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The relationship between preschool teacher qualifications and student outcomes — May 2017


What does the research say about the relationship between preschool teacher qualifications and student outcomes? (Specifically, what is the impact of bachelor’s degrees held by early childhood professionals on student outcomes?)


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on the relationship between preschool teacher qualifications and student outcomes. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Ackerman, D. (2004). States’ efforts in improving the qualifications of early care and education teachers. Educational Policy, 18(2), 310–337. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “An important component of quality early care and education (ECE) is teacher training. Only 18 states require teachers in private ECE settings to undergo any preservice training, however, and there are many barriers to improving these teachers’ qualifications. Individual states are initiating various efforts that address those challenges and hold promise for improving ECE, including the provision of scholarships and financial incentives, specifications regarding the types of training ECE teachers need, and career lattices that delineate pathways for continued learning and improved practice. The article describes these efforts and summarizes the practices that seem to offer promise for improving ECE teachers’ qualifications. The article also suggests topics to be considered in regard to future research.”

Bueno, M., Darling-Hammond, L., & Gonzales, D. (2010). A matter of degrees: Preparing teachers for the pre-K classroom (Education Reform Series). Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Research indicates that state pre-k programs with higher teacher qualification requirements improve children’s school readiness so states get the most out of their investment in early education. This 2010 report, authored by Marisa Bueno, Linda Darling-Hammond and Danielle Gonzales, reviewed research on training for pre-k teachers and concluded that educators with at least a bachelor’s degree coupled with specialized training in early childhood are best able to foster development of the cognitive, social and emotional skills children need to be ready for kindergarten. Individual sections contain footnotes.”

Dukakis, K., & Bellm, D. (2006). Clearing a career path: Lessons from two communities in promoting higher education access for the early care and education workforce. Alameda & Santa Clara Counties, California. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment; San Leandro, CA: First 5 Alameda County; & San Jose, CA: WestEd – E3 Institute: Advancing Excellence in Early Education. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This report documents the process through which Alameda and Santa Clara Counties have used the Comprehensive Approaches to Raising Educational Standards (CARES) programs and other resources to leverage systemic change in early care and education (ECE) higher education. It describes a range of new and expanded efforts in both counties, and aims to use the corresponding challenges faced and lessons learned as helpful tools to other counties and institutions embarking on similar efforts.”

Early, D. M., Maxwell, K. L., Burchinal, M., Alva, S., Bender, R. H., Bryant, D., & Zill, N. (2007). Teachers’ education, classroom quality, and young children’s academic skills: Results from seven studies of preschool programs. Child Development, 78(2), 558–580. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “In an effort to provide high-quality preschool education, policymakers are increasingly requiring public preschool teachers to have at least a Bachelor’s degree, preferably in early childhood education. Seven major studies of early care and education were used to predict classroom quality and children’s academic outcomes from the educational attainment and major of teachers of 4-year-olds. The findings indicate largely null or contradictory associations, indicating that policies focused solely on increasing teachers’ education will not suffice for improving classroom quality or maximizing children’s academic gains. Instead, raising the effectiveness of early childhood education likely will require a broad range of professional development activities and supports targeted toward teachers’ interactions with children.”

Kelley, P., & Camilli, G. (2007). The impact of teacher education on outcomes in center-based early childhood education programs: A meta-analysis. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Retrieved from

From the summary: “With the expansion of state-funded preschool education programs, ensuring that those programs are of high quality is a paramount concern for policymakers, child advocates, and educators across the nation. The authors of this NIEER working paper point to a key policy question: To what extent can classroom quality be improved by raising requirements for teacher education qualifications? The findings of the meta-analysis indicated that effects on quality outcomes from teachers with a bachelor’s degree were significantly different from those teachers with less education.”

Other Resources

Barnett, W. S. (2004). Better teachers, better preschools: Student achievement linked to teacher qualifications. NIEER Preschool Policy Matters, 2. New Brunswick, NJ: NIEER. Retrieved from

From the summary: “Research has linked early learning and development to the educational qualifications of teachers. The most effective preschool teachers—those with at least a four-year college degree and specialized training in early childhood—have more responsive interactions with children, provide richer language and cognitive experiences, and are less authoritarian. High-quality preschool education depends on effective, high-quality teachers.

This brief presents current educational requirements for preschool teachers, reviews evidence on the importance of teacher qualifications, and offers policy recommendations:

  • require four-year degrees and specialized training for preschool teachers,
  • encourage higher education institutions to develop the necessary programs for professional development of early childhood teachers,
  • design professional development programs to help current teachers get a four-year degree, and
  • provide preschool teachers with salaries comparable to their K–12 counterparts.

