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Asking more of preschool

State wants bachelor degree for teachers of the youngest

Rose Podier with Cassius William and Safiya Allen at Castle Square, a child care and preschool program in the South End. “We are like teachers, nurses, and social workers,’’ Podier said. Rose Podier with Cassius William and Safiya Allen at Castle Square, a child care and preschool program in the South End. “We are like teachers, nurses, and social workers,’’ Podier said. (Michele Mcdonald for The Boston Globe)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / June 10, 2010

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Once considered just places to play, preschools now sandwich science and math lessons in between naps and recess. To help teachers meet the new academic rigor and to reduce socioeconomic achievement gaps that start before kindergarten, the state wants more teachers to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Less than a third of early childhood educators who teach in private programs, where the vast majority of the state’s preschoolers are enrolled, hold bachelor’s degrees, and many are at education levels barely higher than a high school diploma, according to a report released this spring by Strategies for Children Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group in Boston.

Nationwide, the report found that 50 percent of early educators have a bachelor’s degree.

A more highly skilled workforce, particularly one well versed in how a child’s brain develops between birth and age 5, could play a pivotal role in identifying gaps in learning and crafting a plan to remedy them before the child reaches elementary school, education specialists say. Better trained preschool teachers could also be in a better position to spot learning disabilities or developmental issues at a younger age.

“We have children who enter kindergarten with one-third of the vocabulary of their peers,’’ said Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary. “That puts them at a huge disadvantage.’’

Boosting the credentials of the early childhood workforce is a key component of the state’s effort to offer universal access to high-quality preschool to all youngsters between the ages of 3 and 5. About 70 percent of the more than 244,000 children in that age bracket attend preschool, but the quality of the programs, which number several hundred, can vary widely.

The Department of Early Education and Care is developing new quality standards for preschool programs, which will use the educational attainment levels of staff as a quality indicator.

Tomorrow, the department will unveil a registry of early childhood educators in the private sector that, among other things, will track their education attainment levels. The database will enable the state to reach out directly to teachers who lack degrees, informing them about the benefits of the credential and scholarships that are available.

In 2005, the Legislature approved a scholarship program for early education that provides $150 per credit at community colleges and $400 per credit at private or public universities.

But with preschool teachers often earning less than $30,000 annually, pursuing a bachelor’s degree can be a costly investment that may lead to only a slight increase in salary, sometimes earning them just 25 cents more an hour, say early childhood education advocates. They say the state needs to do more to bolster the credentials of early childhood workers and compensate them more generously.

“Overall this is a workforce that has been overlooked and undervalued,’’ said Amy O’Leary, director of the Early Education for All Campaign, an initiative of Strategies for Children. “Early childhood education is one of the most effective ways to close the achievement gap, which we know occurs well before kindergarten.’’

Preschool programs run by public school systems have stricter certification rules for teachers and are overseen by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which requires teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree and pass a licensing exam. Just a small group of preschoolers, less than 27,000, attend those programs.

By contrast, no certification is required for lead teachers in private programs, which fall under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Early Education and Care and serve more than 130,000 children. The department checks the credentials of the lead teachers, who can perform that task with only a high school diploma if they are at least 21 years old, have completed 12 college credits in early childhood education, and have 36 months of supervised work experience.

Merely enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program has helped teachers ramp up the caliber of their classroom activities, some teachers said.

At Castle Square, a child care and preschool program in the South End, Suzeline Michel Paul said she has been developing ways to individualize classroom activities to address her students’ needs as she learns more about human development while working toward a bachelor’s degree. She expects to graduate from Lesley University next May.

“I remember when I first started as a teacher I used to use the same format all the time,’’ said Paul, 31, who has been teaching for six years and sees it as a calling. “To be an early education worker, you have to have it in your soul.’’

A colleague, Rose Podier, who is working toward a bachelor’s degree at Cambridge College, said a higher level of education can help teachers perform better in a job with myriad demands.

“We are like teachers, nurses, and social workers,’’ Podier said. “We are everything in one.’’

Increasingly, child care centers and preschools are asking teachers to tailor classroom activities to meet the individual needs of their students as they learn a wide range of skills, such as the ability to recite the alphabet, play well with others, or accomplish tasks requiring fine motor skills, like using safety scissors. In many cases, teachers must now regularly assess, often monthly, students’ progress in mastering those skills.

Some debate persists over the need for preschool teachers to hold bachelor’s degrees.

Several national studies have found that those with a bachelor’s degree tend to expose pupils to a broader range of vocabulary and other literacy skills and that their pupils showed greater gains in cognitive, social, and emotional development, according to a report in March by Pre-K Now, a campaign of the Pew Center on the States.

However, that same report said other research on the issue was mixed or showed no difference in quality of education.

Sherri Killins, the state’s commissioner for early childhood education and care, said boosting the academic credentials of teachers is not a silver bullet for increasing the quality of preschool programs and closing student achievement gaps.

Preschool programs also need strong curriculum and academic standards and strategies to encourage parents to be engaged in children’s education, she said.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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