Who Should Teach in California's New Pre-K Classrooms?

Experts say the state should not overlook its child care workforce.
Blog Post
Dec. 1, 2021

Elementary school principals in California are being asked to expand their classrooms for four-year-olds. The state will need somewhere between 8,000 to 11,000 new lead Transitional Kindergarten teachers by 2025 to teach in the new grade level in California’s public schools.

In many communities in the state, this need presents a challenge. California is suffering from a teacher shortage that has gotten worse during the pandemic. Principals are already struggling to fill existing grade-level positions. There are now fewer teachers in the pipeline, as the number of candidates earning teaching credentials has declined. And many elementary teachers don’t want to teach four-year-olds and don’t have experience with children of this age.

Little kids, after all, as Stanford Professor Emeritus Deborah Stipek recently said, are “very different from bigger kids, and not just in size.” Young children learn very differently from older children. They learn through play, for example, Stipek said. Teachers of four-year-olds need to know how to facilitate that play in their classrooms. They need to understand how to help young children develop language skills. And they need to understand how to work with families.

So who’s going to teach in all of these new classrooms? Experts are pointing to an often overlooked group—the state’s early childhood educators who currently teach in child care centers and family child care homes. New data from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) finds that there are 83,000 early childhood educators working in California across the birth through preschool age group who are well-equipped to meet this demand. These teachers have, on average, 15 years of experience. Almost half of center-based teachers have a Bachelor’s degree and 37 percent of center-based teachers meet or exceed the state’s requirements for TK teachers to have units in early childhood education.

But so far at least, principals can’t hire them. Child care center teachers, who usually hold a Child Development Permit, don’t qualify. The state’s antiquated credentialing system requires that TK teachers have a P-12 Multiple Subject Teaching Credential, which is typically used by elementary and middle school teachers teaching in self-contained classrooms. Yet, the broad nature of the multiple subject credential means most teachers don’t get the specialized knowledge they need to work in early childhood classrooms.

“Many of us are concerned that the Multiple [Subject] Credential is not sufficient to prepare you to teach four-year-olds because if you are being prepared to teach four- to 12/13-year-olds, how much attention in one year can be given to little kids?” Stipek asked in an EdSource webinar about TK.

Not a lot.

The state is working on solutions that will create alternative pathways into TK classrooms. The most promising of which is a new ECE Specialist Bridge Credential that would connect the state’s Child Development Permit with the Multiple Subject Teaching Credential so teachers with either credential could be eligible to teach TK.

A 2017 New America report found that narrower state teacher licensing spans may be one way to help steer preparation programs to equip teaching candidates with the specialized knowledge and skills necessary to meet the needs of young learners.

But experts say a lot more work is needed.

Many in the state’s early childhood community have been pushing for TK to be introduced not only in the public schools, but in community-based and existing pre-K settings, as other states like New York have done. That kind of mixed-delivery system would take advantage of the existing expertise in the state’s early childhood workforce. But that has not happened so far. (A mixed-delivery pre-K system is also required in the current version of the federal Build Back Better proposal).

Welcoming the early childhood workforce into California's public schools would also help diversify the state’s existing K-12 workforce, which is desperately needed. Seventy-six percent of kids age four and under in California are children of color, compared to only 39 percent of public school teachers, according to the CSCCE analysis. In contrast, 70 percent of center-based early educators in the state are teachers of color.

Research shows this matters for the success of the children attending school here. The women of color who make up the state’s early childhood workforce are a critical untapped asset for the state’s school districts, many of whom are struggling to create pedagogy and school climates that best support children of color.

California could learn from Grow Your Own programs that are being tried in some communities in the state. These programs are partnerships between educator preparation programs, school districts and community organizations that recruit and prepare local community members to enter the teaching profession and to teach in their own communities. GYO programs remove common barriers to accessing and earning a degree in education by providing tailored wraparound supports to individual candidates, including financial assistance, academic advising, tutoring and a cohort model. This homegrown approach to teacher preparation can also include paid job-embedded learning that allows candidates to train under the guidance of a mentor teacher and continue working while they earn a degree. And since they are often designed to meet local workforce needs, programs can be creative about how to meet candidates where they are.

Advocates say we need to make all teaching jobs, including those in early childhood classrooms, attractive to people, whether they are in K-12 schools, private child care settings or family homes. And we need to be cautious that new funding streams do not create further shortages or inequities. Researchers are calling for pay parity between early childhood and K-12 teachers (early childhood teachers now make far less), as well as for support for teachers who want to enter the K-12 system and may need extra support to get there - like tuition assistance and stipends to pay for fees or child care.

Leaders here report a lot of innovative thinking behind the scenes about how to make sure their classrooms are staffed appropriately. “There are efforts being made,” Stipek said. But whether California will get there, remains to be seen.

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