Should pre-K teachers have degrees? A recent New York Times Magazine article looks at both some of the challenges facing early childhood teachers and the debate over whether or not policymakers should raise education requirements for them. I explored these issues further last week in U.S. News & World Report — but I also wanted to comment on the Times piece’s coverage of New Jersey’s Abbott pre-K program.
Times author Jeneen Interlandi highlights New Jersey’s Abbott pre-K program, which both requires all pre-K teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and pays them comparably with public school teachers. This practice is in sharp contrast with the norm of low education requirements and pay in many other early childhood settings. A little background here: In the 1990s, a court first ordered New Jersey to offer universal pre-K to three- and four-year-olds in thirty-one high-poverty districts and, later, to ensure that teachers in those pre-K programs held both a bachelor’s degree and state certification. As Interlandi argues, the strategies New Jersey used to meet that requirement offer lessons for other efforts to elevate the skills and training of early childhood teachers.
Yet, as someone who’s studied New Jersey’s Abbott program, I fear that the article misses some key points about it that have implications for what policymakers can take away here:
1. Pre-K is pretty much the only part of the Abbott program with evidence of demonstrable, lasting benefits. New Jersey’s Abbott preK was the result of the long-running Abbott v. Burke school finance litigation. Besides mandating pre-K, various Abbott decisions required the state of New Jersey to increase spending in poor districts, repair school facilities and reduce overcrowding, and cover costs of supplemental services to address the needs of children in concentrated poverty. Billions of dollars have been spent on these efforts. Yet there is no clear evidence that they resulted in improved outcomes for students in high-poverty. Abbott Pre-K, however, is the exception.
Interlandi writes: “Abbott studies show fade-out effects, albeit less significant ones than in many other preschool studies.” This statement, while technically correct, underplays the evidence of Abbott pre-K’s results. Research shows that Abbott children made meaningful gains in pre-K — and that a portion of those gains persisted through at least 5th grade.
Interlandi is correct that the magnitude of Abbott pre-K advantage diminished over time, as some degree of fade-out is to be expected over time from any intervention. And, in the context of the Abbott results (or lack thereof) more broadly, the Abbott pre-K results are quite striking. Put another way, the Abbott pre-K results, combined with other evidence on quality early childhood programs, suggest that a marginal education dollar is more likely to generate results if spent on pre-K than if simply added to general education budgets.
2. New Jersey’s pre-K program is expensive — but so is education in New Jersey generally. Interlandi reports that New Jersey spends about $14,000 per child on pre-K — more than double the typical state spending on pre-K. The implication is that requiring pre-K teachers to have a bachelor’s degree is really expensive. Continue reading