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Early Childhood Teachers: Do Qualifications Matter?

What kind of teacher qualifications result in good outcomes for very young children? Georgia's longitudinal study of its pre-kindergarten program points toward some answers. Included: Highlights of a report on the Georgia pre-K program

Student achievement begins with good teaching -- and skill and ability gaps begin long before the school bell rings in kindergarten. Georgia -- the first state to offer universal pre-kindergarten -- wanted to learn how much bang the state was getting for its educational buck.

Georgia commissioned a longitudinal study in 1996 to track 3,042 children in the pre-K program through their school years. One of the key purposes of providing quality early childhood programs has been to close achievement gaps between disadvantaged youngsters and their more affluent peers.

"This study [Pre-K Longitudinal Study 1998-1999 School Year] strongly supports the idea that high-quality teaching in pre-kindergarten can reduce those gaps," said Gary T. Henry, professor of policy studies at Georgia State University and director of the university's Applied Research Center, which conducted the study.

"[Pre-K} does make a difference," Henry told Education World. "One thing we know is that teaching practices in elementary school make a dramatic impact on whether those gaps increase or decrease over time. It is not as if pre-K is the magic bullet. We need to implement school reform all through elementary school to sustain the benefits gained from pre-K.

"High-quality education has to be sustained over the long haul," Henry added. He points out that the benefits gained by disadvantaged children who attended Head Start often did not continue because the majority of those children ended up in public schools with the lowest quality in the nation.

GEORGIA FIRST TO OFFER UNIVERSAL PRE-K

The Georgia pre-kindergarten program began in 1993 and serves about 61,000 students each school year. The state Lottery for Education funds the program. Its purpose is to provide four-year-old children with learning experiences that ready them for kindergarten.

The data from the Georgia study comes from teacher ratings of students' skills and abilities as well as surveys of teachers and parents. The study did not include a sample of children who did not attend pre-K.

In the Applied Research Center's latest report -- its third -- the researchers specifically examined ways differences in pre-K services affect four-year-olds as they enter grade two and assessed the impact of the children's kindergarten experiences on their first-grade outcomes.

REPORT FOCUSES ON TEACHER QUALIFICATIONS

The report focuses on teacher qualifications and teaching practices and how those characteristics translated into student achievement three years later. The study compared three types of pre-K teacher credentials:

  • vocational education that requires 210 hours of training and three college courses related to early childhood education, known as child development associate (CDA) credentials
  • two- or four-year college degree without certification as an early childhood teacher
  • four-year college degree and certification to teach pre-K.

The study reported ten major findings. Highlights of those findings include the following:

  • First-grade teachers rated the majority of children who participated in the pre-K program as ready for second grade. Most kids, about 55 percent, garnered ratings of "good" to "extraordinarily good."
  • Teachers considered reading, addition and subtraction, and sequencing skills and abilities to be good, on average, in students who had attended pre-K.
  • Those children whose pre-K teachers had CDA credentials, not college degrees, had lower ratings for grade-two readiness.
  • College-educated teachers certified to teach pre-K were more effective with classes of disadvantaged students than teachers not certified to teach pre-K were. However, pre-K certified teachers were no more effective overall than other college-educated teachers were.
  • Kindergarten teachers certified to teach pre-K through grade eight were more effective in preparing students in language arts, communications skills, and readiness for second grade than teachers not certified in pre-K were.
  • Children whose pre-K and kindergarten classmates were disruptive had lower skills and abilities than six-year-old children who attended classes without disruptive children did.
  • Children who attended the same school for pre-K and kindergarten had higher ratings in academic skills, communication skills, social behaviors, and readiness for grade two.

FINDINGS AFFECT STATE POLICY ON
TEACHER REQUIREMENTS

Because of the study's findings, the Office of School Readiness in Georgia is phasing out the role of CDA-certified teachers as lead teachers. "Less well-prepared teachers are more likely to be less effective," Henry said. "They don't receive adequate training over time. Initially, their training doesn't give them a basis to reflect on their teaching practices and to adjust to the needs of their students."

The finding that CDA-certified teachers are less effective than college-educated teachers doesn't surprise Beth Bye, director of the School for Young Children at St. Joseph College in Hartford, Connecticut. More than 60 years ago, St. Joe became one of the first schools in the nation to offer a preschool teacher-training lab school.

"The CDA program is a brass-tacks program that focuses on the health and safety of very young children," Bye told Education World. "It's pragmatic, not theoretical. The CDA is great background, but people with CDA training don't get the pay or status of teachers who have bachelor's degrees -- nor do they get the continuing professional development. Someone with a bachelor's degree is treated like a professional. It's not surprising their [CDA teachers'] enthusiasm wanes over time." However, many CDA teachers continue their education and go on to earn a B.A.'s, Bye said.

DISRUPTIVE KIDS AFFECT OVERALL PRE-K BENEFITS

Bye made note of the finding that disruptive kids negatively affect other kids in a class. "We can all agree that the willingness to mainstream [all behaviorally challenged students] is good, but these findings remind us to look at the impact on all kids," she said.

Marilou Hyson, the National Association for the Education of Young Children executive director for professional development, expressed concern that the implications about the negative impacts of disruptive children may deter inclusion of children who exhibit challenging behaviors in regular classrooms. "That finding jumps right out," Hyson told Education World. "The message of that finding is that we need much better professional development on how to prevent challenging behaviors."

Hyson further stated that under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), teachers should not remove disruptive children who have disabilities. Teachers need to reduce the impact of disabled children's behavior on the rest of the class by using professional development resources to manage challenging student behaviors.

PRE-K COUNTS

According to other research, including Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers, by the Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, very young children generally benefit from having a teacher certified in early childhood education, Hyson points out.

However, there aren't enough certified teachers to meet the national need nor is there enough money to pay their salaries, Hyson said. "There are economic issues we need to address."

Formerly affiliated with the early childhood teacher preparation program at the University of Delaware, Hyson said that the vast majority of early childhood teachers who graduated from that program became kindergarten teachers instead. Most couldn't afford to pay for their educations and go into a profession that paid only $15,000 annually. Those few who did work as teachers in pre-school childcare programs had to work second jobs, she said.

Hyson said the decision to phase out CDA-certified teachers as lead teachers in Georgia's pre-K program is consistent with the direction of Head Start, as well. "It doesn't mean CDA teachers aren't valuable," she said. "They are still valuable as assistant teachers and their CDA certification can be the first step for a career ladder move toward being an early childhood teacher."