Early Childhood Education

Teacher Education, Early Childhood


Among the pressing educational issues facing our nation is an alarming shortage of qualified classroom teachers. Since the publication of the Report of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (1996), debates on educational reform have focused on the preparation and continuing education of teachers and the impact of well-qualified teachers on students’ learning. Teacher quality is a major priority of the reform agenda because what teachers know and learn how to do as a result of their own professional preparation significantly influences children’s success in school. Teacher education has thus assumed an unprecedented importance at the level of national policy and within the field of educational research and practice.

Teacher education in the United States refers to postsecondary coursework and classroom experiences that help develop and deepen both the content and the pedagogical skills necessary to ensure that all children learn. Within the field of early childhood as well as other divisions in the broad field of education, teacher education occurs at both the initial and advanced levels. Initial early childhood teacher education consists of general education as well as domain-specific content preparation and specific methodological preparation. Guidelines for such programs of study, often described as preservice teacher education, are generally linked to state licensing requirements and result in an initial teaching license, thereby making one eligible to teach. Advanced early childhood teacher education consists of professional development that increases the skill and knowledge of licensed practicing teachers. Although requirements vary from state to state, advanced teacher education programs often lead to a permanent or professional state license. Whether the program of study is for initial or advanced licensure, the primary aim of teacher education programs is the improvement of student learning and achievement through the improvement of teachers’ skill and knowledge. Effective teacher education programs entail rigorous and relevant preparation for the contemporary realities of teaching. These realities include teaching children from diverse backgrounds, addressing children’s individual abilities, working in partnership with children’s families, having a deep knowledge of the content they teach, and being able to articulate what and why they teach as they do. These new demands have exacerbated decades-old controversies about the nature of and need for early childhood teacher education.

The criticism of teacher education was originally focused on the education of elementary and secondary teachers. Since the 1990s, however, early childhood teacher education has become an essential part of the school reform agenda as the public addresses the educational needs of the very young. The next section highlights the unique traditions in early childhood teacher education that are related to preparation of early childhood teachers.


Historical and Philosophical Traditions of Early Childhood Teacher Education

While issues of teacher quality and higher standards are dominating the educational debates, controversies regarding the content and means of early childhood teacher education are not new. Rather, they began in the nineteenth century and continue today as the cornerstone of our field just as they did when the Committee of Nineteen of the International Kindergarten Union was forced to issue three reports because it could not come to consensus on the kindergarten curriculum in the early 1900s. For most of the twentieth century, early childhood teacher education programs prepared young females in programs that emphasized knowledge in child development as its core knowledge base. Child development knowledge and the knowledge of developmental norms became the cornerstone of most early childhood teacher education programs. Yet, within the field of early childhood teacher education itself, there has been a continuing distinction in teacher education programs for child care staff, preschool and kindergarten teachers, and primary teachers, all of whom are being educated as early childhood professionals. The history of early childhood teacher education is long and rich and provides a historical and philosophical perspective from which to consider contemporary issues in the preparation of qualified teachers for young children.


High-Quality Teacher Education for Initial Preparation

The publication What Matters Most: Teaching and America’s Future (National Commission of Teaching and America Future, 1996) marked a decade of national reports that addressed issues of quality in American education. Its leading recommendation called for higher standards for teachers linked to standards for students, and for teacher education at all levels to be standards-based to obtain a cadre of highly qualified teachers.

Consistent with this recommendation and beginning in the early 1990s, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) began raising standards for entry into the profession through rigorous new standards for accreditation, licensing, and advanced certification. Teacher education as a field raised the standards for accrediting its programs. The NCATE devised a new performance-based accreditation system that many regard as helping to raise the level of teacher preparation. Institutions of higher education that choose to seek NCATE approval must now provide evidence that their candidates can perform well in the classroom and on licensing examinations. In states with NCATE-approved programs, there is an increasing alignment between teacher education accreditation standards, beginning teacher licensing standards, and advanced certification standards, thus providing a more coherent system of teacher preparation and development. NCATE-approved programs also are seen as providing the public with evidence that the institution is capable of delivering well-qualified teachers for all children.

Other sources of influence on teacher education come from the field of early childhood education. In response to the call for standards-based education reform, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has revised its standards for the colleges and universities that prepare early childhood teachers. These Standards for Early Childhood Professional Preparation provide research-based program guidelines to institutions of higher education that prepare initial teacher candidates and advanced practicing professionals. The revised standards focus more deeply on academic content, cultural and linguistic diversity, children with special needs, practical experiences and preparation, and outcomes of teacher education (i.e., their impact on young children’s learning). Many U.S. early childhood professionals consider the use of NAEYC standards as a crucial step in raising the quality of programs for all young children by improving the preparation of early childhood teachers.

