For a long time, Sally McClellan and her boss had a friendly disagreement.
McClellan, professor of early childhood education at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, believed that young children learn differently than their older peers—so much so that their teachers need specialized training. The dean of the education school, on the other hand, thought teaching first and fifth grade was fundamentally the same job. A strong teacher, in his mind, would be effective regardless of the grade he or she taught.
One day the educators’ philosophies were put to the test. The dean was teaching an early childhood math methods course that semester, and performed a live demonstration in a first grade class. He taught the young kids a basic lesson about money.
Although he was known to be a strong teacher, he could not get his lesson to stick. The kids couldn’t understand that a dime was worth more than a nickel. After all, the nickel was bigger! Their brains weren’t ready to process the counterintuitive fact.
“That was such an eye-opener for him,” said McClellan, executive director of the South Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children. “He really understood that in order to make this meaningful for the students, he had to understand where they were developmentally.”
A former preschool teacher, McClellan knew that the processes of learning in the early years and later elementary grades are distinct. Experts say “early childhood” spans from birth to age 8. During those years, learning is hands-on, experiential, and relationship-based.
“Cognitively, they begin to do more abstract thinking when they’re in fourth or fifth grade,” McClellan said.
This understanding of child development informed South Carolina’s teacher licensure structure. Those interested in teaching young children can earn a PK-3 certificate, qualifying them to teach prekindergarten through third grade. Teaching candidates interested in the later elementary grades can earn a 2-6 license.
These licensing spans make a difference because they influence what is taught in higher education teacher training programs. Take McClellan’s early childhood program at USC-Aiken. Because it is designed to qualify students for the state’s license, the coursework covers development and instruction for grades PK-3. In addition to the subject-area methods courses taught in all programs, the early childhood track includes an equal number of child development courses.
Elementary school licensing structures vary widely from state to state. Some cover broad spans like K-6, which early childhood advocates say dilutes the training. Others align more closely with child development research, offering different licenses for PK-3 and 4-8, for example.
South Carolina is unusual in that it is the only state with a 2-6 license. The license presents some challenges for elementary school administrators. When there is an opening or urgent need in kindergarten or first grade, most of the teachers on campus are not licensed to fill in. Teacher shortages in some geographic areas make the desire for flexible teachers even stronger. And when new teachers arrive from out of state, their certification often does not align with South Carolina’s unique span.
Fielding these concerns from school districts, state officials recently considered changing to a 1-6 license, which existed years ago. But once they heard the trepidations of early childhood educators and advocates, they slowed the process and decided to discuss all possibilities further. Officials at the South Carolina Department of Education were empathetic to the worry that shifting to a broader license would weaken teacher training.
“Ultimately,” said Mary Hipp, director of the Office of Educator Services, “if we’re just focusing on this to help staffing or align our span with that of other states—if we’re not focused on what’s in the best interest of kids—we’re kind of missing the boat.”
Because South Carolina’s current PK-3 license overlaps with the 2-6 license, there are plenty of teachers in second and third grade classrooms who have not been specifically trained in early childhood education. For some advocates like McClellan, the fact that the PK-3 license exists is good enough. There is an acknowledgement of the uniqueness of early childhood learning, and those who pursue a career in teaching young kids get thoroughly prepared.
Other advocates are more adamant that no teacher should be working in young classrooms without specialized training. They reject the idea that bureaucratic needs should come before children’s needs.
It is a classic tension that plays out in many states.
“It’s where the theoretical and philosophical meets the logistical and practical,” Hipp said.
The challenge is to navigate those conflicting forces while making sure teacher training matches what we know about how young children learn. Research shows that the early years are foundational, so ensuring that students receive developmentally appropriate instruction is critical.