President Barack Obama has called for the greatest federal expansion of early childhood programs since the Department of Health and Human Services launched Head Start in 1965, including a proposal to provide high-quality preschool to every American child via a new federal-state partnership.
High-quality early childhood interventions can improve academic achievement, reduce crime and delinquency, and enhance future labor market success. Research has also shown that these programs can yield returns to society ranging from $2 to $17 for every dollar spent.
The operative phrase, however, is “high-quality.” And for early childhood programs to be high-quality, they must have qualified instructors. After all, teachers affect student achievement more than any other school-related factor.
Rapid expansion of early childhood programs could result in a surge in demand for early childhood educators, which in turn could force programs to hire less-qualified teachers. In a 2002 study, RAND researchers found that the rapid implementation of class size reduction (CSR) in California was associated with a significant increase in the proportion of teachers who lacked full credentials (PDF):
“Reducing class size required an enormous increase in the number of K–3 teachers in California. Between … the year before CSR implementation and … the third year of the program, the total number of K-3 teachers increased 46 percent…. To meet the increased demand for teachers, many districts hired teachers without full credentials. As a result, the proportion of K-3 teachers who were not fully credentialed (e.g., teachers with intern or emergency credentials) increased from 1.8 percent before the program started to 12.5 percent in the second year of the program.”
The research team went on to recommend that California policymakers ensure their state has qualified teachers before further expanding CSR. To support the CSR effort, researchers also recommended complementary policies to enhance teacher preparation, credentialing, recruitment, and retention.
To give the White House’s proposed wave of new early childhood programs the best chance to succeed, policymakers could adapt these recommendations on a national level. Before expanding early childhood education programs, we must make sure there are an adequate number of qualified teachers available.
Brian Stecher is a senior social scientist and the associate director of RAND Education.
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.