Proceedings from a Working Meeting on School Readiness Research: Guiding the Synthesis of Early Childhood Research. The Scope of Professional Development and the Focus of This Paper

12/15/2009

In the early childhood field, professional development (PD) is often the encompassing term used to refer to pre-service and in-service training and education, whether offered through institutions of higher education or through community-based training programs. Individuals entering the early childhood workforce undertake PD to gain an initial credential (e.g., Child Development Associate credential) or degree (typically either AA or BA). Existing members of the workforce undertake PD to achieve degrees and/or to increase their teaching skills, knowledge of a particular subject area, or to learn to implement a particular curriculum. It is that latter type of professional development (in-service training to help existing staff improve their teaching skills or to implement a new curriculum) that is the focus of most of the studies reviewed for this paper.

A recent, extensive review of the early childhood PD literature revealed many gaps in the research, with few studies systematically varying PD to explore its effects on teacher practices or childrens learning outcomes, or to investigate necessary threshold dosage levels, optimal content, or the possible mediating effects of teacher or program characteristics (Zaslow and Martinez-Beck, 2006). Ramey & Ramey (2008) summarize the state of the field: Content, amount, and format of professional development varies but has not been linked to specific classroom instructional practices that have proven effective in promoting childrens developmental outcomes (p. 45).

Instead of focusing on these types of issues, much of the early research in the field focused on the relationship between a teachers educational background, especially whether or not the teacher had a B.A. degree, and early child care and education (ECE) quality or child outcomes.  Some studies of center- and home-based ECE programs found that the quality of care and instruction (as measured by scales such as ECERS, FDCRS, and ITERS) was likely to be better when teachers possessed BA degrees than when they did not (e.g., Burchinal, Cryer, Clifford, & Howes, 2002). Teachers with more education and training in child development specifically were likely to have more sensitive and less harsh interactions with children (Howes, 1997). And, children in both centers and family child care homes were more likely to show better outcomes when their teachers had higher levels of education (Clarke-Stewart, Vandell, Burchinal, OBrien, & McCartney, 2002; Howes, Whitebook, & Phillips, 1992; Weaver, 2002).

Based on these and similar studies, many reviewers concluded that the best quality ECE programs were those in which teachers possessed BA degrees, especially in child development or similar fields (Barnett, 2004; Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2001; Whitebook, 2003).  Indeed, the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Early Childhood Pedagogy recommended that Each group of children in an early childhood education and care program should be assigned a teacher who has a bachelors degree with specialized education related to early childhood (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2001, p. 13). The research findings and these and other similar recommendations helped spur changes in policy and practice such that many publicly-funded state preschool and Head Start programs now require lead teachers to have BA degrees.

But, recent studies have led some to re-examine the emphasis on teacher education levels.  Studies from the Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) in Head Start showed statistically significant but small-in-magnitude associations between teacher qualifications and classroom quality (ACYF, 2001) and between teacher credentials and childrens early writing skills (ACF, 2003). The National Center for Early Learning and Developments (NCEDL) Multi-State Study of Pre-Kindergarten suggested that students of teachers who had a BA degree or higher demonstrated greater learning gains in math skills but not in other academic areas than those whose teachers had less than a BA (Early, Bryant, Pianta, Clifford, Burchinal, Ritchie et al, 2006). Subsequent analyses of seven major studies of the relationship between classroom quality and childrens educational outcomes and the educational attainment and majors of their teachers yielded null or contradictory findings (Early, Maxwell, Burchinal, Alva, Bender, Ebanks, et al, 2007).

Based on these new findings, research is beginning to explore more nuanced questions about PD such as the threshold and the amount of education that make a difference for quality and outcomes, the characteristics of teachers undergraduate programs (because not all B.A. programs are of the same quality or have the same course content), outcomes other than childrens academic achievement such as social interactions and behavioral management, the impact of teacher and program characteristics on classroom quality and child outcomes, and the supports that can help teachers gain the most from their PD experiences (Bryant, Barbarin, Clifford, Early, & Pianta, 2004; Hyson, Tomlinson, & Morris, 2008).

These are precisely the types of studies that are needed to fill the gaps in the research identified by Zaslow and Martinez-Beck (2006).  They build on findings that suggest that training is related to improved quality of ECE programs (Burchinal, Howes, & Kontos, 2002; Burchinal, Cryer, Clifford, & Howes, 2002) and more sensitive interactions with children (Clarke-Stewart et al, 2002).  But, what training strategies are most likely to be effective?  While there is limited research in the early childhood field to answer this question, Tout, Zaslow, and Berry (2006) suggest that more intensive and longer duration training is likely to be better than brief training, and a recent review of in-service training for K-12 teachers concluded that one-day programs, in most cases, are not worthwhile (Loeb, Rouse, & Shorris, 2007, p. 8).

Other research suggests that ECE quality and teacher practices can be influenced by characteristics of the workplace or the teachers involved. For example, workplace characteristics such as the levels of education and training of teachers within an ECE program can affect individual teacher performance (Whitebook et al, 2001). Workplace characteristics such as teacher compensation and teacher turnover levels, program type (e.g., location in a school), teacher-child ratios, full- or part-day, and levels of poverty of children in the classroom have all been associated with classroom or program quality (Bryant et al, 2004; Kontos, Howes, Shinn, & Galinsky, 1994; Whitebook at al, 1990, Whitebook et al, 1993).

Similarly, teacher characteristics such as teachers views about teaching have been associated with their classroom teaching behavior and ability to incorporate new instructional practices (Bowman et al, 2001). Teacher attitudes and knowledge were also identified as mediators of the effect of teacher qualifications on classroom quality in a study of FACES, such that teacher qualifications were associated with significant positive changes only when teacher attitudes and knowledge were also taken into account (ACF, 2003).  Teachers knowledge of childrens cultural and family backgrounds, and teachers who serve as role models have been linked to improved teacher-child relationship (Saft & Pianta, 2001).

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