By implementing these recommendations we can help to increase the number of well-educated, professional early education teachers.”

Barnett, W. S., Friedman-Krauss, A. H., Gomez, R. E., Horowitz, M., Weisenfeld, G. G., Brown, K. C., & Squires, J. H. (2016). The State of preschool 2015: State preschool yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Retrieved from

From the report: “The 2015 Yearbook is organized into three major sections. The first section offers a summary of the data and describes national trends in enrollment, quality standards, and spending for state-funded preschool. This year, a special supplemental section on state pre-K policies to support Dual Language Learners and the Workforce is also included. The second section presents detailed profiles outlining each state’s policies with respect to preschool access, quality standards, and resources for the 2014-2015 year. A description of our methodology follows the state profiles, and the last section of the report contains appendices. The appendices include tables that provide the complete 2014-2015 survey data obtained from every state, as well as Head Start, child care, U.S. Census, and special education data. This year, additional appendices are included that show the complete supplemental survey data on Dual Language Learners and the workforce.”

Brown, E. T., Molfese, V. J., & Molfese, P. (2008). Preschool student learning in literacy and mathematics: Impact of teacher experience, qualifications, and beliefs on an at-risk sample. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 13(1), 106–126. Retrieved from Full-text is available for purchase.

From the abstract: “Few studies investigating the impacts of teacher characteristics and beliefs about the importance of early skill learning have included measures of children’s learning outcomes. This study investigated how teachers’ educational attainment, experience, and beliefs impact the development of letter identification and number concepts (enumeration, cardinality, and numeral identification). One hundred thirty-eight 4-year-old children from low-income homes attending public preschool programs were the focus of a study based on findings that early learning is impacted by family characteristics and teachers’ perceptions of children’s eagerness to learn (West, Denton, & Germino Hausken, 2000). Children’s skills were assessed fall and spring, with more change found in spring measures of letter identification than in measures of number concept skills. Teachers’ educational attainment was found to strongly influence development of letter identification, with teacher experience a weaker influence. For number concepts, teacher education and experience were equivalent influences. Teachers’ beliefs about literacy and mathematics were weakly related to children’s learning outcomes, but added to the variance accounted for beyond the influence of teacher education and experience in the development of numeral recognition. More information is needed from studies focusing on children learning across the school year on how structural and process features influence young children’s learning.”

Connor, C. M., Son, S., Hindman, A. H., & Morrison, F. J. (2005). Teacher qualifications, classroom practices, family characteristics, and preschool experience: Complex effects on first graders’ vocabulary and early reading outcomes. Journal of School Psychology, 43(4), 343–375. Retrieved from Full-text is available for purchase.

From the abstract: “Using an ecological model, this study explored the effects of distal and proximal sources of influence on students’ learning. We first examined three markers of teacher qualification—elementary education credential, years of education, and years of experience—on observed classroom practices across three dimensions— warmth/ responsivity, control/discipline, and time spent on academic activities—as they related to children’s vocabulary and early reading skills. We then examined the impact of this core system embedded in a larger system that included children’s vocabulary and word recognition skills prior to school entry, their home and preschool learning environments, and family SES. Results, using structural equation modeling, revealed that students whose teachers were more warm and responsive and who spent more time in academic activities demonstrated stronger vocabulary and decoding skills at the end of first grade. Teachers with more years of education interacted with students more responsively but, surprisingly, their students had weaker early reading skills. Overall, students’ language and letter-word recognition scores when they were 54 months of age, their home learning environment and family SES accounted for most of the variability in vocabulary and early reading scores at the end of first grade. Implications of the multiple and concurrent sources of influence on students’ language and literacy development are discussed.”

Early, D. M., Bryant, D. M., Pianta, R. C., Clifford, R. M., Burchinal, M. R., Ritchie, S., … Barbarin, O. (2006). Are teachers’ education, major, and credentials related to classroom quality and children’s academic gains in pre-kindergarten? Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 21(2), 174–195. Retrieved from Full-text is available for purchase.

From the abstract: “To date, few studies of state-funded pre-kindergarten have fully addressed questions about the association between teachers’ education, major, and credentials with classroom quality or children’s academic gains. The current paper uses data from the National Center for Early Development and Learning’s (NCEDL) MultiState Study of Pre-Kindergarten, involving 237 pre-kindergarten classrooms and over 800 children, randomly selected from six states with well-established state-funded prekindergarten programs. The study includes multiple days of classroom observation, direct child assessments of children’s early academic skills in the fall and spring of the prekindergarten year, and questionnaires from teachers. For the current paper, teachers’ education has been operationalized in three different ways (years of education, highest degree, and Bachelor’s versus no Bachelor’s). Additionally, the paper considers the role of college major, state teaching certification, and CDA credential. Consistent with findings in the K–12 literature, this study finds few associations between any of the measures of education, major, or credentials and classroom quality or children’s outcomes. Teachers’ education, regardless of how it is operationalized, is linked to gains in children’s math skills across the pre-k year, and the CDA credential is linked to children’s gains in basic skills; however, education, training, and credentialing are not consistently related to classroom quality or other academic gains for children.”

