By Robert Schroeder
“There was not always a lot of leadership in early childhood education; we were doing right by the kids and families but not necessarily taking the lead.”
It’s hard to blame teachers for general antipathy towards the recent spate of state regulations across the nation regulating teacher assessment and licensure. In Illinois alone, teachers and teacher colleges have signaled concerns with the edTPA test for teacher licensure and the push for value-added teacher assessments. And true to teacher concerns, groups like the Fordham Institute-based National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) are spearheading these campaigns with a transparent goal of upending traditional teacher education and development pathways.
The rapid expansion of the Illinois State Preschool for All program beginning in the late 1990s and inclusion of community-based programs in the Chicago Public Schools portfolio of early childhood education program options created an environment in which hundreds of experienced early childhood teaches serving children and families in community settings were out of compliance with funding requirements and state regulations.
Not all regulations are created equal, and true to form, this law change specifically designed to augment traditional teacher education pathways has borne fruit—with teacher support.
For the past seven years, the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education has spearheaded Chicago Public Schools’ campaign to license its early childhood educators. The College’s alternative certification program has ended in 2014 but leaves behind a legacy of educators who continue to provide the foundation for lifelong education for more than 2500 children annually across Chicago.
“At times, there is a knowledge base in early childhood education that is not necessarily put together in a way that is as intentional as we want it to be,” said Catherine Main, director of the early childhood education program at the College. “Some people were actually doing a great job with kids and families but they didn’t always know why they were doing what they were doing.”
The alternative certification program honed in on the nitty-gritty of education the city’s youngest learners. The big tent ideas of curriculum, working with families, early literacies, language development and intensive support in the classroom served as a guide for diving into the mechanics of preparing youngsters for success in kindergarten and beyond.
Let’s face it: a pack of preschoolers playing with blocks is going to look pretty innocuous to the untrained eye. In the eyes of a graduate of the alternative certification program, blocks are quite literally building blocks to skill acquisition. Just ask Meredith Chambers, an alternative certification graduate who runs the early childhood center at the Chinese American Service League. She uses floor blocks to encourage her students to create scenes of drama and exercise imagination, unit blocks for children to create works at a smaller scale, and textured foam blocks that simulate sensory exploration.
“We always knew we needed to have x amount of blocks for licensing, but I never understood why I needed certain types of blocks,” Chambers said. “The children’s learning is valuable: I see girls creating socio-dramatic forms of play and boys creating buildings and structures—there aren’t gender lines drawn here, but it’s key to see how the children use the materials differently.”
To capture such knowledge of the intricacies of how young children learn is challenged by the tremendous turnover in early childhood education. Wages are low, hours are long and educators frequently move in and out of the field. Main says the field needs leaders who set the tone to insist for structures and concepts that create significant learning advantages for younsters. Alternative certification graduate Star McFarlane says she felt looked down upon as a “day care” provider; the program changed how she interacted with both parents and school leaders.
“Working in an inclusive special education environment, parents of general education students don’t always know what to expect,” McFarlane (below) said. “I’m able to bring in families and school administrators who don’t know what early childhood education should look like and explain why we do what we do.”
Creating an alternative pathway to certification was key for Chicago learners because the program provided early childhood teachers who were representative of their communities to gain the necessary credentials. Especially for early childhood native Spanish-speaking English language learners, the importance of learning in a classroom with a Latina/o teacher remains sacrosanct. Main says pipeline issues continue to be an challenge for the early childhood education scene in Chicago as school closures and gentrification have exacerbated the construction of a culturally and linguistically diverse workforce.
The final key advantage of an alternative certification was the opportunity to license early childhood teachers for elementary school teaching in grades 1-3. All teachers in the program completed practicums in elementary schools to provide early childhood teachers with a sense of the learning continuum their students were entering.
“We have built the ability to strengthen things in the primary grades by developing a knowledge base that allows our teachers to say, ‘You know, the way you are teaching first-graders isn’t right, there’s a reason something is going wrong,’” Main said. “When we look at data from pre-K, so much fades out by the third grade, but it is in the first and second grades we need to pay more attention to the very young children and the theoretical of how you teach young children.”