TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Preschool teacher prep: illusions of quality

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30 million words. It's a staggering number representing the tremendous gap in the number of utterances (not distinct words) a child hears by age four—depending on where his family falls on the socioeconomic spectrum.

Preschool is regarded by many as the best opportunity for an early course correction, allowing all children to be launched on a successful academic—and life—trajectory no matter what is happening at home. Yet the jury is still out on whether preschool can deliver on that promise. Research on the long lasting contributions of preschool is at best mixed.

There's a lot of conjecture about why preschool investments may not pay off as much as one might expect: the length of the preschool, parents' involvement, support services, low quality curricula, and poor oversight.

One more plausible but largely ignored explanation remains: poor and/or uneven preparation of preschool teachers.

While preschool teachers' dismally low salaries have garnered lots of attention, even this week, there's been little attention to the training given to preschool teachers before they enter the classroom.

A new NCTQ study to be released next week explores whether programs are delivering essential content preschool teachers need. After all, beyond being patient and caring, preschool teachers must be able to learn and practice a wide swath of essential skills.

Put more practically, when faced with the tremendous gaps in language skills in a classroom of 20 four-year-olds, how many of us would have an inkling of where to start?

Many preschool advocates heavily champion the notion that all preschool teachers must earn a bachelor's degree in order to guarantee sufficient quality. Some 33 states now require that the preschool teachers in the programs they fund must have bachelor's degrees.

Though there's been little hard research to help guide that requirement, states made what seemed like a safe bet, assuming that teachers who earn a bachelor's degree are more likely to learn how to create a higher quality preschool environment than teachers who do not earn one.

Yet, as it turned out, the assumption was just that, an assumption. 

Our new study out on June 22nd, Some Assembly Required, takes a look at a healthy sample of 100 teacher preparation programs located in 29 states. The vast majority of these 100 programs conferred degrees: 54 led to a bachelor's degree and 41 to a master's, as well as 5 at the associate's degree level. We looked at course requirements, course descriptions, syllabi, student teaching handbooks, observation instruments, and textbooks to identify high-level evidence of key content.

A review of these multiple factors reveals that almost all of these programs fail to reference even basic content needed for a teacher to learn how to build children's language, a precursor to becoming a successful reader.

In many programs, the instructional skills specific to the job of preschool teaching are marginalized, buried by other content only relevant to a teacher of later grades. Even on paper, programs do not claim to devote much—or any—time to training candidates in developing young children's language skills and vocabulary or building critical literacy skills.

It's not just language and literacy that get short shrift. We found even less evidence of programs attending to the knowledge preschool teachers need to build math skills, explore early science concepts, or help children develop executive functioning skills. 

We're all for raising the bar for educators, especially those that play the crucially important role of teaching young children. A bachelor's degree makes sense. But we need to make sure that the sheepskin earned by the preschool teacher stands for something relevant and valuable.
Want to learn more? Join the webinar next Wednesday, June 22.