What We Can — and Can’t — Learn From New Jersey to Improve Pre-K Teacher Training and Pay

teacher chalkboard word cloudShould 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.

It’s true that many states would need to spend more to employ pre-K teachers with college degrees and pay them on par with K-12 teachers. But it’s also important to put New Jersey’s costs in context: New Jersey is an expensive state generally, and spends more per pupil on K-12 education — around $18,000 per pupil in 2015, compared to a national average of around $11,400 — than all but three other states and D.C.

This means that the Abbott comparison likely overstates the cost to employ similarly credentialed pre-K teachers in most states. In lower-cost states, the costs would likely be considerably lower. So, yes, increasing pre-K teacher credentials will cost money — but not as much as this story implies.

3. New Jersey’s strong alternative routes to certification played a key role in helping meet the need for certified pre-K teachers. Interlandi talks about some of the strategies that New Jersey put in place to help childcare workers meet new degree and credential requirements. But she doesn’t mention the important role that New Jersey’s alternative certification policies played in making this possible for many teachers. New Jersey has the nation’s oldest alternative certification policy, created in 1983 to expedite entry into teaching for individuals with strong academic backgrounds and subject matter knowledge who had not completed a traditional teacher preparation program.

But alternative certification was also a helpful tool as New Jersey worked to help pre-K teachers meet Abbott credential requirements, because it allowed childcare workers to earn certification without taking time off to student teach — a major barrier to completing traditional certification programs. This is an important lesson from New Jersey’s experience that should inform efforts to elevate pre-k teacher credentials in other states.

Of course, the bigger issue here is that New Jersey’s pre-K is a publicly funded program. And raising teacher credentials and compensation in publicly funded programs is primarily a matter of increasing public funding per child to levels adequate to cover the costs of better paid teachers. That’s conceptually — if not politically — a relatively simple matter.

The much more complex challenge is how to increase skills and compensation for teachers in non-publicly funded childcare and early childhood programs — who constitute the bulk of the early childhood workforce. What these programs can pay teachers is constrained by what parents can afford to pay for childcare. And we know that the costs of childcare are already burdensomely high for many families. Solving this problem for the broader early childhood workforce, then, will require innovative thinking around both the cost model of early childhood operators and the types of financing and funding mechanisms (public and private) available to help pay for the costs of childcare.

New Jersey’s model offers important lessons for how to increase qualifications and compensation in publicly funded pre-k programs, but without broader strategies that consider the health of the larger early childhood sector, we risk creating or exacerbating a bifurcated landscape in which teachers in publicly funded programs have higher qualifications and training, while those in many childcare settings continue to have low levels of education and wages.