Educator Licensure OVERLAP in the Early Grades: Why It Occurs, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It: The Requirements to Teach Young Children Should Take into Account the Specific Developmental Needs of Early Childhood

By Fowler, R. Clarke | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2019 | Go to article overview

Educator Licensure OVERLAP in the Early Grades: Why It Occurs, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It: The Requirements to Teach Young Children Should Take into Account the Specific Developmental Needs of Early Childhood


Fowler, R. Clarke, Phi Delta Kappan


Early childhood is widely recognized as a distinct phase of human development, extending from birth through age eight, during which children develop important physical, social-emotional, and cognitive skills (Allen & Kelly, 2015). To date, 48 states (including the District of Columbia) have recognized the educational importance of the early years by awarding stand-alone early childhood education (ECE) licenses that require specialized training in teaching young children. Yet, at the same time, teachers with elementary education (ELED) licenses are allowed to teach kindergarten in 34 states and 1st through 3rd grade in more than 45 states. This means that many teachers are licensed to teach young children without having received specialized early childhood training. In fact, recent research suggests that this is the case for just over half of U.S. kindergarten teachers and nearly 30% of 1st-grade teachers (Hooper, 2018).

Overlapping credentials

Overlap in ECE/ELED licensure occurs in 47 of the 48 states that award both types of licenses, most often in grades K-3 (in 25 states), followed by 1-3 (in eight states), and 1-2 (in three states). A 25-state study found that in states where the ECE and ELED licenses overlap, more than three-quarters of kindergarten, 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-grade teachers hold an ELED license only--that is, they teach young children, but they do not hold an early childhood credential (Fowler, in press).

Why do so many more teachers have the ELED license only? One factor is elementary principals' purported preference for hiring teachers who are able to teach multiple grades (Bredekamp & Goffin, 2012). For example, one participant in a national focus group of elementary principals stated: "If I have two candidates and one has a preK-3 [license] and one has a K-6, I would probably hire the K-6 because you have the most flexibility" (Cook, 2016, p. 3).

A second factor is that many aspiring early educators apparently seek to increase their chances of securing a teaching position by enrolling in ELED rather than ECE teacher preparation programs (Bredekamp & Goffin, 2012). A survey conducted at one of Massachusetts' largest teaching institutions found that two-thirds of all aspiring 1st- and 2nd-grade teachers had enrolled in the grades 1-6 ELED program, rather than the preK-2 ECE program (Nelson, 2002). Further, a national study found that where the overlap between licenses was greater, the percentage of students obtaining ECE licenses was lower. Specifically, the percentage of ECE (relative to ELED) program completers is lower in states where ELED licenses begin in preschool (5%), kindergarten (14%), and 1st grade (23%), but higher where ELED licenses begin in 2nd (45%), 3rd (44%), and 4th grades (70%) (Fowler, 2017).

Does it matter, though, whether teachers in the early grades have an ECE or ELED teaching credential? Let's consider the differences in these two programs.

Differences between ECE and ELED educators' preparation and practices

There are important differences between the teacher preparation standards that the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI, 2007) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC, 2010) wrote for the formation of, respectively, ELED and ECE teachers. ACEI's elementary education standards refer far less frequently than NAEYC's early childhood standards to essential features of early instruction, such as working with families, using observational assessments, attending to special needs, and fostering children's relationships with teachers, peers, and the community (Fowler, 2016b). The ELED standards also fail to mention two areas highlighted in the ECE standards: play and self-regulation. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP, 2018) recently issued new national ELED standards--fully effective as of 2020--that do refer to self-regulation but otherwise place less emphasis on areas emphasized in the ECE standards. …

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