Strengthening the Early Education Workforce: A Look at the Leading States

Blog Post
Dec. 7, 2015

There are countless policies and practices that can influence children’s literacy development during their earliest years, ranging from  screenings that identify any developmental delays to access to full-day kindergarten. New America’s Early & Elementary Education Policy team recently released From Crawling to Walking: Ranking States on Birth- 3rd Grade Policies that Support Strong Readers, a report ranking states on 65 policy indicators in seven policy areas that promote children's reading on grade level by the end of third grade. We grouped states into three categories-- crawling, toddling, or walking-- based on their progress. No state is running. We ranked states across all seven areas combined and within each individual area.  

While all of these indicators (and more) are important, educators, both teachers and school leaders, are consistently shown to have the largest in-school impact on student achievement.

For policies to have an impact and change practice they must be implemented effectively, and teachers and school leaders are essential to strong implementation at the local level. If states want to create cohesive early learning systems, they will need strong policies to prepare, recruit, develop, and retain high quality educators who have an understanding of children’s early years and grades.

Our report evaluated states on 12 educator-related policies (listed below). Because of the important impact that educators have on student achievement, we gave the largest weight to policies in this category. (See our methods here on pg 6). To best build and support young readers, early grade teachers and leaders need to have knowledge of child development and literacy pedagogy. Leaders, meaning both principals and child care center directors, need to know how to best support teachers in providing an enriching learning environment. State-level policies around educator preparation, licensure, and evaluation should account for the unique needs of early childhood education teachers who are laying the foundation for children’s success in school and later in life.

Our research found that state policies around early grade teachers vary significantly: 16 states were “walking” toward strong educator policies, 15 were “toddling,” and 19 and Washington, DC were “crawling” in their progress. The map below shows which states are leading the way: Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and New York tied for first place, followed by Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Virginia, and Wisconsin. You can explore where all states ranked on our interactive mapping tool, Atlas.

All of the leading states identified in the map offer prospective teachers either an early childhood education license that spans from birth or pre-K to either 2nd or 3rd grade, in addition to a more traditional elementary education license that covers the primary school years, such as K-5th. In general, early childhood licenses tend to focus more on how to teach new and emerging readers than elementary education licenses. They also are more likely to teach child development, focusing on how to incorporate play, child-directed activities, and exploration into learning, and how to engage families. Elementary licenses instead tend to focus on subject-area content and strategies appropriate for older students. Many states have added the early childhood license in recent years recognizing the unique skill set needed to teach younger children.

Because of the overlap in grades between these two licenses, teachers with either an early childhood or elementary license can typically teach in early grade classrooms (K-3rd) in most states. This can have especially negative implications in kindergarten classrooms, where the best instruction still includes play-based learning and child-directed activities. Four leading states--Massachusetts, Oklahoma, New York, and Wisconsin-- have taken steps to address this challenge by requiring kindergarten teachers to have an early childhood education license. While there are certainly other factors that affect whether kindergarten teachers are able to instruct in the ways young children learn best, the license does suggest that these teachers have at least been prepared to do so.

One way to specifically prepare teachers to teach reading is to require candidates to pass a reading pedagogy test. All of the leading states in this category meet this indicator for elementary and early childhood educator candidates. Only four other states do so. As we explain in the report, though, “while reading pedagogy exams cannot tell how well a teacher might diagnose a reading challenge in a real-life situation, they do signal how important reading instruction is both for the teacher preparation program and the teacher candidate.”

A solid understanding of the early years is equally important for principals, especially as more schools provide full-day kindergarten and pre-K. Many principals lead elementary schools without ever having taught young children-- many have never even taught in an elementary school. This means they may not recognize that children playing with blocks, for instance, in a kindergarten or first grade classroom is entirely appropriate and educational. Among their other responsibilities, principals are tasked with hiring, evaluating, and providing feedback to teachers. To do this well, principals need to have a clear understanding of what high-quality instruction looks like in an early grade classroom without any preparation in this area.

Unfortunately, Illinois is the only state that specifically requires principals to have preparation in early childhood education. While none of the leading states’ licensure or preparation laws contain this explicit requirement, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and New York do require principals to have training in child development prior to leading an elementary school. (We’ll dig more into the importance of principal preparation in a future post.)

If the requirements around elementary school teachers and principals seem shaky, those for educators in state-licensed child care programs are downright weak. Many children attend early education programs before pre-K or attend pre-K in child care settings, yet center directors and their teachers are often held to lower educational standards. (They’re also paid much less.) State licensing standards are usually more focused on health and safety than on early learning. In Indiana and Oklahoma, along with 29 other states, lead teachers in child care centers don’t need more than high school diploma or GED. In Oklahoma they don’t even need that prior to obtaining a lead teacher position in a child care center.

And, even though the job of a center director is similar to that of a principal, the education requirements are starkly different. According to Child Care Aware, in Connecticut, directors of child care centers are not required to even have a high school diploma or GED.  Most states do require center directors to have at least a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, but specific requirements vary across states.

It’s clear from our scan of educator policies that most states have a long way to go. Even among the leading states, none met all of our indicators. Strengthening the early childhood education workforce is essential to improving program quality and ensuring that children see the immediate and long-term benefits that research shows early education can generate."