Closing the Gap Between Science and Policy on What Early Educators Must Know and Do

Education and training requirements in early education and care remain out of step with the evidence on children’s early development
Blog Post
Sept. 16, 2016

Education and training requirements in early education and care remain out of step with the evidence on children’s early development.

Based on a comprehensive review of the science of child development and early learning, the National Academy of Medicine (formerly Institute of Medicine) and the National Research Council recommended transitioning to a minimum bachelor’s degree with specialized knowledge and competencies for all lead teachers of children from birth through age eight, and requirements for all those working with children, regardless of role or setting, to include foundational knowledge and competencies.

Yet a gap exists between the evidence on the central role that early educators play in facilitating learning and development and the codified expectations of early educators’ knowledge and abilities. While a few systems treat preschool teachers as part of the teaching workforce, the persistently low qualifications that have been set for most educators working with children birth to age five perpetuates the notion that teaching in early education is low-skilled work.

Today, no states have qualification systems in line with the Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth through Age 8 recommendations, as demonstrated by two recent reports: the Early Childhood Workforce Index by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) and New America’s From Crawling to Walking.

In addition to analyzing earnings and economic insecurity among early educators, CSCCE’s recently released Early Childhood Workforce Index demonstrates that states still have a long way to go in raising minimum qualification standards for early educators.

The 50 states and the District of Columbia each set their own qualification standards for early educators, and those requirements vary widely not only across states, but within states according to setting and source of funding. In any state, the qualifications a child can expect her teacher to meet are dependent not on her developmental and educational needs, but on the type of programs that are available and affordable given her family’s circumstances. This state of affairs is not only inequitable for children, but inefficient — confusing to families and cumbersome for the workforce to navigate.

In CSCCE’s Early Childhood Workforce Index, states were assessed on how they regulate entry requirements for lead teachers in child care centers and providers in home-based settings, as represented by minimum educational requirements included in state licensing laws, and whether state educational requirements for lead teachers in state-funded pre-K programs are set at a bachelor’s degree or higher. Those states assessed as making the most progress, or “making headway” must require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree for all teachers in state-funded pre-K and a Child Development Associate Credential (CDA) or vocational training for licensed care providers. Only five states meet both of these criteria, while another 24 meet only one of these criteria, most commonly the BA requirement for pre-K teachers.


States are making greater progress toward raising educational requirements for pre-K teachers, but still lag far behind in minimum requirements for early educators working outside the pre-K system. Of states with public pre-K programs, 23 require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree for lead pre-K teachers across all settings and across all programs (for states with more than one state-funded pre-K program). An additional 14 states require a bachelor’s for pre-K teachers but only for certain types of programs or settings, most often teachers in public schools only.

Lead teachers aren’t the only adults who are working closely with children in pre-K programs. Assistant teachers in these classrooms typically spend just as much time interacting in some way with them. Most states have limited requirements for assistant teachers. As New America’s From Crawling to Walking calls attention to, only 15 states with pre-K programs require these teachers to have at least a CDA.

Moreover, teaching staff in state-funded pre-K programs make up only a small portion of early educators. Only 11 states set a minimum requirement of at least a CDA or completion of a substantive vocational program for early educators working outside the pre-K system and with children birth to age four. Only Georgia and Vermont require this for both center- and home-based providers. Most states require only a high school diploma. Some require at least some additional training. But too many states require nothing at all: ten states have no requirements for center-based lead teachers, and a further 23 states have no requirements for group home-based providers.

While it’s standard for elementary school teachers in K-3rd grade to have bachelor degrees, these educators do not necessarily possess specialized knowledge about early childhood education. For example, New America’s From Crawling to Walking found that only 14 states require kindergarten teachers to have an early childhood education license. Without such a license K-3rd teachers may not possess the unique knowledge of child development necessary to deliver instruction in the ways that young children learn best: healthy balance of child-centered and teacher-guided activities, rich interactions with teachers and peers, intentional play. Some K-3rd teachers possess broad licenses ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, making it unlikely that their teacher preparation courses devoted much time to the knowledge and competencies needed to teach young children.

Equally important as teachers, are skilled elementary school principals and child care center administrators. Transforming the Workforce acknowledges the importance of these leaders and details the specialized knowledge and competencies they need. As public pre-K continues to expand, elementary school principals will be more likely to have pre-kindergartners in their building.They need to know what good teaching looks like in pre-K and the early grades and how to help teachers meet the needs of their young learners. Currently, however, Illinois is the only state that requires elementary school principals to have preparation in early childhood education prior to leading a school. Because elementary school principals have the second largest in-school impact on student achievement after teachers, it’s important for them to have a deeper understanding than many do of early childhood education. Not all three-and-four-year-olds are in public schools, many more are in child care centers or Head Start programs. As of 2013, only 41 states require directors of child care centers to possess more than a high school diploma. Only three states require at least an AA in early childhood education. We should expect much more for these administrators who for all practical purposes are doing a very similar job to principals. Yet right now, young children in many states are attending child care centers led by someone with limited insight into the unique learning and developmental needs and capabilities of the young learners they serve.

From Crawling to Walking

From Crawling to Walking

Access to educators who are well prepared is critical for all children, regardless of their age and the setting in which they receive early learning services. While many state policies are currently out of step with the research that illustrates the central role early educators play in facilitating the learning and development of young children, there is hope for improvement. With Election Day less than two months away, gubernatorial and presidential candidates have the opportunity to put forward proposals to improve children’s access to high-quality educators with specialized knowledge of the unique educational and developmental needs of young children. Raising standards for educators who work with young children would benefit children and send a message that teaching in early education is important work that requires unique skills and knowledge.