Opinion

Williams — Everyone Loves Pre-K, But No One’s Asking the Key Question: How Do We Train Early Educators?

By Conor Williams | April 17, 2016

As I’ve recently written, most of the hottest K–12 topics are already settled for the 2016 election cycle. But that doesn’t mean that education is going to be entirely relegated to the sidelines. Keep an eye on early education policy, where various candidates have strong interest in and credentials for making their mark with new, interesting (or, erm, “interesting”) proposals. If you’ve been a combatant in — or just an observer of — the last decade of K–12 battles, it’s time to get ready for a crash course in a whole new realm of edu-politics. So: here’s a guide to sorting serious early education programs (especially pre-K) from the campaign trail posturing.
The usual case for early education is already well established in American public discourse. Research shows that low-income children fall behind their wealthier peers’ language development almost from birth. By age three, the children from the poorest American families have heard an average of 30 million fewer words than children from the wealthiest families. These gaps only grow in the years before elementary school.
Fortunately, early education programs can help. The dollars we spend on pre-K and quality care for infants and toddlers can save us lots of money and energy down the line. If we get kids on track by kindergarten, we spend less on later gap-closing efforts — and those kids are more likely to grow up healthy, wealthy, and wise. Research suggests that they’ll generate more tax revenue through their increased incomes, cost less in public assistance dollars, and generally be better citizens. (The Upjohn Institute’s Tim Bartik is amongst the best resources for the research behind these programs’ returns on public investment.)
Done right, early education programs work just about as intuitively as they sound. But building a broader system that can deliver on those promises is no simple thing: pre-K’s not like some sort of cream you apply to achievement gaps and, whoosh, they’re gone in two days!
Here’s why: those early word gaps can’t just be closed by rattling off a number of words. Quality matters. Rich, robust language use builds vocabulary and literacy. But pre-K programs’ capacity to deliver that sort of language varies considerably. This should be relatively intuitive: these programs work by exposing children with low linguistic development to the speech of highly-literate adults. So a program’s effectiveness fluctuates along with the literacy levels of its teachers.
“We know the child’s word-gap risk increases his/her lifelong academic, social and income disparities,” e-mailed Elizabeth A. Gilbert, Director of the University of Massachusetts’ Learn at Work Early Childhood Educator Program. “The low-literacy early childhood educator’s word gap is one of the results of such disparity.”
No surprise, then, that staffing is the biggest challenge preventing new early education proposals from becoming high-quality early education programs. Whenever a political candidate announces a new pre-K program, your first question should be: who will teach in these classrooms?
It’s not enough to be great with kids, or have loads of charisma. Early educators need to build emotional connections with children, yes, and that can help students develop social skills and perseverance. But they also need to help students develop linguistically. This requires proficient literacy and the careful usage of scaffolded vocabulary. It requires strong conversation and meaningful interactions that are about more than just signs and gestures.
“States require that our public school teachers test and pass literacy tests prior to hire and teacher-certification,” wrote Gilbert. “States never require adult literacy screening of early educators as part of: 1) hiring protocols, 2) teacher-licensure requirements, 3) Quality Rating Information Systems standards, or 4) early education professional development.”
People in the early education world are aware of the problem. In response, many suggest that early education programs should require educators to have more formal training. But these are usually low-rigor credentials, such as: a Child Development Associates (CDA), an Associate of Arts (A.A.), or even a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.). Those additional letters carry no magic. They’re irrelevant, unless they actually impart higher literacy and language to the teachers who get them. Credentials are only proxies for the level of skill development they require. If they don’t translate into improvements in instruction that actually improve student achievement, they’re the policy equivalent of soda: just empty calories.
And yet, lots of policy thinking has been going that way for some time. The 2007 reforms to Head Start required that at least half of its teachers obtain a B.A. by 2013. In response, the number of Head Start teachers with that credential has been steadily rising. A 2015 National Academy of Sciences committee report on the early education workforce recommended moving all early educators towards a B.A. requirement, even though it acknowledged that “empirical evidence about the effects of a bachelor’s degree is inconclusive” (6).
Think, for a moment, what this sort of policy is supposed to achieve. It’s aimed at improving student achievement by raising instructional quality by means of increasing the literacy levels and technical competence of the Head Start workforce. But again, the value of “having a B.A.” isn’t constant for pre-K classrooms. Given that the average hourly wage of Head Start instructors with an A.A. was $12.20 in 2012 (those with just a high school diploma made an average of just $10.40 per hour), it’s likely that many of these B.A.s come from the weaker end of the higher education landscape (see also).
Indeed, the National Academy of Sciences report cites research suggesting that “more than half of the faculty in early childhood programs across 2- and 4-year institutions of higher education were employed part time…In addition, faculty with prior experience working directly with children in early childhood settings are found less often in 4-year than in 2-year institutions.”
Programs like this are unlikely to provide comprehensive support and training to move early educators very far along in their skills and knowledge. Money isn’t everything in higher education, of course, but it tells part of the story, and we should be wary of seeing low-cost B.A. degrees as an important piece in improving the early education workforce’s abilities.
There are other big obstacles sure to be glossed over in the presidential early education rhetoric: how will new early education programs be funded? Will they be linked to — or operated in — schools? High-quality early education can start closing gaps, but weak elementary school instruction can undo that work — how will candidates ensure that the public school system builds on the gains? How will programs serve the growing number of dual language learners in U.S. schools?
But the workforce question is definitely the biggest, and candidates (as would-be policymakers) have options for addressing it. Here, in rough order of efficiency, are several: 1) raising early educators’ salaries to attract candidates with stronger literacy skills to the profession, 2) raising the standards for entry into early educator preparation programs (be they B.A., A.A., or other), and/or 3) improving the quality of early educator preparation programs. Really effective proposals will need to do all three.
Big American elections are always, at base, about the future. They’re an opportunity for candidates and voters to engage in (sometimes) civil debates over what sort of a country we’d like to become. New early education proposals fit nicely into that basic framework — they promise that investing early in children will help us avoid later uncomfortable problems with controversial solutions. Who could oppose giving better opportunities to infants, toddlers, and preschoolers?
Not me. Not most Americans. But if candidates want to convert early education’s promise into something more than political positioning, their pre-K proposals need to start with a plan for professionalizing the early education workforce.
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