Early Childhood Education

Teacher Certification/Licensure


Teacher certification or licensure is the process by which individuals become fully qualified to teach. In the field of teacher education, the terms certification and licensure are typically used synonymously. For the purposes of this entry, teacher certification will be used. Teacher certification is the responsibility of each state, province, and territory, resulting in different certification requirements across states, provinces, and territories. Certification requirements are delineated in legislation, with oversight and implementation by a designated governmental entity. Although variation exists, certification requirements typically specify the age range or grade level for which the individual is being certified, the standards that the individual must demonstrate to be qualified to teach, and the measures used to document that the standards have been mastered. Some states require individuals to complete an induction year before becoming fully certified.

Certification may be at the initial or advanced level. Initial certification refers to the initial license to practice as a professional in the field, whether that license is obtained at the undergraduate or graduate level. Advanced certification is obtained at the graduate or inservice level and is based on more in-depth study in the chosen field. The focus of this entry is initial certification.

For over a decade, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the Association of Teacher Educators (ATE), and the Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children (DEC/CEC) have jointly advocated that states develop free-standing certificates for educators working with all children birth through age eight, with the age range and standards for certificates being congruent across states in order to promote reciprocity (Hyson, 2003; Sandall, Hemmeter, Smith and McLean, 2000). Other professional organizations, such as the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI), Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have also developed recommendations urging creation of uniform and distinctive early childhood certification.

Early childhood education (ECE) and early childhood special education (ECSE) are distinct fields and thus, certification separate from elementary, middle grades, and secondary certification is essential for several reasons. First, theory and research support the early childhood years as a unique developmental phase that has implications for developing and implementing effective learning environments, curriculum, and assessment. A distinct body of research also provides guidance as to how children with disabilities birth through age eight develop and learn and thus, what adaptations may be necessary in early childhood settings. Families play a significant role in early childhood programs, with the family and home being the primary context for learning and development. Understanding cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as the importance of collaboration with families and other professionals are central to effective early childhood services. In addition, the preference for early childhood services in inclusive settings and natural environments requires that all early childhood educators possess knowledge and skills in working with young children with disabilities and their families.

Second, early childhood educators work in a variety of settings (e.g., child care, public and private preschools and kindergartens, Head Start, Early Head Start, early intervention). They may also be employed in a variety of roles in which they provide direct or indirect services to children and families (e.g., lead teacher, consultant, home visitor, program administrator, staff development specialist). Although the majority of entry-level professionals are in lead teacher roles, certification standards must take into account these possible roles and employment settings.

Third, several researchers have concluded that the quality of early childhood staff is, if not the most important, one of the most important factors in determining program quality and outcomes for children (e.g., Buysse et al., 1999; Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Study Team, 1995). In addition, a statistically significant correlation between specialized education and the quality of learning environments has been reported. On the basis of a review of research investigating the relationship between formal education and professional experience to quality, Kontos and Wilcox-Herzog (2001) concluded that (a) formal education positively correlates with classroom quality, (b) specialized education is positively correlated with teacher behavior, and (c) experience is not consistently correlated to program quality or effective teacher behavior.

Finally, federal legislation, if not mandating certification, suggests that early childhood educators obtain specialized education in the field and move toward full certification. Head Start required that at least 50 percent of its teachers have an associate’s degree by Fall 2003. Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that early interventionists possess the highest entry- level degree for state certification as a minimum standard for providing services to infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. The No Child Left Behind Act (U.S. Department of Education, 2002) requires every state to ensure that all teachers are highly qualified, with highly qualified defined as having obtained full certification in the field in which the individual is teaching or having passed a state teacher licensing examination.

It has been consistently recommended that ECE and ECSE certification focus on ages birth through eight and that within that age range individuals specialize in two of the three age spans—infant/toddler, preschool, or primary. This would result in a broad knowledge base regarding development and learning and the implications for assessment and curriculum across the age range from birth through eight. Specialization in two of the three subperiods would allow for in-depth knowledge and skills based on career choices and workplace needs.

Consistent recommendations have also been made regarding the content of ECE and ECSE certification. Most states base certification on the standards of the professional associations representing the various disciplines within teacher education (CEC, 2003). Through the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education’s (NCATE) State Partnership Program, forty-eight states have developed partnerships with NCATE through which joint accreditation reviews of teacher education programs within institutions of higher education (IHEs) are conducted according to state and national standards. Within those states, teacher education programs are reviewed using both state and national standards even though an individual IHE may not seek NCATE accreditation. Thus, an ECE program would be based on state and NAEYC standards, whereas an ECSE program would address state and DEC/CEC and CEC Common Core standards. Blended ECE and ECSE programs would include state standards and all three sets of professional association standards.

Standards identify the knowledge, skills, and dispositions (i.e., values, attitudes, beliefs) that early childhood and early childhood special educators must possess in order to work effectively with young children and their families. Thus, standards define what early childhood professionals must know and be able to do. The standards across the professional associations identified above emphasize that all early childhood educators must demonstrate a common core of knowledge and skills for working with all young children and their families. These standards are typically organized by the following categories: child development and learning; family and community relationships; observation and assessment; curriculum, teaching, and learning; and professionalism. Field experiences are emphasized and integrated throughout the standards. The CEC Common Core standards are organized similarly, but in more discrete categories: foundations, characteristics of learners, individual differences, instructional strategies, learning environments and social interactions, language, instructional planning, assessment, ethics and professional practice, and collaboration.