Guidelines from these (NAEYC, NCATE) and other (e.g., the Association for Childhood Education International [ACEI]) professional organizations that develop standards for the preparation of early childhood teachers converge with a growing body of research on teacher characteristics and preschool quality. Combined, these sources suggest that good early childhood teachers should have a minimum knowledge of (1) child development, (2) an understanding of developmentally appropriate practice and assessment, (3) knowledge and understanding of the foundations of literacy and numeracy, (4) knowledge and skill in appropriate methodology that fosters skill and concept acquisition, and (5) understanding of the children and families with whom they work. This core knowledge should inform all early childhood teacher education programs regardless of the credential being sought (i.e., Child Development Credential [CDA], associate, bachelor’s, or advanced degree) or the focus of the teacher education program (i.e., programs for children from birth through age five, programs for children ages five through eight).

Despite the existence of these forms of professional recognition, not all early childhood teachers are prepared in programs that are explicitly influenced by such standards. Some programs may be situated in institutions that do not belong to NCATE or have not adopted the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) principles. Others may be in specialized institutions or may primarily aim to prepare teachers for careers other than that of public school teacher. Thus, the diversity of teacher professional preparation and professional roles is a major factor on the career continuum.

If these recommended guidelines are not sufficient to inspire reform in university teacher education programs, there is an additional incentive. The federal government’s first dramatic entry into teacher quality, Title II of the Higher Education Act, increased accountability requirements for colleges of education. Colleges must now report institutional pass rates on the teacher preparation examination used in their state. This data is publicly available and is used as a requirement in professional accreditation decisions.


Literature on Teacher Education and Teacher Learning

Research has long supported the view that the teacher is the single most important variable in student learning (Cochran-Smith and Zeichner, 2005; Darling- Hammond, 2001; Darling-Hammond and Bransford, 2005). The literature also clearly points out that many teachers are being asked to work in ways for which they have not been prepared—“to engage in the systematic, continuous improvement in the quality of the educational experience of students and to subject themselves to the discipline of measuring their success by the metric of students’ academic performance” (Elmore, 2002, p. 3). Some research concludes that high quality teacher preparation has a positive influence on student achievement at both the individual and classroom levels. Conversely, teachers who do not hold a teaching certificate or who are teaching in a field for which they were not prepared, have students who do less well than students taught by teachers prepared in high-quality teacher preparation programs (Goldhaber and Brewer, 2000; Educational Testing Service, 2000).

Other research (Darling-Hammond and Bransford, 2005; Cochran-Smith and Zeichner, 2005) synthesizes teacher education research concerning the effectiveness of formal teacher preparation. Findings show that well-prepared teachers demonstrate a common set of agreed upon essential knowledge and skills, are more likely to stay in the profession, and produce more student learning. The studies also report that program components related to a clear, articulated vision of teaching and learning are related to the quality of teachers as well as student achievement.

Still other literature (Cochran-Smith and Zeichner, 2005; Wilson et al., 2001, 2003) synthesizes research on key issues in teacher education. The results for issues related to pedagogical preparation, and clinical experiences show a positive relationship between teacher preparation and student achievement whereas results on arts and science preparation of teachers indicate that knowledge may affect teachers’ performance through stronger verbal, writing, and critical thinking skills.

Finally, there is a body of teacher education research that addresses the preparation of teachers with a critical, multicultural perspective to meet the changing cultural and linguistic demographics of today’s school population (Banks, 2005; Cochran-Smith and Zeichner, 2005; Sleeter, 2001; Seidl and Friend, 2002; Zeichner, 1996). Much of this work shows short term impact and lacks longitudinal, empirical evidence that tracks changes in teacher candidates’ attitudes, beliefs, and dispositions as they work in classrooms with underserved populations of children. The existing studies find that those preparing to teach often have a monolithic perspective and believe that children from other culture are the problem (Florio-Ruane, 2001, Zeichner, 1993). Sleeter’s research (2001) notes the widening cultural gap between today’s diverse population of children and those that teach them, because most teacher candidates are white, female, and middle- class and bring a superficial understanding of cultural issues into their teaching.

To reduce this gap and address the changing cultural makeup of today’s schools teacher preparation programs began making programmatic changes. Many introduced multicultural education courses or targeted at least one clinical placement in a school with diverse population. Florio-Ruane (2001) suggests the need to go beyond courses and placement and to address students beliefs about diversity early in their teacher preparation programs by embedding multiple voices and personal stories that help teacher candidates view culture as something all people hold. By developing critical reflective educators who value multiple perspectives, teacher candidates can begin their journey to becoming multiculturally competent teachers.

In sum, the research literature on teacher education shows that the most powerful learning opportunities for teachers are anchored in student learning, include high standards, are content-focused, develop ongoing collaboration and networks across teachers, share common norms of beliefs, and provide in-depth, focused learning experiences that relate closely to the classroom (Elmore, 2002). While the research base provides ways to design and deliver high-quality teacher preparation, it is limited in identifying a large body of empirical evidence on its effects on teachers’ practice or its impact on student learning.


