Is North Carolina Preparing Birth-through-Third Grade Educators for the Complex Jobs We Ask Them to Do?

Recent research has found that young children’s academic skills and social-emotional learning are more intertwined than previously thought. And the quality of children’s learning environments matters—for both academic growth and for gaining critical social-emotional skills.

What does that mean for classroom teachers?

The findings suggest that to be most effective in fostering their young students’ growth in all domains, early educators should:

  • Be aware that cognitive and social-emotional learning go hand-in-hand—it’s not one before the other, it’s both together.
  • Find ways to teach that connect the different domains of child learning—use counting to improve math skills and working memory, or storytelling to improve language skills and flexible thinking.
  • Provide young children with routine and structure, since a predictable, positive learning environment helps develop both social-emotional and academic competencies.

The groundbreaking report Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth through Age Eight lays out what educators of young children should know and be able to do, including:

  • Core knowledge of the science of child development and early learning
  • Practices to help children learn and develop based on this science
  • Knowledge and skills for working with diverse populations of children
  • Development and use of partnerships with families and support services to bolster child learning and development
  • Ability and motivation to continually improve the quality and effectiveness of one’s practices

Are we preparing teachers to think and teach this way?

In North Carolina and nationwide, the answer is we need to do more to provide our early educators with the skills they need to create high quality environments for young children that bring together multiple domains of learning. Teachers need to be trained in child development, brain science, family engagement practices, and more, to understand how young children learn and be able to translate that knowledge into effective teaching across domains.

Research suggests that teacher preparation requirements leave teachers of birth-through-three-year olds less well-prepared than preschool teachers, who are in turn less well prepared than K-3 teachers. And K-3 teachers may not be getting what they need, either.

Within birth-through-age-five early care and education, infant and toddler teachers have lower levels of education and compensation than teachers of 3- and 4-year-olds.

A 2017 North Carolina Child Care Services Association report shared data and analysis on several infant and toddler care and education topics, including the qualifications of NC infant and toddler teachers. The report found that, infant and toddler teachers have more education than they did 15 years ago. Yet compared to preschool teachers, infant and toddler teachers on average:

  • Are less likely to hold a two- or four-year degree
  • Are less likely to hold a B-K license
  • Are less likely to have taken a class specifically in the early childhood field
  • Have less experience in the classroom
  • Earn less per hour

Most infant and toddler teachers (74 percent) have children of their own, and they were more likely to struggle with low-income than their preschool counterparts, including:

  • Being less likely to have health insurance
  • Being more likely to qualify for public assistance
  • Having family income under $30,000 (70 percent of infant and toddler teachers)

These very real economic struggles contribute to turnover in the field. They also can cause high levels of stress, which can impact teachers’ ability to connect with the babies and toddlers in their care and effectively support their learning.

Brain science tells us that the first three years are a critical growth period, and there is a strong argument for having our best trained, most highly educated, highest paid teachers educating our youngest children.

Early educators overall are not as highly educated or as well-compensated as K-12 teachers.

A 2017 nationwide study found:

  • Large disparities in minimum education requirements and in the level of education attained by early educators across states, while all states require that K-12 teachers have at least a Bachelor’s degree.
  • Large gaps in compensation between early educators and K-12 teachers, which contributes to economic insecurity and turnover within the early care and education field.
K-12 Teachers (Public School)Early Educators
Licensure and certificationMust be licensed or certified through traditional or alternative programs recognized by the state.Licensure and certification requirements vary widely based on placement (Head Start, public PreK, or other center-based care) and by state.
Education level96 percent of K-12 teachers hold at least a Bachelor’s degree, and 56 percent hold at least a Master’s degreeEducation varies widely, ranging from 62 percent of Head Start teachers holding a Bachelor’s degree, to only 34 percent of teachers in other center-based care (outside of public PreK and Head Start). Very few hold Master’s degrees.
CompensationAverage base salary: $53,100Ranges widely, from $25,376 for all teachers in other center-based care to $48,464 for teachers with a Bachelor’s degree in public school-sponsored programs.

Data in chart from:

State run pre-K programs and Head Start generally have higher standards than other center-based care. Close to two-thirds of these programs require lead teachers to have a Bachelor’s degree—and about half of those require a specialization in an early childhood field. In North Carolina:

  • NC Pre-K lead teachers must hold a B-K license or a BA/BS in an early childhood field
  • Head Start lead teachers must hold a Bachelor’s degree in an early childhood field (or a Bachelor’s degree in another field plus passing an exam) or an Associate’s degree in an early childhood field plus experience teaching preschoolers.

But a recent report finds that preschool teachers face obstacles to obtaining Bachelor’s degrees, including the cost of education, the challenge of undertaking continuing education while also working full time, and the low wages in the field. Despite research showing a connection between teachers with Bachelor’s degrees and higher quality classrooms, there are concerns about requiring preschool teachers to have Bachelor’s degrees. One of them is equity. A strength of NC’s early education workforce is its high level of diversity – nearly half of the state’s birth-through-five educators are people of color, for example, compared to only 20 percent of K-12 teachers. This report considers strategies for how to increase early educator standards and education levels without losing that rich diversity.

Large disparities in readiness are evident when children enter kindergarten, and the data is clear that a part of that gap is based on whether they received high quality early education. Based on the brain science of how children develop, we should value birth-through-five educators at least as much as K-12 teachers. That means providing them with more and better training, and paying them more for their work.

K-12 teacher education programs may not be providing what elementary school teachers need to advance early literacy.

A recent report from the UNC system looked at the effectiveness of the system’s teacher education programs and found that none of them improved elementary school reading proficiency any more than other (non-UNC) teacher preparation programs. Teacher candidates and faculty interviewed made several suggestions that informed the report’s recommendations.

Teacher candidates and faculty want to see:

  • More practical classes, focused on topics like behavior management, teaching reading and writing, and special education
  • More experience for teacher candidates actually observing, being mentored, and co-teaching in classrooms as part of their education
  • Better alignment between what is taught to teacher candidates and the actual curricula and practice of school districts
  • More uniform instruction in teacher preparation programs on state standards

High quality teachers are critical for third grade reading success.

Based on the research on what moves the needle on third grade reading proficiency, the Pathways to Grade Level Reading initiative includes two teacher quality-focused measures in its Measures of Success Framework:

  • Percent of birth-through-age-eight early childhood teachers with post-secondary early childhood education, by degree (associate’s, bachelor’s).
  • Percent of birth-through-age-eight early childhood teachers with early childhood/child development-specific knowledge and competencies.

These recent reports and research highlight some bright spots – education among early childhood educators has increased in recent years, there are rigorous and standardized expectations for K-12 teachers’ education, and teacher candidates know what they need more help with. We also still have some room to grow, to ensure that:

  • Infant and toddler teachers are well-educated and provided access to the resources needed to obtain that education, and are well-compensated.
  • Early educators from birth through preschool are as highly valued, well-trained and well-compensated as K-3 teachers.
  • K-3 teachers are getting the practical education and training they need to improve child outcomes across the board, from social-emotional skills to early literacy.

We ask all our teachers—from birth through third grade—to bring a sophisticated understanding of how children learn into the classroom and translate that knowledge into high-quality teaching. We need to prepare them for it and compensate them at a level that attracts high quality candidates.