The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) recently published a useful policy brief on how to increase the quality of teachers in preschool. The policy brief is entitled “Degrees in Context: Asking the Right Questions about Preparing Skilled and Effective Teachers of Young Children”. The policy brief is by Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California-Berkeley, and Sharon Ryan, an associate professor at Rutgers and a NIEER researcher.
The entire policy brief is well worth a careful reading, and makes many useful suggestions. I want to emphasize here two important points that I took away from this policy brief.
As Whitebook and Ryan make clear, the policy debate over preschool teacher quality has often focused too much on the narrow issue of whether preschool teachers should be required to have bachelor degrees. This is too narrow a focus for at least two reasons.
First, many of the bachelor programs that try to prepare preschool teachers have some limitations. Many of these programs do not particularly focus on the special challenges of preschool teachers, do not have instructors with preschool experience, and may not include adequate student teaching experience in preschools.
Thus, without improvements in these preschool teacher preparation programs, requiring a BA degree may do less than we might hope to improve preschool teacher quality.
Second, improving preschool teacher quality may depend at least as much on workplace policies at preschools that make preschool teaching a more attractive career path. Workplace policies must attract high-quality new entrants to preschool teaching, and retain more high-quality teachers.
Although making a workplace and career path more attractive involves many features of the job, higher wage rates are one key component. If preschool teacher wages are higher, it will be easier to attract high-quality teachers, both with and without bachelor degree credentials. If preschool teacher wages are too low, it will be difficult to attract high-quality teachers, even if we require a bachelor degree credential.
I would add to this that we need to think about what incentives preschools have to try to attract and retain high-quality teachers. Higher teacher wages makes it easier to attract and retain high-quality teachers. But will preschools use the greater availability of high-quality applicants to increase the average quality of teachers? They will more surely do so if preschools can reap some rewards for being high-quality, and suffer some consequences for being low-quality. This requires that the programs that fund preschools have some reasonable procedures for measuring quality of preschools, and policies to have this quality reflected in funding and regulatory responses.