Pre-K teacher certification policies overlook standards for learning

March 2, 2020

States across the nation are increasing funding and focus on expanding high-quality education opportunities for young children. However, according to new research from Michigan State University, the U.S. is overlooking an important piece of the preschool puzzle: teacher certification.

While all states now have prekindergarten student learning standards for literacy and math, most states have very few requirements related to the knowledge and skills new teachers need in those areas to begin their careers, the study shows.

Preschool children in class

“It’s problematic to say kids should learn something without taking steps to guarantee teachers are learning how to teach it,” said Tanya Wright, associate professor in the MSU College of Education and lead author of the study. “Without clear policies in place, we can’t expect that pre-K teachers will arrive in classrooms prepared to support kids’ learning in early literacy and mathematics. Or they may actually be teaching them in unproductive ways.”

Wright and her colleagues are the first to examine pre-K teacher certification requirements and how they align—or not—with expectations for child outcomes in all 50 states. Their paper, published in the Journal of Teacher Education, outlines vast differences in how states specify what teacher candidates should be able to do.

Over half of the 114 teacher certificate documents they analyzed made no mention of specific literacy content. Even worse, math was left out in more than two-thirds of certificates across the nation.

Interestingly, the researchers found that states were more likely to identify clear content standards when pre-K teacher certification was included along with licensure to teach in elementary grades.

Researchers say this illuminates the fact that early childhood education continues to receive less attention, and therefore lower expectations, from state policymakers than K-12 education. But, with more than 1.5 million 4-year-olds now attending public preschool and growing, that is changing.

States are taking steps to ensure preschool teachers are better prepared to help young kids develop the math and literacy concepts they will need for their futures. Michigan, for example, has approved new standards for coursework to be covered for future teachers who will teach pre-K through third grade.

“But we don’t have to wait on policymakers,” said co-author Amy Parks, also an associate professor at MSU. “Teacher preparation institutions need to be working on how they can prepare pre-K teachers to engage with kids differently. Because if we don’t teach this, we run the risk that children won’t learn in developmentally appropriate ways.”

Additional co-authors include Bethany Wilinski of the MSU Department of Teacher Education, Lisa Domke of Georgia State University and Laura Hopkins of Houghton College. Domke and Hopkins are graduates of the MSU Ph.D. program in Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education.