Teachers of children in preschool through 3rd grade said a more unified education system, for children younger than 8 years old, would help to establish a common foundation in early childhood education that would align teaching and student learning, according to a national survey.
This was the sentiment of 76 percent of current and former K-3 teachers nationwide who responded to a nationally representative survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a professional membership organization for early childhood teachers that advocates for high quality teaching, practice and research for children under 8 years old. The data was collected through interviews and surveys of 537 participants, the majority with 10 to 20 years experience as teachers.
A unified system refers to creating a more fluid transition from the preschool system to the elementary system. In an ideal setting this means teacher qualifications, compensation and classroom practice are better aligned. It can also mean teachers share the same vision for how to educate young students and have access to similar professional development opportunities and funding streams for programs, said Lauren Hogan, senior director for public policy and advocacy for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
In the survey, teachers support a unified system because it can foster mentorship and support for new teachers and allow teachers to share and learn from each other. It would also streamline training and create more consistent standards tailored to the varying ages and developmental abilities of students.
“The system as it stands is very fragmented and so when we talk about the educators feeling fragmented that’s a reflection of the systems they work in. A unified system means that teachers are on the same page about the developmental practice for children birth to 8 but also that the system is set up to allow them to practice what they know works for kids and families,” Hogan said.
California’s preschool system is often described as disjointed, so efforts to better coordinate with K-3 can be challenging. The extent of collaboration between preschool teachers and the K-3 system depends largely on the district. A 2015 study by New American Media found that despite success in individual preschool and elementary systems, few states have mastered aligning both systems.
Kindergarten teachers were most comfortable with a unified system. In the survey, 87 percent of kindergarten teachers said they were in favor of a unified system, compared to 71 percent for 2nd grade and 69 percent for 3rd grade.
In a summary report of the survey, researchers said while preschool and K-3 teachers share certain skills, knowledge and competencies required for teaching young children, they often are not subject to the same teacher credential requirements or earn similar salaries. Elementary teachers are typically required to have bachelor’s degrees and other teacher credentials, such as a general education teacher credential or special education credential.
Nationwide, requirements for preschool teachers vary. States such as New York, Texas and Georgia require teachers to have bachelor’s degrees to teach in state preschool programs but Arizona, Delaware and Ohio, among others, do not, according to a recent national report that measures access, quality and investment in public preschools.
In California, education and training requirements for preschool teachers vary according to the kind of programs in which they teach. For example, the California State Preschool Program, which provides center-based preschool for 3- and 4- year-olds, requires teachers to have early childhood education coursework and general college units but there is no degree requirement, while the federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start require an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree with a specialization in early childhood education.
“All too often, the educators working across these years are separated by issues, from professional preparation to compensation,” said Rhian Allvin, chief executive officer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “These divides have resulted in a fragmented early childhood profession and forfeited opportunities to learn from one another.”
Researchers said one of the goals of the report is to elevate teacher voices on this important issue. The survey also includes sections about what being an early childhood educator means to teachers, what aspects of their professional training and ongoing professional development have been the most useful and some of the challenges and benefits of a unified system for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
More than half of the teachers surveyed said the practical teaching experience they gained as students while enrolled in a teacher preparation program was one of the most helpful aspects of their training, alongside courses focused on child development. Teachers also said they would have liked more training in classroom management, helping students with developmental disabilities and working with students who speak more than one language or another language at home.
“It is important to get professional preparation right — not only for the purposes of quality teaching, but also for the sake of retention,” the survey states. Researchers also said the quality of a teacher’s preparation affected his or her plan to stay long-term in the profession. Teachers who were more positive about the preparation they received were more likely to stay, the report states.