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Getting Inside the BA Degree Black Box

For the past decade, the universal pre-k movement has worked diligently to increase the number of pre-k teachers who have bachelor's degrees. Pre-k advocates have urged the creation of state regulatory requirements mandating bachelor's degrees for teachers in state-funded pre-k, and they have supported investments in scholarships and support programs to help pre-k teachers complete bachelor's degree programs. These efforts have been hotly debated in early childhood circles, with some arguing that bachelor's degrees are essential to improve quality in the field and raise the status and wages of early childhood teachers, while others say that bachelor's degree mandates are too expensive and will reduce diversity in the early childhood teacher workforce.

Surprisingly absent from this debate is much attention to the actual quality of bachelor's degree programs for pre-k teachers or what teachers are learning in them. Rather, bachelor's degrees have been discussed as a sort of magical quality-improving black box. And policymakers, advocates, and funders are spending a lot of time, effort and money to get pre-k teachers through bachelor's degree programs, without actually knowing exactly what we're buying. That's problematic.

A new report from the New America Foundation seeks to address this. Author Laura Bornfreund reviewed state licensure policies and the details of teacher preparation programs for pre-k and early elementary school teachers in a six diverse states. The report finds several causes for concern, including:


  • A lack of attention to developmental science in teacher preparation coursework

  • Courses with more breadth than depth, as well as duplicative or inconsistent programs and course requirements

  • Spotty program quality, particularly in terms of faculty: Early childhood educator preparation programs tend to rely heavily on part-time faculty and faculty who have little or no recent experience working in early childhood classrooms

  • Weak state approval processes that do little to ensure quality or effectiveness in teacher preparation programs

This should hardly be surprising: After all, to the extent we want pre-k teachers to earn BA degrees, we're largely entrusting them to the same teacher preparation programs that abundant evidence indicates have done a poor job of preparing teachers for K-12 schools. And because the early childhood field has long been considered less prestigious than K-12 teaching, early childhood programs are often the neglected stepchildren of education schools. None of this bodes well for the ability of these programs to deliver the kind of preparation and training necessary to dramatically improve quality in the early childhood education workforce.

New America's report does a valuable service in shedding light on these serious issues and offers some important recommendations to address them--most notably the important insight that the roots of these quality problems lie not just in the teacher preparation programs themselves, but in state licensure policies.

I don't think the report goes far enough, though, in that it focuses on improving the existing teacher preparation system rather than thinking more broadly about revolutionizing the system itself. The way we prepare teachers in this country is still largely based on the assumption that we're preparing traditional college students for a life-long teaching career. And BA degree efforts have tended to simply extend this system downward, with a few more supports for nontraditional students. But these assumptions about who we're preparing and for what increasing do not hold in the K-12 system, and they've never been true in early childhood nor will they become so. So we need to think much more boldly about what a next generation teacher preparation system would look like if we designed it from scratch to truly meet the needs and realities of both our evolving K-12 system and the early childhood field. There is some very interesting work being done on the ground on this front, but by and large we're not thinking about this in a systemic transformation way at the policy level.

But just talking more about quality in early childhood BA programs is an important start.

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