Early Childhood Education
Professional development encompasses both the formal education and specialized training of early childhood professionals. Studies have established formal education and specialized training as critical elements of high-quality early childhood education.
Formal education is defined as coursework that culminates in the receipt of a diploma or degree, including a high school diploma, an associate’s degree, and a bachelor’s or advanced degree from a postsecondary institution, irrespective of the field in which the degree is earned. Formal education can, but does not always, include specific courses in early childhood education. The term formal education implies the completion of a degree rather than short-term enrollment in degree-granting programs.
Specialized training in early childhood refers to education that is focused on the skills necessary to working in the field of early childhood. Such training can take the form of academic coursework in child development or a related field within the context of a degree-granting program (e.g., early childhood teacher education). It may also be offered outside an educational institution (e.g., by an association or resource and referral agency) and without formal education credits given for completion. Specialized training often takes the form of in-service workshops and mentoring opportunities.
Professional Development and Early Childhood Program Quality
Both formal education and specialized training are associated with the quality of early childhood education. A substantial body of research confirms the solid connection between formal education and effective job performance. Specifically, there is a strong relationship between the number of years of education and the qualities of teachers’ behaviors in the classroom, suggesting that teachers who hold at least a bachelor’s degree in any field are better equipped to provide high-quality early childhood education than those with fewer years of formal education.
In addition to research on teachers’ general levels of education, there is evidence that specialized training in child development or early childhood education improves teacher performance. Some research has documented higher levels of teacher sensitivity and responsiveness, as well as greater overall quality, in classrooms in which teachers have at least a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential. A CDA is earned under the auspices of an organization or agency with expertise in early childhood teacher preparation (such as a postsecondary institution or resource and referral agency). It is awarded to individuals who have had training and experience in the field of early childhood education and have successfully completed the CDA assessment.
There is debate about whether specialized training on its own—without the benefit of a bachelor’s or advanced degree—ensures high-quality early childhood education or better outcomes for children in early childhood settings. Some researchers argue that the nature of the specialized training is critical and that teacher effectiveness results only from involvement in formal programs of education in child development or a related field. For example, researchers who have observed teachers in child care centers with different levels and types of training and formal education (including, for example, a high school diploma with no specialized training, a CDA credential, and a bachelor’s or higher degree in child development or a related field) have found that only teachers with a bachelor’s degree or beyond are associated with classrooms regarded as high-quality. Although teachers with associate’s degrees and CDA certificates prove to be more effective than those with only some specialized training in postsecondary institutions or a high school degree with some in-service training, they do not provide the “good- to-excellent” level of quality associated with children’s future school success.
Family child care providers are less likely to have a bachelor’s degree than center-based teachers. Nonetheless, the existing (but limited) studies of family child care homes reveal patterns of findings similar to those of centers. Family child care providers who are better educated and have received higher levels of specialized training create richer learning environments and provide warmer and more sensitive caregiving than providers with less education and training.
It should be noted that some very recent research on prekindergarten programs finds that teacher education and training are only modest predictors of observed classroom quality. This is in contrast with research on child care programs, for which such associations are greater in magnitude. These findings suggest that the importance of professional development to classroom quality might vary across types of early childhood settings.
Nonetheless, early childhood teachers and providers who possess both higher levels of formal education and specialized training in child development bring the most to early childhood education. They are generally more skilled at helping young children develop and achieve their potential. Their interactions with the children in their care are sensitive, warm, and intellectually stimulating—essential components of high-quality care. In particular, children whose teachers are well educated and specially trained have better prereading and premath skills, better social skills, and larger vocabularies. This link between teacher formal education and specialized training and children’s school readiness is especially pertinent to children from low-income families, who are at high risk of academic failure if they enter elementary school without the social and cognitive skills necessary for adaptation to school.
The benefits to children of having well-qualified teachers in early childhood settings persist over time. For example, research suggests that the closeness of the early childhood teacher-child relationship is related to children’s thinking skills, math skills, social skills, and language ability into the elementary school years. Children whose early childhood teachers have high levels of formal education and training are also more likely to cooperate with elementary-school teachers and, according to teachers and parents, have fewer behavior problems. Furthermore, the positive effects of high-quality early childhood teachers on low- income children can persist into young adulthood. In the care of well-trained early childhood teachers, children are more likely to grow up to be healthier and better adjusted, emotionally and socially. They are also less likely to need expensive remedial services, such as special education, and enter correction or welfare systems.
