Do K-3 Teachers See Themselves as Early Educators and Much More: Findings from NAEYC’s New Market Research

Blog Post
May 25, 2018

Developmental science has found that the period of a child’s life from birth to eight years old is a “coherent and unified stage of life.” Therefore, a child’s education from birth to age eight should be unified and have continuity between grades to sustain and build upon educational gains made each year. As we know, however, there is usually a lack of unity in children’s education and care over these years, particularly regarding the qualifications, training,  and compensation of the educators who serve them. The seminal report Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation recognized these divisions and laid out recommendations to begin to unify the early education workforce. But do K-3 educators see themselves as crucial parts of the early education continuum? This is the primary question the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) sought to answer through their new market research.

Through surveys and interviews of early educators, NAEYC found that on average two-thirds of K-3 educators considered themselves to be early childhood educators. This percentage declines as grade level increases, on average 93 percent of kindergarten teachers considered themselves to be early childhood educators compared to 52 percent of third-grade teachers.

Both K-3 educators and educators for children 0-5 agree that what matters the most to them in their jobs is “to feel good about the impact they are having on children and their community.” However, the significant challenges identified were different for K-3 educators and 0-5 educators. Eighty percent of K-3 educators worry about how they can continue to best serve their students while balancing an increased focus from school administration on testing. Low pay, on the other hand, was identified by 84 percent of 0-5 educators as their biggest challenge. Sixty-five percent of K-3 educators identified low pay as a challenge— a significant percentage but much smaller than the percent of 0-5 educators. Educators living in the south are the most likely to identify low pay as a significant challenge.

A surprising finding, considering the extensive debate over preparation for early educators, was that the majority of educators, both K-3 and 0-5, approved of their own professional preparation. Teacher preparation for educators birth to age eight varies extensively. K-3 teachers are almost always required to have a BA and be licensed, while 0-4 educator preparation differs across locations, settings, and roles. More than half of the responses from early educators identified “being in a real classroom” and “child development coursework”  as “very helpful” for their professional preparation. Teachers felt less prepared in the following areas: classroom management, inclusion, and dual-language learning.

NAEYC’s research also found that teachers who felt positively about their preparation were more likely to express that they want to stay in the field. This is a compelling finding as the high turnover rate in early care and education, particularly amongst 0-5 educators, can have adverse effects on child outcomes.

K-3 teachers prioritized “having leaders who trust and support their teachers” when deciding on where to work and if they should stay at their school. Relatedly, 0-5 educators prioritized the promotion of “positive social and emotional development [for their students].” But as I pointed out in a previous post regarding organizational climate, a school or a center’s priorities— like the promotion of positive social-emotional development— is largely determined by its leadership.

Perhaps the most significant finding from NAEYC’s research is that 76 percent of K-3 educators are “in favor of creating a unified and aligned system of early childhood education birth through 8.” Buy-in from this group of educators will be a crucial step towards bringing this currently fragmented workforce together. The Power to the Profession taskforce, a national collaboration led by NAEYC, is presently working to unify the early education workforce.