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Early Childhood Education

Preparation Of Teachers

A major theme endures through the history of early childhood education: Because young children learn differently than older children, their schooling must be different. Thus, their teachers require specialized training.


The kindergarten became the first large-scale early childhood program in the United States. With it came the first formal training for teachers of young children.

Kindergartens. Private kindergarten training schools, usually connected to a kindergarten, spread as the kindergarten spread. The first kindergarten training school was begun in Boston in 1868 by German kindergartners Matilda Kriege and her daughter Alma (the term "kindergartner" is used both for a child attending a kindergarten and for a teacher at a kindergarten). Matilda Kriege studied with Baroness von Marenholtz-Buelow, a patroness and disciple of the German educator Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), the founder of the kindergarten.

Initially kindergartens were German-speaking and were started by German immigrants, many fleeing the failed 1848 Prussian Revolution. Margarethe Schurz started the first in the United States in her home in Watertown, Wisconsin, in 1855. Schurz had worked in the London kindergarten run by her sister Bertha Ronge, immigrating to the United States in 1852. In 1859 Schurz and her young daughter Agathe met Elizabeth Peabody by chance in Boston. Impressed by Agathe, Peabody pressed Schurz to describe the kindergarten. In 1860 Peabody began the first English-language kindergarten in Boston. In 1867, dissatisfied with her kindergarten, Peabody traveled to Europe. She visited many kindergartens, including the training class in Hamburg run by Luise Froebel, Friedrich Froebel's widow. On her return, Peabody advocated tirelessly for kindergartens and for normal-school training for kindergarten teachers.

In 1873 William Torrey Harris, superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, opened the first public kindergarten in the United States, with Susan Blow as head teacher. The kindergarten had twenty children and twelve kindergartners in training, who, for a year, assisted Blow in the mornings and studied Froebelian theory in the afternoons. The second year, Blow taught an advanced class on Saturdays. Blow studied in New York with Maria Kraus-Boelte, who had trained in Hamburg for two years with Luise Froebel and then worked at Ronge's London kindergarten. In 1873 Kraus-Boelte opened the New York Seminary for Kindergartners with her husband, John Kraus, a friend of Froebel. The training consisted of one year of course work and one year of practice teaching. She trained kindergartners until her retirement in 1913.

Alice Putnam, an early Chicago kindergartner, studied with Kraus-Boelte and Blow. From 1876 she ran kindergarten-training classes at Hull-House and later at the University of Chicago and Cook County Normal School. Putnam was instrumental in founding the Chicago Free Kindergarten Association and the Chicago Froebel Association, where many kindergartners trained. In 1887 Elizabeth Harrison, a Putnam student, founded the Chicago Kindergarten and Training School, which evolved through many name changes to become National-Louis University. Another Putnam student, Anna Bryan, founded the Louisville Kindergarten and Training School in 1887. Patty Smith Hill, the dominant figure in early childhood education in the early 1900s, was her first student.

Emma Marwedel, a student of Froebel's, came to the United States at Peabody's urging. She ran a training school in Washington, DC, from 1872 to 1876, then founded a training school in Los Angeles. Her first graduate, Kate Douglas Wiggin, began the Silver Street Kindergarten Training School in San Francisco in 1880. Wiggin's student Caroline Dunlap began the first Kindergarten Training School in Oregon in 1881.

As training schools proliferated, educational publications warned of spurious training schools. In 1894 the president of the National Education Association's (NEA) Department of Kindergarten Education decried "'so-called trainers' who were … turning out all graduates with enough money to pay for a course" (Hewes, p. 10).

Kindergartens spread rapidly. By 1880, 7,800 children were enrolled in kindergartens in St. Louis. Milwaukee included kindergartens in the public schools in 1882. In 1884 the NEA established the Department of Kindergarten Education. One year later, the NEA recommended kindergartens in all public schools. In 1892, in Sarasota Springs, New York, the International Kindergarten Union was founded. By 1890, 150 local kindergarten associations had been formed. By 1900, 189 cities had kindergartens, with 250,000 children attending; by 1910, the latter number had increased to 360,000. In 1912 there were 7,557 kindergartens and 8,856 teachers. By 1933 public kindergartens enrolled 723,000 children and private kindergartens, 54,000.

As the kindergarten became part of the public schools, administrators pressed for kindergarten teachers to meet the same licensure standards as other teachers. Training began to move from private kindergarten-training schools to normal schools. The New York Normal School began a short-lived training program in 1870, reopening it in 1874 with a Kraus-Boelte-trained supervisor. By 1880 some kindergarten training was available at the Milwaukee Normal School. In 1892 the Wisconsin State Normal School of Milwaukee added a Department of Kindergarten Education, which required two years of normal school. Students received a kindergarten assistant certificate after one year and a kindergarten director diploma after two.

