Study: As CA preschool options expand, quality of teachers needs improving

FILE: Pre-K teachers need better training and higher pay to raise the quality of education for early learners, a new report says.
FILE: Pre-K teachers need better training and higher pay to raise the quality of education for early learners, a new report says.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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With the state moving to expand preschool options for 3 and 4-year-olds, a new study is questioning whether California has a workforce that is qualified to teach all of its earliest learners.

The report by the New America Foundation focuses on whether California has the policies and rigorous teacher training to meet the "demands of a growing, more diverse population."

Currently, 53 percent of the state's infants and toddlers are Latino and almost half are low-income. For an early education teacher, this means a cookie-cutter approach to the first years of school is not likely the best one, according to the report.

The report, authored by Sarah Jackson, said a lot of work needs to be done to raise the quality of teaching and ensure California’s pre-K teachers are adequately trained given the changing demographics among students.

These issues are emerging just as California expands transitional kindergarten, a new grade within the public school system created for children who missed the new Sept 1. cut-off date for turning five to start kindergarten. 

The report also comes as the state designates money in the latest budget to increase the number of early care seats by 16,300 and provide for quality improvements to infant and toddler care. 

Drawing on existing research on the early childhood workforce, Jackson's report highlights the need to bring teacher training programs up to standard regarding best practices in learning based on the latest childhood development research.

Jackson points to a report this year from the Institute of Medicine that delineates what children can learn at an early age and how quality early childhood programs can incorporate this knowledge. The IOM report found that expectations for professionals in the field have "not kept pace" with the science of early learning. 

Another study, this one by the RAND Corp., found that while the bulk of the state’s early childhood associate degrees were awarded by the state’s community colleges, none of these programs is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. NAEYC sets benchmarks for quality in early childhood courses.

Classes at California's community colleges are mostly taught by adjuncts, the report also notes, and these instructors are less likely to keep up on the latest developments in the early learning field.

Jackon's report further cites the ongoing issue with low teacher pay, a major barrier to enticing people into the field and encouraging current teachers to update their skills. 

Preschool teachers will often make minimum wage, despite a college degree. The average pay in California for a preschool teacher is about $24,000.

Low compensation makes it next to impossible for current teachers to return to school and learn to apply new advances from the field in their classrooms, said Marcy Whitebook, long-time researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who runs the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

Transitional kindergarten begins to solve these issues as its teachers are paid on par with K-12 instructors. Transitional kindergarten is also a full-day program, compared to many half-day state preschool programs.

The cost of transitional kindergarten, however, is about double that of state-funded preschool. While transitional kindergarten is open to any child who turns four between Sept. 1 and March 31, state preschool is only for low-income four-year-olds.

Scott Moore, former senior policy adviser at Early Edge California and now director of child care program Kidango, said in the report that this discrepancy between transitional kindergarten and state-subsidized preschools is glaring.

"The program for low-income kids gets less than half the funding per child, lower teacher qualification and lower paid teachers than the program for everyone," Moore said. In 2015, there were 149,000 state preschool slots and 125,000 transitional kindergarten slots, according to the report.

The New America report said California reached an important milestone when it developed a core set of skills and knowledge that early educators working with children under 5 should have.

Called the "Early Childhood Educator Competencies," the standards include knowledge of how social-emotional learning impacts school readiness.

The report suggests several concrete steps for improving the quality of early education instruction, among them on-the-job training and mentorship and better pay.

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that Scott Moore is currently with Early Edge California. He now runs a Bay Area child care and development program, Kidango. KPCC regrets the error.