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.


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.  

Such differences also appear at the state level. An examination of state-level teacher preparation standards in 15 states where ECE and ELED licensees may both teach kindergarten found that 10 or more states’ ELED standards did not mention addressing special needs, using observation, or fostering children’s play, self-regulation, and relationships. States’ ECE standards were more likely to refer to such areas, although not in all cases: ECE standards did not refer to relationships in four states or special needs in five, while self-regulation was neglected in 12 states, almost as many as in the ELED standards (Fowler, 2016a).  

What effect do these differences in preparation have on the teachers? While ECE and ELED preservice teachers begin their programs with similar beliefs about the value of developmentally appropriate practices — as identified by NAEYC (Bredekamp, 1987) — aspiring ECE teachers’ beliefs in these practices grow stronger over the duration of their program, but ELED teachers’ beliefs do not (File & Gullo, 2002). Once licensees start teaching, the differences in beliefs persist and are evident in their teaching (Vartuli, 1999).  

American education has yet to fully accept early childhood as a distinct phase of life that requires a distinct type of instruction.

Research suggests that teachers’ implementation of developmentally appropriate teaching practices is associated with positive student outcomes, including higher achievement scores among 1st and 2nd graders (Huffman & Speer, 2000) and lower incidences of behavior problems and levels of peer rejection among 1st graders (Donahue, Perry, & Weinstein, 2003). Further, there is compelling evidence that teachers who promote playful learning, self-regulation, and close teacher-child relationships — areas typically highlighted in ECE but often neglected in ELED preparation standards — positively affect children’s academic skills and social abilities. Playful instruction is associated with increases in children’s ability in and liking of mathematics (Clements, Sarama, & Germeroth, 2016); children’s capacity for self-regulation (including such executive function skills as the ability to focus attention, manage thoughts, and inhibit behavior) is a powerful predictor of school success (Rimm-Kaufman & Wanless, 2012), and warm and supportive teacher-child relationships are unique predictors of positive social and academic outcomes (Pianta, Downer, & Hamre, 2016). Finally, these areas of instruction are interrelated, meaning that advancement in one area is often associated with advancement in another. For example, executive function skills help children perform better in math (especially word problem solving), and playful math instruction helps children acquire executive function skills (Clements, Sarama, & Germeroth, 2016). 

This discussion leads to a series of related questions: Why does ECE/ELED grade-level overlap occur in 48 states? Why are teachers without specialized training in early childhood allowed to teach kindergarten in 34 
states? Why are playful instruction, self-regulation, and teacher-child relationships not mentioned in many ELED and some ECE state-level teacher preparation standards? The brief answer to these questions is that American education has yet to fully accept early childhood as a distinct phase of life that requires a distinct type of instruction. This incomplete acceptance is due, in part, to the fact that each phase of early childhood — preschool, kindergarten, and grades 1-3 — entered the public education system at different times and penetrated to different extents.  

American education’s slow, staggered, and incomplete acceptance of ECE 

Preschool, kindergarten, and grades 1-3 did not enter American public schools simultaneously as integrated parts of a coherent instructional unit; instead, they entered as different instructional levels during different historical time frames: Grades 1-3 first appeared in the 1800s and were universally offered in all states by the early 1900s (LaBue, 1960); kindergarten first appeared in 1873 and was universally offered by 1986 (Passe, 2010), and preschool (formerly called nursery) first appeared in 1925 (Beatty, 1997) and is currently offered in every state except Utah.  

The potential of multiple years of high-quality early education to foster enduring positive behavioral and academic outcomes underlies current efforts to treat grades preK-3 as a coherent instructional unit.

It was not until 1924 — a time when states routinely offered grades 1-3 as part of elementary education — that the country’s most prominent early educational organization, the International Kindergarten Union (IKU), formally articulated a unified conception of the ECE spectrum by founding a journal, titled Childhood Education, dedicated to the educational needs of children three to eight years old (Snyder, 1972). In 1931, the IKU changed its name to the Association for Childhood Education (now known as ACEI). Interestingly, the National Association for Nursery Education was also founded in 1931, although it did not add the phrase “young children” to its name until 1964, when it became the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children).  

