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Who’s Teaching Your Child?

July 9, 2003

New Brunswick, NJ – There’s no question about it: Three- and four-year-olds learn the most – socially, emotionally and academically – when their teachers have a college degree and some background in early childhood development, according to Steve Barnett, head of a national preschool research institute.

The reverse is also true, said Barnett, a professor of education economics and public policy at Rutgers University. “When teachers lack college training and courses in child development, children reap few of the educational benefits that scientific studies show can accrue from high-quality preschool.”

Those are the key findings in a new report released by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), a nationally recognized nonprofit think-tank based in New Brunswick, NJ. The conclusions are based on a review of current research that links student performance to teacher qualifications.

Decades of research show that a high-quality preschool experience, with a qualified teacher, can prepare children adequately for success in kindergarten and, subsequently, throughout life. Long-range studies reveal that children who attend high-quality preschools are more likely to graduate high school and college and have higher lifetime earnings.

Educational performance isn’t the only factor influenced by a teacher’s education level. “Research has consistently proven that better-educated teachers have more positive, sensitive and responsive interactions with children,” said Barnett. “They provide richer language and cognitive experiences and are less authoritarian, punitive and detached.”

The research covered children and teachers in a variety of settings, from child care centers to public preschools, from private nursery schools to Head Start programs. Barnett noted that the findings are especially important as Congress debates the Head Start Reauthorization bill, which includes teacher requirements.

Including both observations in the classroom and measures of how much and how well children learned, the research indicated that the children who had more educated teachers picked up a bigger vocabulary and better pre-math skills, as well as superior social skills.

“Teachers with knowledge of child development are better able to gear lesson plans to both the interests and abilities of three- and four-year-olds, based on an understanding of how young children learn,” said Barnett. “With an understanding of preschoolers’ emotional development they were also more patient with children and better able to deal with classroom behavior problems.”

The study showed the teachers with higher degrees were also:

  • Better at individualizing teaching to suit a child’s temperament, learning style, home language and culture, and other factors that can be critical to a child’s learning;
  • Better prepared to work with groups of children, and help each child in the group acquire pre-reading and math skills as well as social skills that help them get along better with others;
  • Better at developing relationships with family, which helps a child’s learning;
  • Better problem-solvers when working with children facing difficulties such as learning disabilities or serious emotional challenges, such as a death in the family.

“Despite these findings, the majority of children still attend preschool and child care programs where teachers are poorly paid and poorly educated,” Barnett said. Less than half of all nursery and preschool teachers today hold a college degree, a situation sanctioned by public policies.

“As a result, many preschool programs are educationally ineffective,” he said.

“So many youngsters arrive at kindergarten already behind their peers. In some states, close to half of all five-year-olds lack the verbal and social skills to succeed in school, forcing many public schools to provide them with costly remedial help.”

“Some never catch up,” he said.

The key words in the studies are “high quality.” The research shows that teacher qualifications are central to assuring a quality learning experience. “Americans expect kindergarten and other public school teachers to have college degrees, but they have yet to fully recognize the value of well-educated, professional early education teachers, and pay them accordingly,” he said. “We need to change that.”


The NIEER Policy Brief “Better Teachers, Better Preschools: Student Achievement Linked to Teacher Qualifications,” can be found at: Please feel free to contact Dr. Barnett; Carol Shipp, Deputy Director at (732) 932-4350 x225; or Pat Ainsworth, Communications Director at (732) 932-4350 x229. NIEER is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and is part of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.