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Volume 22, Number 1
January/February 2006

What Does Effective PreK Teaching Look Like?


The new requirement that preK teachers in New Jersey’s Abbott districts hold a bachelor’s degree is based on the assumption that this credential makes a difference in the quality of instruction a teacher provides. Experts differ on whether a bachelor’s degree by itself can make someone a better teacher. But a number of studies have pointed to specific benefits of the degree when it is combined with specialized instruction in early childhood education.

“Children who are educated by teachers with both a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in child development and early education have been found to be more sociable, exhibit a more developed use of language, and perform at a higher level on cognitive tasks than children who are cared for by less qualified adults,” write Carrie Lobman, Sharon Ryan, and Jill McLaughlin, three researchers in early childhood education at Rutgers University, in a recent report on the training of New Jersey’s newly expanded preK teaching force. Lobman adds, however, that the requirement of a BA and specialized training are only a “baseline,” and that the quality of a preschool teacher’s preparation is just as important.

Research-Based Guidelines

In response to the Abbott v. Burke court decision, the New Jersey Department of Education provides research-based guidelines for high-quality preK teaching. According to these guidelines, effective preK teachers:

  • demonstrate clear knowledge of child learning and development
  • support “all aspects of the child” by addressing linguistic, cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development
  • strike a balance between child-initiated and teacherinitiated activities
  • incorporate small-group and individual activities, with a minimum of whole-group instruction
  • employ strategies for working with children with special needs
  • understand and address the needs of English-language learners
  • involve parents and guardians in ways that enhance student learning

College of New Jersey researcher Ellen Frede, editor of the guidelines for the department’s Office of Early Childhood Education, says the integration of play and learning is a critical element. “Play is essential to activity-based learning and to the development of self-regulating skills,” she explains. “It’s all about cognitive process development.”

Lobman agrees that early childhood teaching suffers when educators see learning and play as discrete activities. This problem is exacerbated by the recent emphasis on testing in the upper grades, which many early childhood educators say is seeping downward. “The focus in kindergarten has been more and more on direct instruction,” she says, “and play has been pushed out.”

Continuity from PreK to Grade 3

The discontinuity between preK and elementary school instruction also concerns many early childhood education researchers. Ideally, says Frede, children’s preschool and elementary classroom experiences would look more like each other and would be aligned more closely, so that children’s learning could build continuously and the developmentally oriented approach of the preschool years could be extended into the early elementary grades. This philosophy is part of the reason New Jersey is requiring teachers in the state-funded Abbott districts to be certified to teach from preschool through third grade.

One approach being tried in a number of school districts around the country is the preK–3 model, whereby preK classrooms are housed within the same school system—sometimes even the same building—as kindergarten and the early elementary grades, enabling teachers and administrators to communicate with each other about students and integrate curriculum more effectively (see “Bridging the PreK–Elementary Divide,” HEL, July/August 2005).

While the recent focus in New Jersey has been primarily on expanding access to preK, Frede says this kind of continuity would further support the state’s goal of improving educational outcomes and closing early achievement gaps: “We want continuity of programming for children. Understanding where they’re coming from and where they’re going is critical.”

For Further Information

For Further Information

New Jersey Department of Education, Office of Early Childhood Education. “Abbott Preschool Program Implementation Guidelines.” Trenton, NJ: Author, February 2003, updated July 2005.