Trouble Ahead: Teacher Quality, Junior Division

Trouble does, indeed, lurk, as President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan gird themselves for the inevitable debate about the overhaul of No Child Left Behind, the nation's signature education reform initiative. Obama's upcoming state-of-the-union address, we're told, will highlight education, and Duncan's been conveying a great sense of urgency as he makes his rounds in all the public forums. On NPR, in an interview last week, the Secretary referred to education as "an economic imperative," a matter of "national security," and "the civil rights issue of our generation" -- all in one breath.

But the trouble lies beyond elusive bipartisan support. There's that little problem of teacher quality. The mantra du jour of 21st-century education reform, teacher quality has become the proxy for all that is wrong with our broken education system -- indeed, our society at large. Although one might argue -- as I do -- with some of the current mechanisms and proposals for recruiting, retaining, and evaluating teachers, for better, and for worse, the heat is on. Nowhere is it as hot, however, as in early childhood education, the foundation for school readiness and future academic achievement.

To put it politely, the workforce in education "junior division" is highly challenged. Teacher qualifications vary considerably across states and settings (Head Start, child care, state pre-K programs). The early childhood field has finally embraced the bachelor's degree as the baseline -- after years of internal debate and hand-wringing. By fall of 2013, for example, at least 50 percent of Head Start teachers nationwide will be required to have a bachelor's or advanced degree with specialization in early childhood education. Still, in too many states, teachers of young children have minimal pre-service training. And levels of education for the early childhood workforce have been declining for years.

Professional development for early childhood teachers is very much a work in progress. Geographical isolation and limited fiscal and educational resources defy training efforts in many parts of the country. Cost remains a significant barrier to attaining higher education, especially for family child care and other home-based providers, many of whom are low-income, living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Institutions of higher education are also under siege. Of the approximately 1,200 colleges and universities that prepare the current early childhood workforce, less than a third grant associate's and bachelor's degrees in early childhood. Moreover, existing early childhood programs are characterized by low staffing, high use of adjuncts, and instructors without expertise in early childhood education and development.

Last spring and summer, in anticipation of the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a.k.a No Child Left Behind), early education advocates weighed in with the chairs and ranking members of the Committees on Education & Labor and Health, Education, Labor & Pensions. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommended, among other things, that the re-authorization extend the definition of an "effective teacher" to encompass "the specialized knowledge and skills for teaching and learning across all domains with children below third grade." They also suggested the use of Title I funds for joint professional development between community-based early childhood providers and kindergarten and first grade teachers. The New America Foundation urged that "teachers in federal, state- and district-funded early childhood programs should be included in all ESEA programs that seek to improve teacher quality."

Alas, the future of the early childhood workforce is anything but certain. Along with the fate of The Early Learning Challenge Fund, a multi-billion-dollar competitive grant program, which tantalized early childhood educators with its promise of quality improvement for birth to five services, including strong support for professional development. From the Fund's introduction, by President Obama, in the summer of 2009, to its approval by the House that fall, to its rocky trajectory during 2010, as it first died, was resurrected, like the phoenix, and then pushed under again, the grant program embodied the hopes and dreams of a community that has long been on the short end of investment.

As the Secretary and the President negotiate the renewal of NCLB, let's hope that they make good on their promise of reforming education "from cradle to career." One thing is certain: Our youngest students won't get to "career" without high-quality teachers.

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