Probing Programs that Prepare Teachers of Young Kids

article | February 23, 2012

There’s plenty of talk these days about how to judge teachers, including those who work with young children. But what about judging the programs that prepare those teachers? Are researchers examining the right qualities when they assess whether a teacher-preparation program is good or bad?

Maybe not, according to a new study from Marcy Whitebook and colleagues at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. The study, “By Default or Design? Variations in Higher Education Programs for Early Care and Education Teachers and Their Implications for Research Methodology, Policy, and Practice,” explores the variations in higher education programs preparing early childhood education teachers to work with children under 5.

The study says past research on preparation for early childhood teachers has focused on variables that do not go deep enough to assess whether a preparation program is preparing teachers to be effective. Typical factors explored by researchers fall under four areas: program content, clinical experiences (experiences for prospective teachers to work with children in a variety of classroom settings), faculty characteristics and institutional context. Researchers also typically examine variables such as course topics and syllabi; ask whether students have experiences teaching certain age groups of children; interview a single person within a program about faculty experience; and examine past surveys about institution offerings and services.

According to the report, early childhood preparation programs vary greatly for a few reasons. States lack common education and licensing standards for teachers of children, birth to 5. Some states don’t require student teaching at all. At the institution level, preparation programs are often housed in different departments. Some may be based in the School of Education but often they are located elsewhere, such as Family and Consumer Science Departments, for example. And when early childhood preparation programs say that they are including infants and toddlers in their scope, they may primarily address K-3.

In our own paper, “Getting in Sync: Revamping Licensing and Preparation for Teachers in Pre-K, Kindergarten, and the Early Grades,” we reported a similar lack of consistency in policies and practices for early childhood teacher preparation across states and institutions.

Whitebook and her colleagues wanted to explore how well the variables currently being used enable researchers and stakeholders to understand the differences between preparation programs. What Whitebook and her colleagues found is that they do not provide the whole picture of how well prospective teachers are prepared to teach young children. Current research methods scratch the surface, but deeper information is needed to determine the best models for preparing teachers. The paper recommends that:

  • Researchers should examine programs’ objectives for what prospective teachers should learn and determine which courses help them achieve those objectives. Researchers should also examine whether the courses aligned with state standards or other national standards for what teachers should know.
  • Researchers should survey programs to determine whether they go through an approval process to determine whether the program is aligned with its stated objectives and with state standards.
  • The higher education community should develop protocols for describing clinical experiences, which should include questions about the focus, duration and intensity of the experience as well as criteria for selecting early childhood sites, supervisors, and evaluation of prospective teachers.
  • Preparation programs should gather and make available more data about faculty background, including their experience and ongoing professional development. States should regularly update and maintain this information in a data system.
  • Preparation programs should be required by states to report changes in program design, course offerings, clinical experiences and program staffing. Reports on staffing are particularly important because decreases in staff size affect how many faculty members are available to students. States should maintain this information and make it available to the public.

The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment is also developing an Early Childhood Higher Education Inventory, which will help states and communities describe their higher education offerings. The Center intends states to use the inventory to examine whether their higher education offerings match what early educators need to know and be able to do to work with young children.

We’ll let you know when the inventory is available.