New Report Finds Room for Improvement in Pre-K Teacher Prep

A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality finds that many pre-K teachers earning a bachelor’s degree arrive in the classroom poorly equipped to educate young children.

Last year, the National Academy of Medicine and National Research Council released the Transforming the Workforce report making it clear that teaching young children, beginning in infancy, is complex and highly skilled work. One of the report’s recommendations is for lead teachers of children from infancy through third grade to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and specialized knowledge and competencies.

There is no doubt that the bachelor’s degree requirement recommendation will be challenging to implement, in part because there is still disagreement among early education stakeholders about whether a bachelor’s degree for these teachers is really necessary. Some of the contention is based on the notion that teacher preparation programs are doing a poor job training teachers. And so, why force all infant, toddler, and pre-K teachers into a broken system?

A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) reinforces this concern, finding that pre-K teachers earning a bachelor’s degree arrive in the classroom poorly equipped to educate young children. For the study, NCTQ examined 100 teacher prep programs in 29 states that certify pre-K teachers, mostly programs offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In order to understand exactly what sort of training teacher candidates receive in each program NCTQ examined course requirements and descriptions, course syllabi, student teaching observation and evaluation forms, and other course materials.

A well-prepared pre-K teacher should understand the importance of building children’s language skills by encouraging and engaging children in lots of back-and-forth interactions. Teachers should also be skilled at reading books aloud in a way that encourages children to ask meaningful questions and think critically. But the report finds that about 40 percent of training programs don’t require candidates to take a course that addresses the importance of using specific strategies to help foster young children’s language development. Only 16 percent of programs evaluate prospective teachers on how well they model language for young children, while only 56 percent of programs evaluate candidates on their skill in developing young children’s critical thinking skills. And, perhaps most surprisingly, only 20 percent of programs teach strategies for engaging in a successful read aloud with students.

It’s also important for pre-K teachers to deeply understand the stages of child development from birth to age eight to be able to meet children’s emotional needs and develop positive strategies for addressing disruptive behavior. The NCTQ report finds that only 35 percent of programs require even a single course on child development that is focused on birth to age eight development. Only 19 percent of programs evaluate prospective teachers on their ability to address disruptive behavior.

And, practical experience is a must. Early education teachers should have opportunities to work in a variety of settings including with prekindergartners under the guidance of a strong mentor teacher. Most programs do at least encourage (30 percent require) aspiring pre-K teachers to student teach in actual pre-K classrooms. But these student teaching experiences might not be as beneficial as they could be because only five percent of programs require aspiring teachers to be paired with classroom teachers who have been judged to be effective — an issue with teacher preparation across the grade spans.

Not surprisingly, the report finds that the teacher prep programs that focus specifically on the lower grades typically provide better training for aspiring pre-K teachers. The report points out that “the more grades a program covers, the less likely it is to prepare teachers well in any particular grade span.” State licensure requirements are largely to blame for this.

As noted in New America’s 2011 report, Getting in Sync: Revamping Licensure and Preparation for teachers in Pre-K, Kindergarten, and the Early Grades, the grade span of teacher prep programs vary because teaching licenses vary greatly.  NCTQ’s review of state licensure policies highlights these differences, specifically at the pre-K level. For example, in Alabama pre-K teachers operate with a license ranging from pre-K to third grade while a pre-K teacher in Texas is licensed to teach pre-K to sixth grade. As Getting in Sync found for a small set of preparation programs in five states, the NCTQ report finds that programs covering wide grade spans are more likely to focus on topics more appropriate for teaching older children. For instance, these programs tend to cover fluency and phonics rather than the phonemic awareness and alphabetic knowledge that are more appropriate for pre-K students.

Limiting the grade span of teaching licenses, though, is not so easily done. New America is publishing a series of blog posts highlighting states (Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and South Carolina) that have narrowed licensure spans. One reason doing so can be controversial is that narrower licenses can give principals (and school districts) less flexibility in hiring and staffing. And teachers often like the flexibility too. Still, if the ultimate goal is to help all children reach their full potential, revamping licensure structures for teachers of pre-K through elementary school so they are better aligned with children’s development rather than grade levels in a school building is worth further exploration.

Not all states require that pre-K teachers have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and a teaching license. This also contributes to the varied levels of preparedness of pre-K teachers. Making this a requirement for all pre-K teachers, regardless of the setting in which they teach, is something states need to work toward. And state efforts to increase educational requirements for pre-K teachers should be linked with providing compensation and benefits that are comparable to K-12 teachers.

To help prospective pre-K teachers receive training specifically focused on young learners, NCTQ recommends that states encourage preparation programs to offer either more-focused degrees, such as a pre-K to third grade degree, or offer early childhood education as an add-on endorsement. These actions could help ensure that teachers who know they want to teach prekindergartners aren’t spending the bulk of their preparation time in classes learning about strategies more appropriate for teaching fourth and fifth graders.

NCTQ also calls on states to ensure preparation programs require courses in areas critical to future pre-K teachers such as emergent literacy, early childhood development, and early math and science. And while it’s good news that most of the programs studied by NCTQ encourage future pre-K educators to student teach in pre-K classrooms, the programs should go further to ensure that placements are made with a classroom teacher who has a track record of good teaching. These small changes are steps in the right direction towards ensuring that a new pre-K teacher with a bachelor’s degree arrives in the classroom with the skills necessary to deliver a high-quality education for our youngest learners.

NCTQ’s President Kate Walsh gets it right in her recent commentary: to bring the kind of transformational change needed, it will take significant shifts in state policy and higher education to bring stronger pre-K teachers to our nation’s three- and four-year-olds.

Authors:

Laura Bornfreund is director of early & elementary education policy with the Education Policy program and co-director of the Family Centered Social Policy program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts working on new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third grade learning experiences.

Aaron Loewenberg is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. He is a member of the  Early & Elementary Education team, where he provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade.