability requirements. Children in the early grades are then sometimes left with weaker teachers who are unable to provide the strong foundation they need. Eliminating the overlap could lead to more thoughtful decisions on hiring teachers for the early grades, which would increase the likelihood that students get off to a good start. The current structure seems to be built on the way school buildings are run instead of the way children develop. A smarter approach would put children's learning and development first (Kauerz & Howard, 2009).
Addressing the Problems
Promising models that address some of these problems already exist. For example, the early childhood preparation program at Rowan University in New Jersey requires a significant amount of content and methods coursework coupled with courses on curriculum integration, assessment, and child development. Prospective teachers take two courses called Growth and Learning. One course focuses on development of children from birth through age 5 and how to understand children in the context of family, culture, and society. It also includes a field experience. The other course focuses on the same topics as they relate to school-age children.
The early childhood teacher preparation program at the University of Central Florida requires a course called Teaching Science and Technology to Young Children, in which teachers learn to implement an interactive, discovery-oriented science and technology curriculum for young children. Similar classes could be developed for other subject areas.
Fixing the licensure problem is not impossible either. Arkansas and Ohio are among the few states that have avoided the overlap. Pennsylvania is taking a step forward by breaking its K–5 license into two different licenses—one for prekindergarten through 4th grade (P–4) and one for grades 4–8. The hope is that the new structure will lead state universities to better align their degree programs with the developmental stages of the students whom teacher candidates will teach (Kauerz & Howard, 2009).
Fair for Students, Fair for Teachers
The current structure isn't fair to new teachers like Emily—nor is it fair to the students they teach. No educator should have to face a roomful of young children without the knowledge and skills to engage them and help them succeed. Revamping teacher preparation and licensure will be difficult, but state policymakers must take on the challenge if they are serious about building an effective system that ensures that teachers in the early grades can lay the strong foundation students need to be successful in school and in life.