Dr. Marcy Whitebook has been part of the early education world since the early 1970s, when she graduated college and went to work as a preschool teacher. Today she’s the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley. As part of a new, occasional Question and Answer series with leaders in California education, EdSource Today’s Lillian Mongeau sat down with Whitebook in her office in January.
The conversation delved into several issues, but dwelt on the current debate over how much training and education should be required for preschool teachers. Most early education classrooms have a “classroom teacher” or “lead teacher” as well as one or more “assistant teachers.” Right now, the only requirement for lead teachers is that they have a certificate, called a Child Development Associate, that requires a few semesters of coursework and some experience in the classroom. Head Start has been pushing for more of its lead teachers to earn a bachelor’s degree and, as we reported, that push has gained traction in California. There is not much discussion about requiring bachelor’s degrees for assistant teachers, though many of them pursue the degree in order to move up and become a lead teacher.
Separate from the bachelor’s degree question is the issue of having a teaching credential that requires extra schooling and student teaching. This is required for K-12 teachers, but is not currently mandatory at the preschool level. Some early childhood educators think such a credential – for teachers of preschool through third grade – should be required.
Here are the highlights of Whitebook’s conversation with us:
EdSource: What do you think are the biggest issues in California right now for early childhood education?
Marcy Whitebook: The one very big issue in California right now is that we’ve lost services for almost 100,000 children over the last few years because of cutbacks. So we know that there are a lot of families out there who qualify for subsidies and aren’t getting them. There are a lot of families struggling to pay for childcare and we know that people working in childcare are working with reduced budgets and limited resources. This all contributes to whether or not we can have the kind of system we want.
EdSource: There’s been a lot of talk recently in California and elsewhere about a credential for teachers who teach preschool through third grade. Do you think there should be a credential for that age group?
Whitebook: I actually have a California credential for teaching preschool through third grade, which was something we did in California for many years. It was discontinued in the late 1970s, which gives you a little sense of how long I’ve been doing this. And I’m not saying that every single person who is teaching or working with young children needs that credential, but that option should be there, that we have a role articulated with a clear sense of the expectations for people who are working in preschool and early-elementary classrooms.
We tend to split and think of 0- to 5-year-olds and then think of kindergarten through third grade, although development would say it’s a continuum from birth through age 8. I think it would be very helpful if we thought of preschool as a continuum into early-elementary … instead of a disjuncture.
EdSource: Within the credential, what are some of the things that would be really helpful to know that you might get in a pre-K to third grade credential that you don’t get in a generalized elementary credential?
Whitebook: I think there’s sort of this notion that academics start in elementary school and in early-childhood, kids play. I would question that to say, “Well, actually children learn through play.”
And play doesn’t stop at five. You don’t want to sit 6- and 7-year-olds down with little things where they’re just filling out workbooks.
But, in fact, mathematical understanding and understanding the building blocks for literacy – all those things start long before kids get to kindergarten. So people need to understand what early literacy or pre-literacy and early-mathematical understanding look like and what are different ways you can facilitate that kind of learning with children as they progress across that chronological age span.
In California, we have a new program called “transitional kindergarten,” which is for 4-year-olds. If I’m teaching transitional kindergarten, and I’ve been working with 7- and 8- or maybe 10- or 11-year-olds, I need to make sure I understand what’s appropriate learning and expectations for children who are 4 years old and how do you facilitate that learning that is going to be meaningful and helpful to that child.
EdSource: As transitional kindergarten rolls out in California, is there any training that you think is needed for the teachers who are taking on full-time TK classrooms?
Whitebook: I think part of it depends on what their background was to begin with because I don’t know how many of them will already have some kind of specific early-childhood training. But I do think that if they haven’t had specific early-childhood training, it would be good. The programs are going to be better if they understand what are appropriate expectations for 4-year-olds in terms of their relationships with each other and their relationship to the teacher.
I disagree with the idea that you can just take a teacher who has been teaching third grade, or even second grade, and just pop ‘em into a preschool and say, “Okay, go! Get ready, set, go!”
Preschool isn’t like first grade with small[er kids]. Preschool is a different stage in children’s development and so you want to make sure that you can grapple with the same areas of learning, but you have to make sure you’re doing it in an appropriate way for younger children.
EdSource: Do you think that there should be a four-year degree required for early-childhood educators and what should that degree consist of?
Whitebook: I think that’s the wrong question. I think the right question is: “What is it that people who are working with young children need to know and be able to do to facilitate children’s learning? And what are the different roles?”
Yes, I do think there should be a four-year degree. There should be teachers who have gone to college who are working with young children and I think there should be more of them. I think that we really wouldn’t ask that question of teachers of any other age group. You wouldn’t say whether you think a kindergarten teacher needs a college degree. Everybody would go, “Of course.”
Is college the only way to prepare people? No.
Is it sufficient? No.
We don’t think that college education is sufficient for K-12 teachers, either. That’s why we have mentor teachers. That’s why we do student teaching. We have ongoing professional development.
I think, when we ask that question about the degree, we kind of shut the conversation down, because everybody starts thinking about, “Well, can we afford it?”
If you want to raise the expectations and the qualifications for people working with young children and you want people who are currently doing that work to continue to do that work, then you need to think, “What other kind of supports [do] I need to have in place so people can access the education they need, succeed at it and actually meet those new standards?”
But that single question ends up masking a lot of other worries and concerns people have, including the issue of compensation, and I would just say that people know that K-12 teachers are underpaid. You haven’t seen anything until you see how the early-childhood teachers are underpaid. So I think we really do need to be thinking about not just education for early-childhood teachers, but rewarding work environments where their well-being is taken care of, that they can afford to feed their families, feed themselves, have sick days, actually have a moment in the day where they can talk with the other teachers they’re working with and on and on so that they can actually apply what they’re learning and get better at what they do.