Meeting Demand for California’s New Public Pre-K Jobs

A new preK-3rd grade credential aims to bring more early childhood expertise into California's public schools. Will it work?
Blog Post
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages
Nov. 4, 2022

A typical teacher of young children in California may have been working in a childcare center in the Central Valley for 15 years. They may, for example, spend their mornings reading aloud to three and four-year-olds and their afternoons facilitating play in the sand table. This teacher may have gotten her bachelor’s degree in early childhood from Fresno State in the early 2000’s. She may speak fluent Spanish and know how to engage regularly with families of the children in her classroom so they can be partners in their children's learning.

But despite all of her expertise, this teacher would not be eligible to take one of the new jobs in California’s public school pre-K classrooms without jumping through a lot of extensive (and perhaps expensive) hoops.

These are some of the intricacies state policy makers are struggling to get right as they reform the state’s teacher credentialing system and work to strengthen the early childhood workforce inside its large public school system.

California is expanding its transitional kindergarten program – the first year of a two-year kindergarten experience in public schools. This is part of a statewide effort led by Governor Gavin Newsom to expand early learning programs as outlined in his Master Plan for Early Learning and Care. Soon, there will be 300,000 new four-year-olds inside elementary schools across California, creating as many as 15,000 teacher vacancies. These are jobs which elementary school principals want to fill with expert teachers.

They are looking for folks who know how to do exactly this kind of work, who understand child development and who have experience getting children ready for later elementary school, working closely with families, and creating emergent, play-based curriculum. These are skills that teachers of older children in the state don’t necessarily have, but research shows they need in order to be successful in a classroom of four-year-olds.

California in fact, has a teaching credential that stretches from pre-K all the way to grade 12 for self-contained classrooms. This is unique and one of the broadest in the country. Designed years ago to give principals more hiring flexibility and teachers access to a larger diversity of jobs. Today this broader credential is understood by many to be subpar, and can “spur prospective teachers to obtain broad degrees and forgo specialized training.”

Pennsylvania and Ohio are among the states that have recently changed their licensing requirements to make them more narrow and better prepare teachers for the early grades. Now, California is doing the same. The state’s new PK-3 Early Childhood Specialist Instruction Credential was called for in the master plan and is expected to be approved by the state’s Office of Administrative Law next year.

California also desperately needs to diversify the workforce inside its public school classrooms to more adequately match the linguistic and cultural diversity of the children in the state, which research shows leads to better outcomes for children of color.

“This credential is intended to serve as a bridge,” into jobs in the state's public schools said the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing’s Mary Sandy, for people currently working in early childhood in California with four-year-olds who currently have bachelor’s degrees and the states’ child development teacher permit.

“What we are trying to establish with this credential is a pathway that is grounded in child development and an understanding of the children and their needs in the classroom,” Sandy said.

But critics say the commission erred in not creating a clearer pathway for the state’s existing early childhood professionals into these jobs. According to the current plan, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and a child development permit who has years of experience working with four-year-olds but outside of the public school system, working in a child care center for example, would still be required to complete a teacher preparation program, clinical practice hours, and a performance assessment from a supervisor.

Experts who know this population say the requirements are unwieldy, and will present some real barriers to entry.

“The state is missing an incredible opportunity to connect the students of color with a workforce that is more representative of them,” said Hopeton Hess, a research and policy associate at the Center for the Study of Child Care Research at UC Berkeley. “And then in addition, these teachers have a wealth of experience.”

Hess said the problem reflects a longstanding care versus education dichotomy within the early childhood field where the expertise of those who work with younger children, who in California are more likely to be immigrants and teachers of color, are not valued in the same way as those who educate older children, who are more likely to be white. Though compensation is much higher inside the public school systems, members of the early childhood workforce, Hess said, will likely not be able to afford to take time out of their regular paid employment in order to gain the clinical practice hours in an elementary school setting that are needed to get the new credential.

“It'd be like asking a working person right now to go back to college to continue doing their same exact job,” he said.

As currently written, Hess and his colleagues say these recommendations reflect an assumption that the training early childhood educators have received in their degree programs is inadequate, when in fact the opposite is true. “Based on our research,” they write in submitted public comment, “the majority of ECE bachelor's degree programs in California cover content for children through third grade, across domains of learning and development.”

Hess and his colleagues have called for an expedited pathway for early childhood professionals based on a process that is currently available for private school teachers, who are able to get a credential without having to complete a preparation program.

There is widespread concern in California about the teacher shortage and its impact on classrooms across the age span. The state, many say, is not doing enough to raise compensation and build the pipeline of teachers. Solutions will require opening jobs more widely and ensuring support, attractive compensation and professional development to adults who work with children across the state. To meet this need, we’ll need pathways into teaching from a diverse variety of settings, including those in early care and education.

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