Career Continuum

The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (1996) recommended that “school districts, states, unions, and professional associations cooperate to make teaching a true profession, with a career continuum that places teaching at the top and rewards teachers for their knowledge and skill” (p. 94). In support of these aims, voluntary standards have been set by a number of professional groups (e.g., National Association for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to ensure teacher quality across levels and settings. Conceptually, these standards are closely aligned, providing a consistent framework for the continuum of teachers’ professional development. This continuum of standards is focused on a set of shared knowledge, skills, and commitments to ensure that accreditation, licensing, and advanced certification standards are compatible and together form a coherent system of quality assurance for the profession.


Contemporary Influences on ECE Teacher Education

Three major events in the last decade highlight the growing importance attributed to well-qualified early childhood teachers and are associated with specific and sometimes controversial changes in teacher education programs. These include a federal literacy initiative, the release of a national report on prevention of reading difficulties, and increased attention to early brain development. In particular, a new emphasis on student performance is profoundly influencing the ways teachers are selected, prepared, licensed, and evaluated. Teacher effectiveness is increasingly measured by what students learn, and teacher quality is measured by both content and pedagogical knowledge. Such conditions necessitate that teacher education programs examine their models of teacher education to ensure that they are meeting the changed emphases on accountability, assessment, and standards and teaching appropriate content to young children.

National initiatives are not only increasing quality demands on teacher education programs; they are also increasing demands for the quantity of such programs. For example, the federal No Child Left Behind Act (2001) requires that states have a highly qualified teacher in every public school classroom by 2006. The government definition of “a highly qualified teacher” is one that is licensed or certified by the state, holds at least a bachelor’s degree, and has passed a rigorous State test on subject knowledge and teaching skills. Achieving this goal will require a greater conformity to previously described reform initiatives in early childhood teacher education; it will also require greater attention to the recruitment of college students into the field of teacher education; and increased collaboration between universities and public school professional development programs.


Summary and Conclusions

The increased demand for more well-qualified teachers who are knowledgeable about what they teach, skilled in how to teach children of different backgrounds and abilities, and deeply committed to whom they are teaching translates into a need for more high-quality programs of teacher preparation and development. The challenge for teacher education programs in the twenty-first century will be to maintain a dual focus on the heightened expectations on teachers and schools in light of changing understandings about adult and child learning and effective teaching. This dual focus naturally evokes tensions that have ramifications for early childhood teacher education programs and for teacher educators. Some of these tensions are conceptual in nature (e.g., inquiry-oriented practice versus technical practice, philosophy and reality conflicts, content versus pedagogy) and are voiced differently from policy makers, parents, and administrators. Others are based in the teacher education research and practice literature (e.g., traditional versus alternative certification and the increased coursework in leadership and advocacy and personal belief systems that drive program development and change) and others are political (responding to federal, state, and local mandates), Teacher education, in general, and early childhood teacher education, in particular, continues to be plagued by competing loyalties in an effort to prepare the best teachers for all of the children in the United States. See also Child Development Associate (CDA) National Credentialing Programs.

Further Readings: Banks, J. A. and C. A. Banks, eds. (2005). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives. 5th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. Cochran-Smith, M., and K. M. Zeichner (2005). Studying teacher education: The report of the AERA panel on research and teacher education. American Educational Research Association; Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Darling-Hammond, L., and J. Bransford, eds. (2005). Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. National Academy of Education, Committee on Teacher Education; San Francisco: Jossey Bass, Inc. Florio-Ruane, S. (2001). Teacher education and the cultural imagination: Autobiography, conversation, and narrative. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Elmore, R. F. (2002). Bridging the gap between standards and achievement: The imperative for professional development in education. Washington, DC: The Albert Shanker Institute; Isenberg, J. P., and Jalongo, M. R., eds. (2003). Major trends and issues in early childhood education. New York: Teachers College Press. National Association for the Education of Young Children (2001). NAEYC standards for early childhood professional preparation: Initial licensure levels. Washington, DC: Author. National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2002). NAEYC standards for early childhood professional preparation: Advanced programs. Washington, DC: Author. National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (1998). What every teacher should know and be able to do. Southfield, MI: Author. National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (1996). What matters most: Teaching for America’s future. New York: Author. National Staff Development Council (2001). Standards for staff development. Oxford, OH: Author; Wilson, Suzanne M., Floden, Robert E., and Ferrini-Mundy, Joan (2001). Teacher preparation research: Current knowledge, gaps, and recommendations. Michigan State University, under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington. Suzanne M. Wilson, and Robert E. Floden (2003). Creating effective teachers: Concise answers for hard questions. ERIC Clearinghouse. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Joan Isenberg