Commentary: Investing in early childhood teacher education pays off

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lindsey Meyer works with her students as Lt. Governor Spencer Cox visits a Head Start classroom as he and the Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission officially release Utah's Fifth Annual Report on intergenerational poverty, welfare dependency and the use of public assistance during a press conference Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016.

Pat Bagley’s recent cartoon depicting teachers as the driving force of Utah’s economy was brilliant, and an insightful statement on the role of educators in the success of our state’s growth and economic well-being.

Research shows that the foundation for a skilled workforce is created in childhood. And that starts with having access to great early childhood educators. With that in mind, Salt Lake Community College, the University of Utah’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies and the U’s College of Education are collaborating to reinstate and revive the Early Childhood Education Teaching Program to graduate more teachers who specialize in the education of our youngest children — Pre-K to third grade. The program will start its first group of students in fall 2020.

This specialized training recognizes the uniqueness of early childhood experiences by requiring that these teachers understand child development through age 8 and know how to develop partnerships with parents to support learning. They will be familiar with how to enhance a child’s social competence, self-esteem and self-control. And they will know how to design and implement age-appropriate, multidisciplinary curriculums. They’ll also be able to create developmentally applicable assessments of children’s learning and progress.

The first years of school set a foundation for successful life-long learning. Highly skilled early childhood teachers help their young charges get the best start possible in education and set them up for success in life.

How students think and learn to reason and relate to others is rooted in early relationships, experiences and environments. Early childhood teachers provide experiences that expose children to multi-dimensional ways of learning concepts. It’s not just about rote learning of the ABC’s and numbers and gaining reading skills; early learning also involves physical and social emotional skills. Learning to follow directions, pay attention and get along with others are foundational skills that predict school and life success.

Research also shows that children who cannot sit still, are disruptive or show poor self-control are at greatest risk of eventually dropping out of school and into delinquency. An investment in early childhood teacher education can help reduce the need for remedial, intensive interventions for children, particularly at-risk youth, that are much more expensive for taxpayers.

The fact is, children with high quality early-learning opportunities have fewer special education needs and are more likely to graduate from high school. This increases their likelihood of having better job skills and of being prepared for post-secondary education in college, universities or vocational schools. These graduates are then able to fuel Utah’s economic engine, driving productivity, competitiveness, growth and innovation. They’ll also be prepared to add to the state’s tax base.

Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman at the University of Chicago has argued that investments in children’s futures as students and workers is the most efficient strategy to boost productivity in the U.S. workforce.

Another reason to support early childhood education: Utah is undergoing a demographic shift that is particularly notable among its youngest residents. They are more culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse and need highly qualified teachers to ensure they succeed in Utah’s educational system — and its economy.

The return on investment in preparing early childhood educators to teach our youngest students should be of as much importance to us as any other planned Utah economic development project. One dollar invested in early childhood education programs will return $13 in future revenues and cost savings, setting the foundation for lifelong success.

We care deeply about our own children and grandchildren but we need everyone to be invested in the education of the youngest children in our communities. If we don’t have the best and brightest teachers specialized in teaching our youngest students it will hurt our long-term prosperity and represent a missed opportunity for future generations in Utah.

At the University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College, we are ready to start the dialog and the process by supporting and recruiting the best students for early childhood teacher education.

Cheryl Wright

Trish Saccomano

Dale Smith

Cheryl Wright is a professor; Trish Saccomano is a clinical instructor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah; and Dale Smith is the associate dean of Education, Family & Human Studies and Social Work at Salt Lake Community College.