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How Much Do Teacher Qualifications Matter at the Preschool Level?

As educators and policy makers look at high-performing preschools to find models for improving quality across the board, one area of focus has been teacher qualification. As a study on preschool teacher qualifications from the University of Wisconsin’s School of Social Work notes, “the National Association for the Education of Young Children accreditation standards require that all lead teachers have a minimum of an associate’s degree or equivalent … [and] among 39 states that have established a child care Quality Rating and Improvement System, virtually all include staff education or training as part of the ECE [early childhood education] program quality rating indicators.”

Naturally, it makes sense that better-trained teachers would produce better-prepared students, but is this really the case? How much of a difference do teacher qualifications make for preschooler outcomes?

The surprising answer may be: very little. The University of Wisconsin (UW) study, “Classroom quality and children’s academic skills in child care centers: Understanding the role of teacher qualifications,” reveals that there is no direct correlation between teachers’ higher levels of educational attainment or their majors, on the one hand, and either classroom quality or preschoolers’ gains in math, reading and literacy skills, on the other.

To understand this relationship in more detail, the UW researchers selected a sample of licensed child care programs in one Midwestern state. After gathering background information on the teachers and families, they both evaluated classroom quality (using the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised, which examines various elements related to the classroom amenities and activities) and directly assessed the children’s math, reading and literacy skills.

Using regression models to process the data, the research team determined that “there were no significant differences in classroom quality among teachers at various education levels with different numbers of ECE credits” and that “[t]eachers’ education and ECE training, regardless of how they were specified, were not associated with children’s reading, math, and literacy skills.” The one significant exception to these findings is that classrooms in which the teachers had only a high school diploma or GED and no early childhood education course credits were of lower quality than other classrooms where the teacher had at least an associate’s degree.

Why might this be the case?

“One possible explanation could be that some ECE higher education programs might not equip teachers with necessary practice skills. Researchers have noted significant variations in education programs’ capacity to prepare teachers to work with young children, and translating content knowledge into high-quality practice repertoires is frequently noted as a challenge that teacher preparation programs face.” It also is possible that the type of preschool program itself may impact teachers’ effectiveness: poorly-funded programs may be unable to support teachers to work to their fullest potential, while better-funded programs can support teachers who were initially less well prepared, to improve their classroom effectiveness.

Continuing education, in-service training, and funding for ECE teachers may be the key to this puzzle. “Continuing learning opportunities and adequate compensations have been identified as essential supports for building an effective ECE workforce,” the report says. “Ongoing professional development and program supports help teachers translate their knowledge and skills into practice, and mentoring and creating a community of learners might be especially helpful in these endeavors.” Where this support is lacking, even well-educated preschool teachers may be unable to translate their training into real-life practice.

Moreover, teachers’ education itself may need to focus more on developing and implementing high quality curriculum and activities that will promote children’s learning: “Many of the ECE credit-based courses provide foundational knowledge related to child development, early education, developing teacher–child relationships, and classroom management, but less attention is given to selecting curricular content and developing learning activities in a developmental sequence.”

In short, the focus on teacher qualifications and credit hours as a proxy for effectiveness is insufficient to ensure that preschool programs meet their goals. Greater attention should be paid to curriculum development, and in-service support and resourcing for ECE teachers. The study concludes: “For teachers with some ECE credits and basic knowledge of early childhood, policy efforts targeting high quality in-service professional development may be effective in improving classroom practices and quality. In addition, if the goal is to improve classroom quality and children’s outcomes, future research should consider other factors such as curriculum, classroom management strategies, and program supports to identify a set of effective components that facilitate ECE quality improvement.”

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