Sharing at the Sand Table 101

Do you need a college degree to teach preschool?

In the current issue of the Atlantic, Clive Crook argues against the encroachment of the college degree as a job-entry requirement. “Failing to go to college did not always mark people out as rejects, unfit for any kind of well-paid employment,” he points out, and comes up with a list of occupations in which employers now look for degrees for no good reason. His list includes preschool teachers. My mind flashed to the unfailing smile and wraparound hugs of one of my son’s past teachers. Crook is right: She didn’t learn that in college.

So, do you need a degree to teach preschool? Study after study shows that 3- and 4-year-olds are better served by more-educated teachers in myriad ways. As you might expect, these teachers tend to offer superior curricula and formal teaching. But they’re also, on average, “more stimulating, warm, and supportive” and “provide more age-appropriate experiences.” That finding is from a 2004 overview of the relevant research by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and it represents the consensus view. The experts disagree over how much college coursework preschool teachers should have—a two-year associate degree vs. a four-year baccalaureate. The more vexing question is how to take what is now an underpaid, low-skilled workforce and magically restock it with college-educated professionals.

The current preschool market rarely rewards teachers for getting additional credentials. Salaries are as low as $16,000 a year and rarely more than $26,000. One teacher pointed out to me that you can make that much money parking cars, which helps explains why the field often doesn’t attract the most qualified people. Traditionally, if you were 18, didn’t have a communicable disease, and loved kids or could fake it, you were hired. Preschool teachers still sometimes have to put up with being thought of as glorified babysitters (the retort of choice at one of my sons’ former schools is that no one ever sits on babies there).

But this attitude may begin to change. States are putting more emphasis on “school readiness” programs designed to prepare children (especially low-income children) for kindergarten. With state involvement comes degree requirements for teachers—the lawmakers and regulators see them as a proxy for quality. Given the low wages paid to teachers, states that move in this direction have a choice. They can pay to send teachers to school now by footing their college bills and hiking their pay after graduation. Or they can gradually phase in higher-education requirements in hopes that teachers will take on the training expense themselves.

New Jersey is an example of the first approach. In 31 school districts with 48,000 preschoolers, the state employs more than 2,600 teachers at public-school-scale salaries. Ninety-two percent of the teachers had a bachelor’s degree in 2004. This was four years after a court ruling established this as a requirement for the 31 districts, which serve the bulk of the state’s poor children. The state didn’t track the money it spent on sending the teachers to college, according to Ellen Frede, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. But the starting state salary for a preschool teacher increased from an average of $18,000 to $40,000. It’s too soon to know what the long-term effects for kids will be, but Frede thinks New Jersey’s degree requirements are entirely necessary if preschool is to be truly educational.

Connecticut, by contrast, is taking the slower route. The state now requires 12 college credits (three courses) in child development for head teachers in state-funded programs; the bar will move up to a bachelor’s degree in 2015, according to Carla Horwitz, director of the Calvin Hill Day Care Center in New Haven, Conn. Head Start, the preschool program for poor kids founded in the 1960s, has opted for the gradual approach, too: It recently began requiring that half its head teachers have two-year degrees and has debated raising the requirement to a four-year degree.

It’s one thing to tell child-care centers to hire teachers with more education; it’s another to make sure people with those credentials are lining up for the job. The best bet for higher salaries is probably to fold preschool into the existing public-education system, as New Jersey has done. That has a potential downside—lots of bureaucracy, standardization, and the other problems that beset public schools.

If your child has gone to a preschool where the majority of teachers have gone to college, though, it’s hard to overlook the benefits. My son Eli attended Calvin Hill for two years and loved it. Almost all his teachers had gone to college; when Christo and Jeanne-Claude did The Gates in Central Park, Eli’s class made their own collective (and smaller) version. Still, a few teachers who were the exceptions to the college norm could light up a classroom—three years later, an assistant who was not long out of high school is the teacher Eli most often asks after.

Horwitz, the day-care director, worries about squeezing out this kind of talent. Doing so could hurt the kids as well as those teachers. “Some of the people who go into child-care tend not to be great at school, the reading and the writing,” Horwitz says. Which is OK, because it’s possible to thrive in the field without those skills. But it shouldn’t be the rule, in light of the research about the benefits of educated teachers for kids. The National Association for the Education of Young Children, an accrediting organization for preschools, recommends a two-year associate program that includes learning about child development, observing and assessing kids, dealing with parents, and teaching a preschool curriculum. That seems like a pretty sound list.

Some child-care centers compromise by requiring degrees of head teachers but not of their assistants. This makes sense—except when it’s the assistant who really knows how to soothe the kids and make the day run smoothly, and who will face an institutional barrier for promotion and better pay. The hard-nosed response to this injustice is, essentially, tough. Or maybe, follow New Jersey’s lead and send those valuable undertrained teachers back to school. W. Steven Barnett, a professor of education economics at Rutgers and author of a recent article on preschool and social mobility for the Brookings Institution, argues that college-educated teachers are particularly important for disadvantaged kids, who often can’t rely on their parents for the broad exposure that college-educated adults can offer. He also thinks that babies and toddlers would also probably be better off with college-educated caregivers. There’s little research on 1- to 2-year-olds to back this up. But if going to college correlates with greater warmth, you’d want it for the little guys, too.

How to possibly pay for all of this? Sending preschool teachers back to school is relatively cheap, Barnett says. It’s raising their salaries afterward that drains budgets. But then you look at the benefits associated with excellent preschool—higher reading and math skills throughout school, better high-school graduation rates, and richer lifetime earnings—and it sounds like a good front-end investment. The states are already spending more on their youngest students. Perhaps their youngest teachers (or the older ones willing to head back to college) deserve the same treatment.