Between 1880 and 1895 kindergarten training was incorporated into state normal schools in Oshkosh, Wisconsin; Winona, Minnesota; Oswego and Fredonia, New York; Emporia, Kansas; Connecticut; and Michigan; as well as into the city normal schools in New York and Boston, the Cook County (Illinois) Normal School, and the Philadelphia Girls Normal School.

By 1913, 147 institutions offered kindergarten training. As more normal schools offered kindergarten training, kindergarten-training schools declined–a 1916 report of 126 teacher-training programs showed only twenty-four freestanding kindergarten-training schools. During the 1900s normal schools slowly transformed into colleges and universities. As normal schools became colleges, training for kindergarten teachers became four-year degree programs.

Nursery schools. With the nursery school movement, early childhood education became increasingly identified with preschool (prekindergarten) education. The nursery school was founded in England by Margaret and Rachel McMillan in 1911. The first American nursery teachers went to England for training, many with the McMillans.

Nursery schools spread rapidly. In 1924 there were twenty-eight nurseries in eleven states; by 1933 the number grew to 1,700. In 1926 Patty Smith Hill invited a select group of early educators to New York. This group formed the National Committee on Nursery Schools, which later became the National Association for Nursery Education, and still later the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Nursery schools also became part of many universities. Between 1924 and 1930, Lawrence Frank, at the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund, directed funding toward the establishment of many university laboratory nursery schools, most often in home economics departments, at, for example, Iowa State University, the Ohio State University, Cornell University, the University of Georgia, Spelman College, and Michigan State University.

The Merrill-Palmer Nursery School in Detroit and the Ruggles Street Nursery in Boston were early nursery-teacher-training institutes. By the mid-1920s teacher training was occurring at nursery laboratory schools at the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station, the University of California–Los Angeles, the University of Minnesota, Columbia University, Yale University, National Kindergarten and Elementary College, Cleveland Kindergarten–Primary Training School of Western Reserve University, and normal schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Milwaukee. In 1927 the National Committee on Nursery Schools Second Conference recommended a four-year college degree for nursery teachers to better enable them to deal with specialists from such fields as nutrition and psychology.

The primary focus at many laboratory schools, however, was research on child development. The training was seen as important for women in general. Edna Noble White, who founded Merrill-Palmer, stated in a letter to Lawrence Frank in 1924 that a "laboratory for training young women in child care … should be made part of the training of every young woman since they come in contact with children in many capacities–mothers, teachers, social workers etc." (Braun and Edwards, p. 149).

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) set up emergency nursery schools to provide work for unemployed teachers. As many as 2,500 nursery schools appeared in the public and private sector by 1940. WPA nursery funding ended in 1942, the year that the Lanham Act set up about 2,000 day-care centers to enable mothers to enter the work force to support the war effort. Both programs required rapid and large-scale training, often of teachers without experience with young children. A survey in the second year of the WPA nursery schools found that of 3,775 teachers, 158 had nursery experience, 290 had kindergarten experience, and 64 percent had teaching experience. Many groups were involved in the training, including the National Association of Nursery Educators, the Association for Childhood Education, and the National Committee on Parent Education. The training itself is not well documented.

Following World War II, the Lanham Act day care centers closed down. Early schooling returned to the pre-depression level until the summer of 1965 when Head Start began with 652,000 children in 2,500 centers, employing 41,000 teachers and 250,000 other workers, including volunteers. Head Start spawned more federally funded early intervention programs, such as Child Parent Education Centers, which targeted poor young children. In the 1980s and 1990s individual states began funding preschool programs for young children termed "atrisk." At the same time, the day-care industry grew rapidly as more women worked outside of the home.

Current Structure and Organization

The Council for Professional Development reported that almost 1,400 two- and four-year institutions offered early childhood programs in 2000. More than half of these were two-year institutions offering associate degrees. As early schooling and care expands, many teachers of young children receive their training in other than four-year institutions. The 1985 NAEYC guidelines for an early childhood associate degree specified that at least half the program be professional courses. Programs vary greatly across institutions.

Many early childhood teachers earn the Child Development Associate (CDA) degree, which was initiated in 1971 by the U.S. Office of Child Development. The goal was to identify basic competencies and provide training in them, leading to a national credential. Since 1985, NAEYC has administered the program. The program's competency goals emphasize performance rather than prescribed courses or credits. There is considerable local control in interpreting standards and providing training.

