Research Report

Getting Qualified

A Report on the Efforts of Preschool Teachers in New Jersey’s Abbott Districts to Improve their Qualifications

This report was originally published March 3, 2004.

Research evidence demonstrates that a high-quality early education can ameliorate the effects of disadvantage and produce positive outcomes not only for children and their families, but society as well (Barnett, 1998; Vandell & Wolfe, 2000). One of the most consistent indicators of quality is the presence of qualified teachers who have attained a bachelor’s degree and some additional specialized content in child development or early childhood education (Barnett, 2003; Whitebook, 2003). Teachers with this kind of training tend to work with their students in developmentally appropriate ways that help children to build on their emerging understandings and skills (Helburn, 1995; Howes, Whitebook, & Phillips, 1992; Kontos & Wilcox-Herzog, 1997). Moreover, qualified teachers provide directions that follow on from what children are already engaged in, or introduce uninvolved children to new activities, so that children spend less time in repetitive or low-level activities (de Kruif, McWilliam, & Ridley, 2000). Consequently, children who are educated by qualified teachers have been found to be more sociable, exhibit a more developed use of language, and perform at a higher level on cognitive tasks (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2001; Dwyer, Chait, & McKee, 2000; Howes, 1997).

Despite the evidence linking teacher qualifications with quality, however, policymakers who are initiating efforts to increase children’s access to high-quality preschool programs face several issues. The first of these is the wide variation in educational backgrounds of teachers in the workforce. While all 50 states currently require Kindergarten teachers to have a minimum of a BA, only 18 states require that teachers in private ECE settings undergo any pre-service training, much less hold a degree in early childhood education (Ackerman, in press). Not surprisingly, national studies examining the educational backgrounds of ECE teachers have estimated that only one-third (Burton et al., 2002) to almost one-half (Saluja et al., 2002) of teachers in private ECE settings have a minimum of a BA.

A second and related issue is that although teachers may wish to improve their credentials, they are also most likely to be non-traditional students who face additional challenges when undertaking further education. Horn and Carroll (1996) argue that there is an “obvious negative association between degree attainment and the presence of any nontraditional characteristics,” (p. 25) such as delayed enrollment in college, part-time attendance, concurrent full-time employment, and non-spousal dependents. In addition, the family and work responsibilities of older women students–like those who comprise the early childhood teaching workforce–often makes it difficult to find enough time to complete individual course requirements. Compounding this issue further is the inadequate salary and benefits that accompany teaching young children that offer little incentive to assume the personal and financial costs of additional professional development, as well (Barnett, 2003; Edwards, 1999; National Center for Early Development & Learning, 1997; Whitebook, et al., 2001).

A third and final issue concerns the current system of teacher preparation and professional development and its ability to meet the growing demand for qualified professionals (Horm-Wingerd, Hyson, & Karp, 2000). Various policy documents (Eager to Learn, Bowman et al., 2001; New Teachers for a New Century, National Institute on Early Childhood Development and Education, 2000) call for a retooling of the faculties teaching early childhood courses to ensure that teachers of young children receive up to date knowledge in the teaching of domain specific knowledge, child development, and meeting the needs of diverse student populations. What little research is available (e.g. Early & Winton, 2001) would suggest that most faculties of teacher education do not have the capacity to meet this expectation.

Creating a qualified preschool teaching workforce that can produce the child outcomes associated with high-quality programs therefore requires states to not only encourage existing staff that teach three- and four-year olds to increase their qualifications, but to also create a system of professional preparation that can both support non-traditional learners and develop their professional expertise. This two-part report documents the findings of a study of New Jersey’s efforts to develop a cadre of qualified preschool teachers and these teachers’ experiences in newly created Preschool- Grade 3 (P-3) teacher preparation programs. The focus of this report (part I) is on teachers’ efforts to get qualified by an externally imposed time frame.  The second part examines teachers’ experiences and perceptions of their professional preparation.

The Authors