In 1999, Georgia education officials decided that the best way to prepare more preschool youngsters for kindergarten would be to require their teachers to upgrade their own education. To that end, lead teachers were given three years to obtain at least an associate’s degree in early childhood education or a related field such as child development, instead of just a certificate.

In practice, Georgia officials got more than they hoped for. Today, the percentage of lead preschool teachers with a bachelor’s degree is 81 percent, according to Gary Henry, a Georgia State University professor of education policy studies, who was commissioned by Georgia in 1996 to conduct a study examining the school readiness and primary-grade achievement of children in the state’s preschool program.

Henry says several factors led to the sharp increase. For one, he notes, many pre-k programs hired teachers with bachelor’s degrees because “they thought the bar would be raised in the future. And [programs] are paid more per child if they hire teachers with B.A.’s.” He also points out that more teachers are available since the state’s public universities expanded their early childhood programs.

Marsha Moore, executive director of the state’s Office of School Readiness, calls the 81 percent “phenomenal.” Lead teachers who chose not to pursue at least a two-year degree were demoted to assistant teacher positions or replaced.

The requirement sparked virtually no opposition and was met with “relative silence” from teachers when it was announced in July 1999, says Tim Callahan, director of membership and public/media relations for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

“We really haven’t had any of our members say this is an onerous requirement,” Callahan says. “I think many of them might have been moving to reach that level or were already there.”

“Children’s gains across a battery of assessments, including language, communication and cognitive assessments [are] much better if they’ve been in classrooms where a teacher has a B.A.,” says Henry, whose study was completed in 2001. “The magnitude of the effect of having a B.A. is much larger for kids who live in poverty. We think that [teachers with a BA] are better able to individualize instruction based on where the child is, and better sense how to help the development of that child.”

Moore says Georgia is open to raising the requirement to a bachelor’s, “which we know would be good, but we’re looking at a teacher shortage in our state.”

Starting with a two-year degree “prevented us from losing the trained, experienced staff who could not get from [a certificate] to a four-year degree in the time given,” Haley says.

State lawmakers did not provide any extra money specifically to help certificate teachers meet the degree requirement. And preschool programs could not use any of their funds to send under-credentialed teachers back to school.

“We expect providers to hire teachers with appropriate credentials, and we expect the teachers to assume [the] responsibility of maintaining the credentials,” says Haley.

Teachers with a four-year degree earn at least $19,107 a year; those with an associate’s degree earn at least $15,769.

Felicia Oliver is a Chicago writer.

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