National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). (2003). Investing in Head Start teachers. Preschool Policy Matters, 4. New Brunswick, NJ: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Research shows that preschool produces the strongest effects when teachers are well qualified. Noting that most Head Start preschool teachers do not hold even the minimum teaching degrees required to teach kindergarten, this policy brief looks at the costs of putting highly qualified teachers in Head Start classrooms to improve the effectiveness of the program. The brief notes the salary/wage differential between Head Start teachers and public school kindergarten teachers, and highlights issues in raising Head Start teacher qualifications, including gradual salary increases, and assistance for Head Start teachers wishing to attend college. The brief projects that the cost to put a well-qualified teacher in every Head Start classroom, phased in over an 8-year period, would range from $177 million in the first year to $1.4 billion in year eight, representing less than 1/1000th of the federal budget.”

Saracho, O. N., & Spodek, B. (2007). Early childhood teachers’ preparation and the quality of program outcomes. Early Child Development and Care, 177(1), 71–91. Retrieved from Full-text is available for purchase.

From the abstract: “The issue of the preparation of effective teachers becomes more critical for teachers of early childhood programs. It has been hypothesized that better program quality depends on better-educated teachers. The purpose of this investigation was to explore the importance of a high level of education for all early childhood education teachers. This issue has intrigued early childhood researchers and has prompted a large amount of research studies over the past decades. In order to assess the status of this line of inquiry and to provide guidance for future research, a critical analysis of 40 studies on the preparation of early childhood education teachers and the quality of their educational programs that were published within a 15-year (1989–2004) period is presented here. The analysis consisted of literal and allegorical critical analysis and interpretative critical analyses, which generated results in three main areas that focused on the professional development of the teachers, including teachers’ professional development, the importance of a Bachelor’s Degree and educational standards for early childhood education teachers.”

Vu, J. A., Jeon, H., & Howes, C. (2008). Formal education, credential, or both: Early childhood program classroom practices. Early Education and Development, 19(3), 479–504. Retrieved from Full-text is available for purchase.

From the abstract: “This study is intended to widen the debate around the bachelor’s degree (BA) as preparation for early childhood teaching when head teachers possess various levels of credentials and education. We examined classroom quality and teacher involvement in 231 classrooms sponsored by 122 different agencies, staffed and supervised by teachers and program directors who had varying levels of credentials within the California Child Development Permit. We found that not only teachers’ education and credential level but also the credential level of the program director as well as auspice predicted classroom quality. In private, nonprofit programs as well as Head Start/general child care programs, teacher BAs did predict classroom quality, but when classrooms were sponsored by school districts and the state, preschool program teacher BAs were not as predictive of classroom quality. Practice or Policy: These findings point to the importance of considering not only teachers’ education but also the effects of supervision and auspice when examining the influences of variations in professional development on classroom quality.”

Whitebook, M. (2003). Early education quality: Higher teacher qualifications for better learning environments - A review of the literature. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from

From the paper: This paper will review what the scientific research literature tells us about the relationship between teacher preparation and child outcomes in early childhood education. This review covers familiar ground for those who have read previous assessments of this literature, but focuses on the remaining unanswered questions that emerge from this body of knowledge, and attempts to identify questions for future research, the answers to which will increase the precision with which we can predict optimal outcomes for preschoolers. The central question we pose here is whether teachers with a BA degree in early childhood education (or higher) provide better-quality preschool experiences that lead to better outcomes for three-to five-year-olds. There are a number of limitations to the research, however; relatively few studies have dealt directly with this question or posed it exactly this way, and some have dealt more generally with the issue of college-level education for early childhood teachers. Nevertheless, our review of the literature indicates a reasonably strong basis for answering our central question about specialized BA-level preparation.

Whitebook, M., & Ryan, S. (2011). Degrees in context: Asking the right questions about preparing skilled and effective teachers of young children. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley; and New Brunswick, NJ: the National Institute for Early Education Research. Retrieved from

From the summary: “In this brief, authors Marcy Whitebook and Sharon Ryan argue that too much attention has been given to debating the baseline qualifications required of preschool teachers—AA vs. BA. They contend that it is just as necessary to take into account the nature of the education teachers receive en route to a degree, supports for ongoing learning, and the effects of the workplace environment on teaching practice.”

