One Size Doesn't Fit All

The Need for Specialized Teacher Licenses in the Early Grades

The job of an early childhood educator, a teacher working with children birth through third grade, is a complex and unique one. In the course of a school year, PreK–third grade teachers should teach reading and early mathematical skills and develop lessons with hands-on activities so students do not have to sit still for long periods of time. Teachers will help students build specific social skills like relationship-building, communicating, taking turns, sharing, and understanding and regulating the strong feelings that arise when sharing a small space with many peers.

These competencies are different from those that teachers of older students need. Research shows that by age nine, when children have entered middle childhood, they are more able to accomplish complex intellectual tasks, and the role of the teacher shifts as children begin to work more independently. Teaching effectively in the early grades requires a deep understanding of child development, knowing the ways five-year-olds think and behave and why. Without it, children will not build the critical foundation they need for all future learning.

As most experts agree, high-quality instruction is too often lacking in PreK–3 classrooms. 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.

One Size Doesn't Fit All takes a closer look at teacher licensing laws and practices for elementary age students in four states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, South Carolina, and Arkansas) to better understand how policy is affecting hiring, instruction, teacher practice, and young children themselves. We conducted interviews with state experts, researchers, faculty members from higher education institutions, elementary school principals, and policy analysts at state departments of education to better understand how policy is made and its consequences, both intended and unintended.

All four states examined face a push and pull between designing a system that trains teachers in ways that science shows are best for young children and responding to the needs of a large bureaucratic system that demands flexibility in hiring and classroom demands. In too many cases, the needs of the bureaucracy win out over children’s developmental needs.


One Size Doesn't Fit All


Sarah Jackson is a writer based in Berkeley, Ca. and partner at HiredPen Inc., where she covers education and social policy.

Natalie Orenstein is a staff writer at HiredPen Inc., where she writes about education and social welfare policy.

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.