Age and content congruency is advocated to promote reciprocal agreements across states, provinces, and territories. Certification configurations tend to be separate ECE and ECSE, in which individuals specialize in one of the two disciplines, dual ECE and ECSE in which individuals complete separate preparation programs but qualify for both certifications, or blended ECE/ECSE in which individuals complete a common program of study resulting in depth and focus in both ECE and ECSE. Blended certification should include state standards, as well as all NAEYC, DEC/CEC, and CEC Common Core standards. Because of the trend toward inclusive settings for young children, states, provinces, and territories that choose to maintain separate ECE and ECSE certificates are encouraged to develop linkages between those certifications to support the option for IHEs to develop blended preparation programs.

Professional literature identifies several trends and issues related to ECE and ECSE certification. Because certification is the responsibility of states, provinces, and territories, there is great variation across those jurisdictions resulting in issues regarding reciprocity. In a review of early childhood certification in the United States, Ratcliff et al. (1999) reported that few states adhere to recommendations for a birth through age eight certification. They found that states’ definitions of the early childhood age span and its subdivisions vary greatly, with at least twelve different licensure configurations identified. For thirty of thirty-eight states reporting, Dannaher and Kraus (2002), identified six different age configurations between birth and age eight (e.g., birth through eight years, birth through five years, three through eight years) for ECSE certification and seven for blended ECE/ECSE certification.

Although research links the quality of programs and outcomes for children with increased qualifications for early childhood educators, many early childhood programs do not require staff to have college degrees, certification, or demonstrate competence in the recommended standards. Yet, in the United States, all fifty states and territories provide services to children ages birth through five with disabilities under the requirements of the IDEA. Most have used existing certifications to meet the “minimum highest entry” requirement for personnel under IDEA, with many of those certifications not including the infant/toddler age range. In their annual review of preschool programs for children with disabilities, Dannaher and Kraus (2002) reported that only thirty of the thirty-eight states providing data have an ECSE certification or a blended ECE/ECSE certification. This report does not indicate if certification is required in those states to work with preschool children with disabilities.

A variety of programs exist for children who are developing typically (e.g., child care, private and public preschool programs, Head Start, Early Head Start), with many of these programs being inclusive. In the United States, forty-six states and the District of Columbia fund some type of preschool program for children younger than age five (AFT, 2002). Some fund only one type of program, while others fund multiple types of programs (e.g., public preschool for all three- and four-year-olds, preschool for children identified at-risk). The AFT’s review of policies regarding state-funded early childhood programs indicated that only thirty-two states and DC require a bachelor’s degree for lead early childhood teachers, while all states require a bachelor’s degree for kindergarten teachers. That same report indicated that fifteen states and D.C. require a bachelor’s degree and certification for all state-funded early childhood settings, with another ten states requiring a bachelor’s degree and certification only in selected settings. When considering early childhood programs in addition to state-funded programs, forty states require no college education for licensed child care staff and less than one-half of teachers working with three- and four-year-olds have a college degree (NIEER, 2003).

To address the above inconsistencies in certification, as well as the requirement for certification, numerous groups have recommended that early childhood educators in lead teacher roles have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and certification (e.g., ACEI, AFT, ASCD, ATE, DEC/CEC, NAEYC, NASBE). The following recommendations may assist states, provinces, and territories in developing certification requirements, ensuring that all lead teachers are fully qualified, and supporting higher education in developing and offering early childhood teacher education programs:

1. Include the birth through eight age range and standards developed by professional associations in certification requirements.

2. Develop career ladder or lattice systems that allow for upward mobility and increased compensation as early childhood educators increase their preparation, and support movement across programs/systems for horizontal movement of personnel.

3. Enhance collaboration between IHEs and governmental agencies involved with certification.

4. Support IHEs in developing or expanding programs to meet certification requirements. This should include incentives to develop new courses and programs; employ adequate numbers of qualified faculty, including those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds; and develop articulation agreements between two- and four-year institutions.

5. Provide resources to improve working conditions, salaries, and benefits of early childhood educators as a means to attract qualified personnel.

6. Provide incentives for newly employed personnel and currently employed personnel to obtain certification. This may include provisional certifications; financial assistance for tuition, books, child care, etc.; and “grandfathering” clauses.

Further Readings: American Federation of Teachers (2002). At the starting line: Early childhood education programs in the 50 states. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers; Buysse, Virginia, Patricia W. Wesley, D. M. Bryant, and D. Gardner (1999). Quality of early childhood programs in inclusive and noninclusive settings. Exceptional Children 65, 301-314; Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Study Team (1995). Cost, quality, and child outcomes in child care centers public report. Denver: Economics Department, University of Colorado at Denver. Available online athttp://www2.acf.dhhs.gov/programs/hsb/regs/hsactogc.htm; Council for Exceptional Children (2003). What every special educator must know: Ethics, standards, and guidelines for special educators. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children; Dan- naher, J., and R. Kraus, eds. (2002). Section 619 profile. 11th ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute, National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center; Hyson, M., ed. (2003). Preparing early childhood professionals: NA- EYC’s standards for programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Kontos, Susan, and A. Wilcox-Herzog (2001). How do education and experience affect teachers of young children?” Young Children 14, 54-64; National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) (2003). America shortchanges its preschoolers: Few states require teacher training; Preschool Matters 1(1), 3, 8. Ratcliff, N., J. Cruz, and J. McCarthy (1999). Early childhood teacher certification licensure patterns and curriculum guidelines: A state-by-state analysis. Washington, DC: Council for Professional Recognition; Sandall, S., M. L. Hemmeter, B. J. Smith, and M. E. McLean (2005). DEC recommended practices: A comprehensive guide for practical application in early intervention/early childhood special education. Longmont, CO: Sopris West. U.S. Department of Education. No child left behind. August 2002. Available online at http://www.NoChildLeftBehind.gov.

Vickie D. Stayton