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Improving Early-Elementary Ed: Q&A with Laura Bornfreund

In a paper released earlier this month, Laura Bornfreund of the New America Foundation argues that typical K-5 elementary teacher preparation overlooks the issues most relevant to the youngest students. She recommends states retool their licensing systems to group pre-K and early elementary teachers together, which should spur universities to redesign their training programs. The goal is to ensure K-3 teachers understand three things deeply: subject matter pedagogy, child development, and engaging parents.

Laura and I conducted a Q &A by email to discuss her findings—the edited transcript is below. Tomorrow, we'll continue the conversation with suggestions for steps different stakeholders in the early-childhood world can take based on her findings.

Q. What are some of the best and worst practices you found among the states you researched for this report?

A. Pennsylvania is a taking a big step by changing the way teachers are licensed. Our report found that K-5 licenses shortchange the early childhood side of the age spectrum—often leaving out crucial preparation for working with children in kindergarten and the early grades. That time that is still considered "early childhood." But Pennsylvania is fixing that—the state is making the transition from an "omnibus" K-5 license to a P-4 early childhood and 4-8 middle childhood license. The change becomes official in 2012.

This restructuring could prompt the state's universities to redesign their degree programs so that early-childhood teacher-candidates learn deeply about subject matter pedagogy, child development, and how to reach out to parents. I am interested to watch how this actually plays out—how universities restructure their programs short-term and how those changes might contribute to student learning outcomes long-term.

On the other side of the coin is Florida. The state used to have a P-3 early childhood license and a 1-6 elementary license. This meant that teachers who were assigned to kindergarten had to get the early-childhood license. But a few years ago, the state expanded the elementary license to incorporate K as well, so now it is a K-6 license. This is a wide span, and from what I saw in Florida the elementary preparation programs don't emphasize what research says is important for teachers to know about those early grades.

Q. Are urban teacher residency programs and other alternative certification routes doing a better job of preparing early-elementary teachers? What are they doing?

There is room for improvement in alternative preparation, too. While several programs train early-elementary teachers, they don't appear to offer coursework that is tailored to teachers of that age group. The New Teacher Project was the only one that I was able to confirm [that[ does something different. TNTP's early-childhood preparation aligns with National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) standards and emphasizes how the development of a child's academic skills relates to the social and emotional aspects of that child's development.

Teach for America offers early-childhood training, but it focuses solely on recruits who will teach in prekindergarten or Head Start programs. Early grade teachers participate in the same five-week summer institute as other TFA recruits.

Q. Some of your recommendations—raise admissions standards, provide more field experiences, teach teachers more interactive pedagogy—have been made before, across the K-12 spectrum. Why don't we do these things? What's getting in the way?

A.The challenge is in giving preparation programs an incentive to make systemic changes. State approval processes haven't been that rigorous. The call for holding preparation programs accountable for the success of their graduates is a recent one. States and the federal government are just beginning to move in this direction in a more meaningful way. But without incentives, changes to programs' structure will likely be slow or not happen at all. And it will be difficult to get the desired results without ensuring the right inputs are in place, i.e., strong coursework, practical experiences for teachers, experienced faculty and mentors, etc. States and the preparation programs themselves need to think about both the right inputs and the desired outputs.

Further, beyond pairing student teachers with mentor teachers, it seems as though there is little communication between education schools and the school districts they serve. If they don't know or fully understand the needs of the communities or the practices of schools for which they supply teachers, why would they even think about making any changes? There needs to be much more collaboration.

In the paper, I talk about how we saw little to no mention of pre-K through 3rd grade strategies being discussed or woven into courses. In part, this may simply be because professors aren't aware of the growing popularity and recognition of the value in creating a more seamless education system in pre-K through third grade that carries students along a continuum of learning. Another example is teaching teachers to use data appropriately. I saw some mentions of data, but not enough.

I think the easiest recommendation to tackle would be to raise admission standards. We don't know everything about what a good teacher looks like. But there has been research that says verbal ability is important as well as certain qualities and beliefs about children. These attributes could be identified through writing samples, SAT or ACT scores or with assessments of verbal ability, and interviews. Attracting more potential high-quality candidates and keeping them in the classroom is another quandary altogether.

Q. In the report, you recommend we raise early-childhood educator pay to be comparable to that of K-12 teachers. In this economic climate, how is that possible?

A. There are places where this is already happening—New Jersey's Abbott school districts [mostly urban districts receiving special funds under court order] and the state of Oklahoma are two. Both pay pre-K teachers on the same scale as K-12 public school teachers. By doing so, they are able to require pre-K teachers to have bachelor's degrees and have access to more talent.

In 2014, the federal Head Start program will require 50 percent of Head Start teachers to have bachelor's degrees with an emphasis on early childhood. This will be a difficult task if compensation does not match the demand for higher education. Head Start will likely lose teachers over time to K-12 positions in public schools or private schools or to other fields, where those individuals will be paid for their degree. So, yes, states are financially strapped, and this would be an added cost. States need to determine the cost-benefit over time and what value they place on having individuals with bachelor's degrees teaching 4-year-olds in state-funded pre-kindergarten and federally funded Head Start programs.

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