Professional Development Requirements in the United States
Many occupations, including architecture, electrical engineering, social work, and nursing, require individual credentials (e.g., a certificate or diploma) as a means of ensuring high-quality service. In most educational and human services, the conventional standard for professional preparation for practice is a bachelor’s degree. Kindergarten and primary school teachers, for example, must have a bachelor’s degree and earn teacher certification before they can teach. In its recent report on the care and education of preschoolers, the National Research Council recommended that each group of children in an early childhood program be assigned a teacher who has a college degree and specialized education related to early childhood (National Research Council, 2000).
While the early childhood field provides a mechanism for licensing facilities, it does not, as a profession, require credentials for the individuals who work with children. Instead, each state sets its own minimum qualifications, resulting in great variation in teacher preparation across states and program types (e.g., prekindergarten, child care). Twenty states and the District of Columbia require prekindergarten teachers to have a bachelor’s degree. By comparison, only one state—Rhode Island—requires teachers in child care centers to have a bachelor’s degree. In many states the maximum education requirement for teachers in child care centers is some early childhood coursework in a postsecondary institution. Thirty states require child care teachers to have no more than a high school diploma in order to teach. Family child care is another story. Only two states require family child care providers to have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Most states require providers to have some annual in-service training.
Professional Development Infrastructure
The professional development of early childhood teachers is dependent upon the accessibility and efficacy of the professional development system in place. An effective system of professional development requires an infrastructure. In the United States, the widespread and long-term professional development of early childhood teachers has led to the conceptualization of a career lattice, which depicts the knowledge, performances, and dispositions associated with the early childhood profession’s various roles, levels, and settings. The career lattice fosters progression within the field by providing a logical sequence of roles and preparation that individuals can achieve. The lattice framework captures the diversity of roles and settings within the early childhood profession (represented by vertical strands) as well as steps toward greater preparation, tied to increased responsibility and compensation (represented by horizontal levels) within each role/setting. The lattice also allows for movement across roles (represented by diagonals). Each strand of the lattice is interconnected and all strands are part of the larger early childhood profession. By offering opportunities for advancement while early childhood professionals continue to work with children, career lattices serve as both support and advocacy for higher-quality services for children (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1993).
Also critical to the professional development infrastructure are a core body of knowledge (specific knowledge) and a set of core competencies (observable skills) specific to the field of early childhood education and required to be an effective early childhood professional. Together, the body of knowledge and competencies distinguish early childhood professionals from other professionals. Finally, articulation agreements among institutions of higher education constitute another important component of the infrastructure. These allow early childhood professionals to transfer credit among schools, which makes it easier to earn a degree or pursue specialized education. Without articulation, teachers may have difficulty receiving credit for courses they have taken, which, in turn, makes it hard to earn a degree and advance in the field. See also Child Care, Families.
Further Readings: Burchinal, Margaret, Carollee Howes, and Susan Kontos (2002). Structural predictors of child care quality in child care homes. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 17(1), 87-105; Doherty, Kathryn M. (2002). Early learning: State policies. Quality counts 2002: Building blocks for success. State efforts in early-childhood education [Special Issue]. Education Week 21(17), 54-67; Howes, Carollee, and Jan Brown (2000). Improving child care quality: A guide for proposition 10 commissions. Los Angeles: UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities; Howes, Carollee, Ellen Smith, and Ellen Galinsky (1995). The Florida child care quality improvement study: Interim report. New York: Families and Work Institute. Lowenstein, Amy E., Susan Ochshorn, Sharon Lynn Kagan, and Bruce Fuller (2004). The effects of professional development efforts and compensation on quality of early care and education services. Denver: National Conference of State Legislatures; National Association for the Education of Young Children (1993). A conceptual framework for early childhood professional
development (Position Statement). Washington, DC: Author; National Research Council (2000). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Committee on Early Childhood Pedagogy: Barbara Bowman, M. Suzanne Donovan, and M. Susan Burns, eds., Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; Pianta, Robert, Carollee Howes, Margaret Burchinal, Donna Bryant, Richard Clifford, Diane Early, and Oscar Barbarin (2005). Features of pre-kindergarten programs, classrooms, and teachers: Do they predict observed classroom quality and child-teacher interactions? Applied Developmental Science 9(3), 144-159; Vandell, Deborah Lowe, and Barbara Wolfe (2000). Child care quality: Does it matter and does it need to be improved? Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Whitebook, Marcy (2003). Bachelor’s degrees are best: Higher qualifications for pre-kindergarten teachers lead to better learning environments for children. Washington, DC: The Trust for Early Education.
Amy E. Lowenstein