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Word Gap Exists Among Early Educators Too, Says Workforce Expert

If President Barack Obama's call for universal preschool is going to be answered effectively, it is time to turn attention to educating the early-educator workforce, according to a Washington Post column by Elizabeth A. Gilbert of the University of Massachusetts Amhurst.

Writing as a guest columnist on Valerie Strauss' The Answer Sheet, Gilbert explains the results of a survey she and her colleagues delivered to a sample of Massachusetts early educators:

There are approximately 10,000 early-childhood educators in Massachusetts who would benefit from baseline literacy testing; these early-childhood educators have not enrolled in college programs. We have tested 120, the majority scoring at 4th-, 5th- and 6th-grade equivalence in all areas. Eighty-five percent knew little about computers (all have smartphones). Most had no e-mail address, had never done an Internet search or used Microsoft Word.

To further assess their skill levels and interest in the field, we asked the educators to complete a career survey. Even we were surprised to learn that 97 percent had little or no interest in early education and 98 percent had little knowledge or skill needed for the job. 

Most states do not require a college degree for certification or licensure as an early-childhood educator, which leads Gilbert to speculate that a large portion of the national early-educator workforce is functionally illiterate.

Debates about whether or not a bachelor's degree should be a requirement to teach preschool and care for young children have been ongoing for years among early educators. Education levels of those providing care vary widely from a high school diploma and a basic certification to a master's degree in early childhood development. Gilbert's group only surveyed educators who had not attended college.

The Head Start Act of 2007 called for 50 percent of its teachers to hold a bachelor's degree by September 2013, a requirement that exceeds most state guidelines. According to the 2014 Head Start Program Fact Sheet, 71 percent of HS teachers have a BA or higher. 

Some have argued that such requirements are misplaced and that professional training for preschool teachers is more important than an advanced degree. Since many programs are privately run and don't file data on their workers to any single agency, it is difficult to ascertain early educators' education levels on a broad scale. 

Gilbert calls for investments in educating and training the existing low-literacy early childhood educators currently in the workforce and then raising their wages to keep them in the field. Such a  strategy, she argues, would be the best way to meet the growing demand for high quality early education programs in states across the country. 

"If we're serious about closing the word gap for low-income children, we must also be serious about closing the word gap for functionally illiterate early childhood educators," Gilbert writes.

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