Early childhood programs at four-year institutions also vary greatly depending on how early childhood is defined in a given state. In 1997, sixteen states had licensure for teaching ages zero to eight. Seventeen others and the District of Columbia had licensure for ages three to six. Three states defined early childhood as age five to age nine. Five states had an early childhood endorsement to be added to the elementary license, while ten included kindergarten in the elementary license. Increasingly four-year institutions educate early childhood teachers for public school programs requiring state certification, and two-year programs educate teachers for other early childhood programs.

In-Service and Staff Development Programs

NAEYC, the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI), and Head Start offer guidelines and recommendations for professional development and in-service training. Historically, the goal of in-service and staff development has been to improve weak areas of practice. In the late 1980s the goal shifted to a developmental model that emphasizes growth and collegiality. This model prepares teachers to participate in decision-making and to advance professionally.

NAEYC's 1993 position statement on early childhood professional development specifically addresses "an effective system of early childhood professional development that provides meaningful opportunities for career advancement to ensure a well-qualified and stable work force" (p. 1). NAEYC and ACEI offer publications that support preparation and training, conferences to improve professional preparation and training, and professional preparation and program review. NAEYC stresses the importance of developing a professional development system embedded within the larger system of effective early childhood programs.

Head Start's in-service training approach addresses the needs of teachers, children, and families. From its inception Head Start has been committed to staff development. Educators in Head Start programs have a wide range of early childhood experiences and credentials. Head Start offers a variety of in-service approaches to assist staff in developing their practice and professionalism. Some of the in-service programs include integration of training with exemplary Head Start programs, hands-on participatory activities, mentoring, collaborative learning, training teams, individualized training, goal-setting strategies, and follow-up training.

Trends, Issues, and Controversies

Programs at four-year institutions face the perennial challenges of teacher education: how to balance professional education, general education, and specific areas of academic study; and how to balance university course work and clinical experience. In the 1980s and 1990s, the general trend was to decrease professional education and to increase general education and courses in a noneducation specialization. The amount of clinical experience has generally stayed the same or increased. The tension between the amount of coursework in pedagogy versus child development in the professional education component remains.

The importance of training for early childhood teachers has become increasingly recognized. For example, Head Start has mandated that half of all program staff must have an associate degree by 2003. In 1998 forty-one states and the District of Columbia had early childhood initiatives, many with more stringent requirements for early educators. At least nineteen states require some pre-service training for child-care providers.

Many early childhood educators promote a system of certification by which teachers would move up a career ladder from, for example, a CDA to an AA (Associate in Arts) to a bachelor's degree and state licensure. Although some progress has been made toward such a system, differences in course types and patterns between two-year and four-year institutions remain an obstacle. Arguments for academic credit for work experience further complicate matters.

Both ACEI and NAEYC now define early childhood as birth through age eight (or third grade). It remains to be seen how this shift in emphasis from preschool to preschool through third grade will actually affect teacher training. Early childhood programs in traditional home economics programs and two-year colleges focus on preschools. Preschool education is often regulated by state agencies other than education, usually child-welfare agencies.

A serious teacher shortage is predicted for the first decades of the twenty-first century. A shortage may lead, once again, to abbreviated teacher training and different routes to licensure. It should be noted, however, that discussions of alternative licensure generally focus on high school and elementary teachers, in specified shortage areas, not on early childhood.

The question of who controls teacher credentialing remains. Originally local districts credentialed teachers but soon states took over. Many groups have a stake in credentialing, in particular, state boards of education, professional organizations, teachers unions, and universities; and shifting coalitions across these groups are common. NAEYC's 1996 Guidelines for Preparation of Early Childhood Professionals, for example, cites endorsements by the Association of Teacher Educators, the Division of Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children, and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Given the changing and local nature of teacher licensure, generalizing about credentialing is difficult. Nevertheless, the general historical trend has been as follows. Until the early 1900s teachers were credentialed by examination. They were then credentialed based on professional training. In the 1950s states moved from credentialing based on state-specified courses and hours to approved programs, which meet state requirements but vary across colleges and universities. In most states the approved program is accompanied by some form of state competency examination in one or more of the following areas: basic skills, subject matter, and professional knowledge. By the early twenty-first century, the trend was toward performance-based credentialing, often requiring student-produced portfolios as evidence of successful performance.


The major challenge to education of early childhood teachers is the broad and changing nature of the field. The term teacher-caregiver has become common, giving some sense of this breadth and change. Across teaching in general and in early childhood teaching in particular, the diversity of roles people take in working with young children makes it difficult to identify a single knowledge base. Early childhood education serves an increasingly diverse population and is expected to provide an increasingly wide range of services to these children and their families. The most pressing, and perennial, challenge is the "widespread misconception that work with young children can be carried out effectively without the benefit of specialized knowledge" (Powell and Dunn, p. 63).


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