The Intersection

A Threadbare Security Blanket: Mandating Bachelor’s Degrees for Preschool Teachers Provides Cold Comfort But Little Targeted Training

August 16, 2016


In the national push for expanding access to preschool, most advocates sensibly rally around its quality, and not only its quantity. In this effort, there’s no question that the skills and knowledge of the teacher are critical.

But how should we assess the readiness and quality of a preschool teacher? The National Academies of Sciences and the lessons learned from other nations – not to mention nearly every serious-minded advocacy group – provide an answer. The first step in ensuring quality is to require that preschool teachers earn at least a bachelor’s degree in early education.

This policy supporting the value of education and advanced training sounds so sensible. Surely a bachelor’s degree is better than an associate degree, which in turn is better than no degree?

Regrettably, we’ve discovered that requiring this degree may offer a false sense of security. Fortunately, these shortfalls in training stem from a problem that can be fixed without a retreat from degree requirements.

The problem is overly broad certifications. Often, the degree programs that prepare preschool teachers address many other ages and grades as well, devoting little time to the needs of aspiring preschool teachers. In the most egregious cases, some teacher prep programs extend all the way into the middle grades, meaning that the same coursework that has to teach about phonemic awareness and developing executive function is addressing the psychology of the early adolescent and how to teach sixth-grade level science and math concepts.

Our recent study, Some Assembly Required: Piecing Together the Preparation Preschool Teachers Need, examines 100 prep programs that train preschool teachers (95 of which are bachelor’s or master’s teacher preparation programs). The results surface these certification issues, finding that:

  • Less than two-thirds of the programs in the sample require candidates to take a course in perhaps the most important feature of a preschool program: language development. 
  • A quarter of the programs fail to address building literacy skills in the preschooler. 
  • A scant 20 percent of programs teach and expect candidates to practice reading aloud to children – despite the wealth of research supporting this practice. 
  • Only two in five programs require a math course that directly addresses teaching preschool.
  • Preschool children often learn through play or activity centers — but only 36 percent of programs evaluate student teachers on managing these activities. 

We could find no research that explores a possible and, we assert, logical connection between a prep program’s focus on preschool topics and the program graduates’ effectiveness in the preschool classroom. A few months ago, The Hunt Institute’s Intersection blog highlighted a discussion about why a study of North Carolina’s preschools found positive and lasting outcomes, while a similar study of Tennessee’s preschools found the opposite. This discussion lays out a number of differences between preschool programs in the two states. But there’s one key difference left out. North Carolina’s preschool teacher license certifies teachers for birth through kindergarten, clearly emphasizing the younger years, while Tennessee programs have to prepare teachers to teach preschool up through grade three. Could the different focuses in these states’ training explain the discrepancy? That’s an intriguing question that should be examined in future studies.

As a whole, requiring a bachelor’s degree offers no guarantee that preschool teachers learn everything they’ll need to provide a high-quality preschool education. Policymakers and preschool providers who demand that their preschool teachers invest in higher education need to take a close look at what training their teachers are getting in return.

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