At the White House’s early-childhood-education summit on Dec. 10, President Obama highlighted two new federal competitive-grants programs: the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships, aimed to increase the availability of high-quality infant and toddler care, and the Preschool Development Grants, which are meant to expand preschool programs in disadvantaged communities. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the winners: 18 states along with more than 200 school districts, agencies, programs and nonprofits will receive about $750 million in federal funding.
Before accepting the money, though, winners would be wise to read the fine print. While these grants represent an admirable effort to ensure the well-being of America’s most vulnerable young children, they’re also a Trojan horse bearing counterproductive requirements such as mandating college degrees for all preschool teachers, and a mountain of federal regulations.
The first program, Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships, is administered by HHS and provides $500 million to increase infant and toddler care for working parents, especially in poor communities. The 234 winners get money to expand the scope of federally funded Early Head Start programs by partnering with local child-care centers “who agree to meet high standards of quality.”
While “high standards of quality” seem like a great idea, the devil is in the details. Child-care providers who receive the new funding will be subject to federal monitoring and required to comply with the 2,400 Head Start “Performance Standards” stipulating everything from staff qualifications to cot placement to how to clean potties.
This new program also contradicts the spirit of the reauthorized bipartisan Child Care and Development Block Grant Act that President Obama signed last month, which explicitly gives states the responsibility for defining and improving the quality of local child care. The grants amount to an end-run around the states by enabling the federal government to enforce burdensome standards at the local level.
The second program, the Preschool Development Grants competition—jointly administered by the Departments of Education and HHS—aims to help states develop and expand preschool for low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds. The program awarded $250 million to 18 states to implement preschool plans that meet the federally defined conditions of “High Quality Preschool.”
The Preschool Development Grants also require states to define “high quality” by compliance with input standards, like staff qualifications and class size, rather than by good outcomes such as improved knowledge and skills.
The requirement that all preschool teachers have bachelor’s degrees (in any field) to ensure “a qualified workforce” in early childhood education is particularly detrimental. Young children don’t need a qualified workforce. They need an effective workforce. There’s no evidence that bachelor’s degrees make preschool teachers more effective.
New research, such as the work of professors Robert Pianta and Bridget Hamre at the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Research on Teaching and Learning, clearly shows that what counts isn’t what degrees teachers have but how they teach. That’s especially critical in early childhood when interactions between teachers and students, not content knowledge, is what drives success. Focusing on bachelor’s degrees is an easy way bureaucrats can claim to be raising teacher quality without actually doing it.
Based on College Board data for the average price of four-year degrees, it would cost at least $23 billion for the 300,000 current preschool teachers who don’t have college degrees to get them. Great teachers will be forced to go into debt to pay for a college degree they don’t need just to keep their jobs. Others will be forced out of teaching because they can’t afford to spend four more years in school. The cost of college will prevent many potentially wonderful teachers from entering the profession.
Teacher quality—and pay—should be defined by effectiveness in the classroom, not credentials. College doesn’t provide the essential skills needed to teach young children. Those skills are best learned through specialized training combined with on-the-job practice under the supervision of an expert teacher.
As a recent study by Mathematica Policy Research showed, apprenticeship-based training models open to bright, hardworking high-school graduates hold promise as an effective and less expensive approach and will expand, rather than limit, the pool of potential high-quality teachers for early learners. In the U.K. prospective teachers are carefully screened and required to pass skills tests in both numeracy and literacy to qualify for teaching apprenticeships.
Research shows that good preschool, like good child care, can be critical to young children’s development and is insufficiently accessible to poor and working-class families. But these new federal grants are paying states to institutionalize a misguided conception of quality, repeating the same mistakes that the education establishment has been making in K-12 for decades: focusing on teacher credentials rather than effectiveness, holding programs accountable for compliance rather than outcomes, and advocating centralized control rather than innovation.
Support for early education is growing and presents an opportunity to build new systems right, from the ground up. Once bureaucrats start down the road of overregulating the wrong things, though, it’s going to be very hard to turn back.
Ms. Stevens is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, specializing in early childhood education.