Through a concerted effort over the past five years, California is on track to meet a national requirement that 50 percent of Head Start lead classroom teachers hold a bachelor’s degree by the end of September. While only 27 percent of Head Start lead teachers held a bachelor’s degree in the 2007-08 school year, 48 percent now hold one, and an additional 11 percent are enrolled in a baccalaureate program.
“Most [program] directors are feeling confident that they’ve reached the 50 percent mark,” said California Head Start Association executive director Rick Mockler.
In fact, the requirement seems to have worked even though the current law does not impose consequences for individual programs or individual states that do not meet the benchmark by the Sept. 30 deadline. With no fear of reprisals either way, programs in California took advantage of tuition assistance offered by both the federal and state governments to encourage teachers to pursue higher-level degrees.
The new requirement from Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income children, was added in 2007 when Congress last re-authorized Head Start funding. It was part of a wave of new regulations intended to shore up the quality of Head Start, which studies have repeatedly found to be minimally effective. The hope is that increasing expectations for teacher education will improve the quality of instruction in local programs.
“The push for teachers to get degrees is more about validating the notion that in the early years we do more than just babysit kids,” said Diane Levin, deputy director for First 5 California, a statewide agency dedicated to improving care and education programs for Californians to age 5. “We want these real education professionals to be the best they can be.”
Some experts worry that the requirement will drive up costs without affecting outcomes for children. While research abounds showing that students with strong teachers achieve at higher levels, it’s not clear that a bachelor’s degree is the key element of improved instruction.
“We know that having great teachers is critical, but we don’t have great evidence showing that requiring teachers to hold a B.A. necessarily implies they will be ‘better’ teachers or that they will do a better job interacting with young children,” Professor Daphna Bassok wrote in an email. Bassok is an education professor at the University of Virginia who has been studying the implementation of the requirement. “The evidence here is thin.”
That hasn’t stopped Head Start teachers in California from pursuing new degrees, and the upward trend here is mirrored nationally. Since 2007, the percentage of Head Start teachers with a bachelor’s degree has risen from just over 40 percent to 55 percent, according to Bassok.
“The 1998 and 2007 reauthorizations definitely led Head Start programs to focus on raising teacher education levels, and the trends have been striking,” she wrote.
A statewide preschool quality rating system set to be piloted this spring has added some teeth to the federal requirement. The number of program employees holding bachelor’s degrees will be one of many quality measures in the new system.
That’s a major change in a system where the requirement for a lead classroom teacher is a Child Development Associate permit, which calls for less than a year’s worth of formal training and a few months worth of in-classroom experience. Teachers can use several combinations of these two requirements to earn their permit. (The requirements to be an assistant classroom teacher are even lower. Twenty-five percent have no early childhood education credential at all.)
Funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allowed many California programs to help their teachers pay tuition expenses for associate’s and bachelor’s degrees as part of the new push. Partnerships with local community colleges and First 5 California programs like CARES (Comprehensive Approaches to Raising Education Standards) also helped a significant number of teachers to earn degrees. For many, this was a chance to take a major step forward on their own educational trajectories.
Training ground K-12?
Experts disagree about the usefulness of taking that step.
Of course, one concern is cost. Head Start programs will now compete with K-12 districts, which pay considerably more, to keep teachers with bachelor’s degrees. There will be pressure to raise preschool salaries or face more churn in a profession with a high turnover rate already.
“The fear is not that [California programs] won’t meet the [new Head Start] target,” said Mockler, of the California Head Start Association, “but that when the economy picks up, they won’t be able to hold on to their teachers with B.A.’s.”
The average Head Start salary for teachers who hold bachelor’s degrees is between $30,623 and $34,794, depending on the specific sub-program, according to data collected by the California Head Start Association. (For teachers with only an associate’s degree, the average salary range is even lower, $23,614 to $32,756.)
In comparison, the average salary for a K-12 teacher in California is $67,448.
“It’s hard when the pay scale is so lopsided for people to come in and stay,” said Camille Maben, director of First 5 California. “Maybe we don’t want to be the great training ground for primary [school] teachers.”
Maben said elevating the status of teaching preschool by offering higher pay to go with the stricter requirements could help avoid that fate. But that’s only if teachers with bachelor’s degrees are able to do a significantly better job teaching young children, a question that’s not yet settled.
Marcy Whitebook heads the Center for the Study of Child Care Educators at U.C. Berkeley. She acknowledged that most research on the matter has drawn a weak link at best between teachers who hold a bachelor’s degree and improved outcomes for young children. That doesn’t change her conviction that teachers of young children should have more rigorous training.
“There’s no other level of teaching in the world that we would question whether or not someone needs a college degree,” Whitebook said. “We question it in early childhood because we haven’t tended to think of it as skilled work traditionally.”
Whitebook said the quality of higher education programs for early educators is all over the map, which means a degree from those programs might not confer the needed skills and knowledge.
The Head Start requirement does not specify required coursework or even call for a degree with a specific major. In California, 65 percent of early childhood education teachers who hold bachelor’s degrees specialized in early childhood education, according to the 2011-12 Head Start Program Information Report on staff qualifications. The rest of the degree-holders are classified as specializing in “any related field.”
Maben also said working conditions for the women (early childhood educators are overwhelmingly women) who hold these jobs are often poor. The salaries are low, turnover is high and teachers are often offered zero planning time.
“We’re so intent on getting at-risk kids who are going to be around people who have all these stresses,” like high poverty, addiction and minimal education, into preschool, Whitebook said. “Then you think about the people teaching early childhood education, and they have a lot of the same stresses.”
Improving working conditions and upping expectations for early education teachers go hand in hand, Whitebook said. A blanket requirement that all teachers earn a bachelor’s degree tomorrow wouldn’t work, she said, but she applauded Head Start for giving programs plenty of time and resources to help their educators earn higher degrees.
Those resources must continue to include tuition help since Head Start teachers are generally paid too little to fund their own education. And policymakers will have to begin to consider offering increased pay to enable programs to hang on to their top teachers.
Bassok, the professor studying the nationwide implementation of the Head Start requirement, cautions that the costs may outweigh the benefits. “It’s important to think about whether the resources used towards paying more educated teachers could have other uses that would have greater benefits for kids,” Bassok wrote.