Whitebook, M., McLean, C., & Austin, L. J. E. (2016). Early childhood workforce index – 2016. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from

From the summary: “The Index provides a current appraisal of workforce conditions and policies across states. It is divided into three topical sections: earnings and economic security; early childhood workforce policies; and family and income support policies across occupations. In the section on earnings and economic security, we provide national and state-level data on ECE workforce pay in relation to other occupations, noting changes over time. For the remaining two sections, we have identified measurable indicators of state policy for each topic, grouped by categories within each section. These indicators represent opportunities for state policies that have the potential to enhance the lives of the many children and adults affected by ECE employment conditions. Data sources are described within each section of the Index and we spotlight recent research or promising developments that advance new policies or improved conditions.

REL West note: See chapter on Qualifications and Supports for Training/Education.”

Whitebook, M., & McLean, C. (2017). In pursuit of pre-K parity: A proposed framework for understanding and advancing policy and practice. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley; and New Brunswick, NJ: the National Institute for Early Education Research. Retrieved from

From the summary: “More than half of all state-funded pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs now require lead teachers to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, as do many city-funded pre-K programs, yet salaries and benefits for pre-K teachers are consistently lower than the average salary for public school elementary school teachers. While these differences in earnings may reflect variation in experience and educational attainment beyond a four-year degree, on average, a pre-K teacher with a bachelor’s degree or higher can expect to earn about $10,000–$13,000 less per year than her colleagues teaching older children, even when she works in a public school setting. For a similarly educated pre-K teacher working in a community-based program, the earnings gap is even higher: approximately $20,000–$22,000 less per year, accompanied with fewer benefits as well. Only a handful of states and cities have policies and practices in place to ensure that pre-K teachers in publicly funded programs, regardless of setting, can expect to earn salaries and benefits and receive payment for professional responsibilities, such as planning, on a par with teachers of children from kindergarten through 3rd grade (K–3)…Most of the current efforts to improve ECE salaries are concentrated on pre-K teachers, with the goal of equalizing earnings with K–3 teachers, not only for pre-K teachers working in public schools, but also for their counterparts working in community-based pre-K settings. And in a few instances, we rightly see attempts to extend these efforts to teachers working outside the state-funded pre-K system. At the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), we are heartened by the increasing engagement of stakeholders across the country in efforts to reduce inequities in compensation for early care and education teachers. To facilitate communication and learning across states and communities and among different stakeholders, we have joined together to produce several resources on the subject of compensation parity. In this first brief, we articulate a definition of compensation parity and a common framework for understanding where states and cities currently lie along the path to that goal. This brief also includes highlights from a longer report, Teacher Compensation Parity Policies and State-Funded Pre-K Programs, which provides a detailed description of the current landscape of parity policies based on data collected for the NIEER 2015 State of Preschool Yearbook. Further materials in the series will examine a select group of states and cities in order to advance our understanding of promising practices.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Head Start

Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center — (

From the website: “Head Start has sponsored research through the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE) to guide program improvement in Head Start and Early Head Start, as well as early childhood programming and development. Dozens of Head Start programs across the country have collaborated with researchers. Their significant contributions have helped in terms of program innovation and evaluation, and the use of systematic data collection, analysis, and interpretation in program operations.”

National Head Start Association — (

From the website: “For fifty years, research and evaluation have documented Head Start’s impact on school readiness, academic achievement, health, family stability, and long-term success. As a nonprofit membership and advocacy organization, NHSA sees its role in research as:

  • Curating research and resources for various audiences
  • Translating peer-reviewed research for practitioner use
  • Facilitating partnerships between researchers and practitioners.”

Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation — (

From the website: “Research sponsored through Head Start funding over the past decade has provided valuable information not only to guide program improvement in Head Start itself, but also to guide the field of early childhood programming and early childhood development. Dozens of Head Start programs have collaborated with researchers in making significant contributions in terms of program innovation and evaluation, as well as the use of systematic data collection, analysis and interpretation in program operations.”

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) — (

From the website: “The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is a professional membership organization that works to promote high-quality early learning for all young children, birth through age 8, by connecting early childhood practice, policy, and research. We advance a diverse, dynamic early childhood profession and support all who care for, educate, and work on behalf of young children.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Preschool teacher qualifications
  • Preschool teacher educational attainment
  • Teacher qualifications and preschool
  • Teacher qualifications and preschool outcomes
  • Early childhood workforce and qualifications

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar, Google, and Bing.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published for the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases, including ERIC and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types – randomized controlled trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order; (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc.; and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-00014524, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.