Educators in child care centers
and early education systems outside of public schools are prepared differently
than those teaching in public elementary schools. Neither system is effectively
producing a sufficient number of educators who support young children’s
Society tends to view working with
younger children as less prestigious work even though the early years are
formative to children’s future success. State qualification requirements and
higher education offerings reflect this.
State agencies have significant
control over teacher preparation because they oversee higher education programs
and create policies on qualifications, licensure, and funding. Accreditation
standards for programs preparing early childhood educators need to be
strengthened and should be aligned with state regulations.
The main purpose of professional
learning is to improve quality of practice and promote better child outcomes.
The type, quality, and accessibility of professional learning is highly varied
depending on the setting an educator works in. This is due to differences in
state regulations, funding, leadership decisions, time, incentive systems, and
There are two
primary ways that early childhood educators prepare for and continue to develop
in their roles: formal higher education (often called “pre-service”
preparation) or ongoing professional learning opportunities (often called
“in-service” preparation). It is common for educators to participate in some
combination of these two methods.
Higher Education (Pre-Service Preparation)
There is significant
variation in how educators are prepared depending on which setting they work in
and the age group they serve. Elementary school educators are part of a more
established system with standard structures and regulation, while educators of
children prior to kindergarten (with the exception of pre-K teachers in public
schools) are often in less regulated programs or facilities. Neither system is
producing enough educators able to provide high-quality education and care to
Professionals in B–5
settings have traditionally been expected to support child development, whereas
elementary school teachers are usually expected to focus on academics and
knowledge. Elementary school candidates must have formal preparation before
employment, usually a bachelor’s degree and state certification.
There is great variation, however, in preparation program quality, especially in
settings outside of elementary schools. Many early educators work in the field
before pursuing formal higher education or training, though programs have been
increasing qualification requirements in recent years.
Because of program
variation and limited data, it is difficult to determine which aspects of
preparation are most important and effective. Programs to train elementary teachers
are more standardized than those for educators outside of public schools, and
they almost always include some type of clinical experience. But even though
field placements are common, there are minimal quality standards in place to
ensure worthwhile experiences.
There is no
agreement about which standards constitute a high-quality educator preparation
program. Many programs do not give educators the knowledge needed to work with
young children, and programs have failed to keep up with the needs of the
increasingly diverse population of children they are serving. Higher education
programs can have difficulty finding and retaining high-quality faculty to
Watch how the University of Washington created a new collaborative preparation program for both principals and center directors:
take steps to increase access to higher education and encourage educator
success. Articulation agreements, for instance, can help aspiring educators
overcome barriers to higher education.
number of candidates are also pursuing alternative pathways that have either
been emerged out of partnerships with traditional higher education institutions
or created by entirely new entities that sidestep higher education institutions.
Here's the story of how the University of Oklahoma at Tulsa developed an affordable and accessible path to a bachelor's degree:
Ongoing Professional Learning (In-Service Preparation)
learning during ongoing practice is highly variable: it comes in many forms
(e.g., workshops, coaching,
communities of practice), can be delivered through numerous methods (e.g., in
the workplace, offsite, via technology), and serves multiple purposes (e.g.,
competencies, introducing new tools). The goal of all professional
learning is to improve quality of practice and support child outcomes.
learning varies based on role and practice setting. Those working in
elementary schools usually have to meet specific requirements around professional
learning and may have greater access to opportunities for ongoing training.
Educators in publicly-funded programs, like Head Start, are more likely to
participate in professional
learning during paid work hours. Some educators face barriers like limited
funding, lack of support from leadership, and the inability to take time away
from the classroom.
identified characteristics of effective professional
learning that improve instructional practice and foster stronger adult-child
interactions. They have
found that professional learning is most effective when it is ongoing,
consistent, and directly related to classroom practice.
Continuous improvement is key to effective professional
practice where educators review and alter their own practice is also
essential. Educators are more receptive to professional
learning that is relevant and useful to their work. It should foster
collaboration between educators, such as through professional
learning communities that allow for collaborative learning and reflection.
There is some evidence that high-quality in-classroom coaching
can improve the quality of instruction and child outcomes.
“Teaching is one of
the most common occupations in the United States...yet as a nation the United
States lacks a common vision for or standardization of how to prepare
educators. This lack of standardization has influenced perceptions of the
occupation, as well as policies and practices for teacher
preparation. The lack of standardization and its effects become even more
striking when viewed in light of the broad variations in the preparation of
educators across professional roles and settings for children birth through age
8.” (pg. 365)
Questions for Policymakers, Higher Education, and the Workforce
How do state policies differ
around qualifications of educators working in B–5 settings and those working in
What types of professional
learning opportunities does the state or district offer for early childhood
educators? Are there opportunities for all educators (e.g., teachers, leaders,
and paraprofessionals) working with children from birth through third grade?
Are educators working with different ages of children participating together in
these opportunities at times?
Are there requirements around ongoing
learning to ensure that educators stay up to date on the latest science and
In preparation programs, are
educators who are planning to work in elementary schools leaving with a strong
foundation in child development and early learning?
Are higher education programs
accessible, both in terms of cost and time, for educators already in field? How
can programs make higher education more accessible?
Do preparation programs give
leaders the knowledge and skills to manage a small business and provide
instructional leadership to classroom teachers?
How can preparation programs
incorporate additional high-quality field experiences to give prospective
teachers more opportunities to practice and demonstrate competencies?
Is there a track for
administrators of non-public school early education programs that includes both
operational or managerial knowledge and instructional knowledge?
Are you afforded opportunities to
learning communities in your school or program? If not, can you advocate
for the creation of those communities or start them yourselves with the
assistance of professional membership organizations in your field?
Have you talked with your leaders
about expanding options in your state or locality for augmenting your skills
and sharing learnings across programs or grade levels?
This is a multimedia guidebook inspired by and drawn from the Transforming the Workforce for Children From Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation (National Academies Press, 2015). This guidebook adds to that volume with key takeaways, videos, interactive tools, a glossary, and more. We have designed it with three doorways for three different but overlapping audiences: educators who work directly with children, educators in higher education who prepare those educators, and policymakers interested in improving early learning settings for children from B–8.