The slow, staggered, and still incomplete acceptance of preK-3 as a coherent unit of instruction is evident in that only two states offered preK-3 ECE licenses in 1950 (Armstrong & Stinnett, 1951), 11 in 1987 (McCarthy, 1988), and 42 today. Since 1987, as states added preK-3 inclusive licenses, they simultaneously adopted ECE licenses that overlapped with ELED licenses and lowered the floor of ELED licenses from 1st grade to kindergarten. Consequently, the number of states where ELED licensees may teach kindergarten increased from 23 in 1987 (McCarthy, 1988) to 34 today. 

The country’s incomplete embrace of ECE is also apparent today in the varying ways that states fund, mandate, and staff each phase of the early childhood spectrum: Preschool is universally funded in three states (Parker, Diffey, & Atchison, 2018), mandated in none, and taught by ECE licensees only in 48; kindergarten is universally funded in all states, mandated in 15 (Snow, 2015), and taught by ECE licensees only in 17; grades 1-3 are universally funded and mandated in all states and taught by ECE licensees only in five or fewer states.  

While the incomplete incorporation of the ECE spectrum may be partly attributed to the asynchronous way that grades preK-3 entered the educational system, in more recent years, this phenomenon may be partly attributed to inappropriate expectations regarding the potential benefits of early instruction. The most notable example of this occurred when policy makers — but not early educators — hypothesized that Head Start would enhance preschoolers’ IQs (White & Buka, 1987). When it was found not to do so, this federal preschool initiative nearly faltered until other research later demonstrated its multiple positive benefits (Schweinhart, 1993).  

Currently, as policy makers again consider preschool as a tool to improve educational outcomes, developmental scientists are cautioning against the expectation that one year of preschool will resolve the nation’s educational inequities: “Preschool education is not an inoculation [emphasis added] that guarantees complete and permanent elimination of the achievement gap for . . . disadvantaged children” (Pianta et al., 2009, p. 78). A more appropriate medical analogy regarding the efficacy of excellent early instruction is as a course of treatment that, like penicillin, must be fully completed to be fully effective. To administer ECE as a course of treatment over multiple years, though, will require us to organize preK-3 education as a coherent instructional unit and to align early educators’ preparation and practice with developmental science.  

Moving toward alignment 

In the last 20 years, developmental science has demonstrated that the central factor in trajectory-changing early educational practice is a high-quality teacher-child relationship. Teachers may foster these relationships by engaging in teacher-child interactions characterized by “sensitivity to individual needs, support for positive behavior, and stimulation of language and cognitive development” (Pianta, Downer, & Hamre, 2016, p. 125).  

The potential of multiple years of high-quality early education to foster enduring positive behavioral and 
academic outcomes underlies current efforts to treat grades preK-3 as a coherent instructional unit. The most prominent such effort, preK-3 alignment, includes: 1) voluntary, universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds; 2) mandatory full-day kindergarten; 3) high-quality preK-3 instruction, and 4) alignment of educational experiences within and between the early grades (Bogard & Takanishi, 2005). There is now substantial evidence, based on multiple large-scale, multiyear studies, that preK-3 educational alignment helps close the achievement gap (Reynolds, 2019). 

Although some features of preK-3 alignment require adding resources, others involve removing impediments, such as low-quality, state-level ECE preparation standards and licensing policies that allow individuals with ELED licenses to teach in the early grades. States may remove these impediments by aligning teacher preparation standards with developmental science and restricting 3rd grade and below to teachers with ECE licenses. Such regulatory changes would not only incur minimal costs, they would also maximize the benefits of the (often substantial) resources that states devote to preschool programming.  

Adopting preK-3 alignment will not be easy, though, because it entails splitting apart the K-6 instructional unit, which is deeply ingrained in our educational system. The problematic nature of the K-6 grade unit is acknowledged, however, by none other than the authors of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation’s new K-6 elementary teacher preparation standards: “The K-6 elementary school years do not possess a unique developmental framework as is the case with Early Childhood (birth through age eight years) and Middle Childhood (8-12 years)” (CAEP, 2018, p. 82). Problems associated with the K-6 instructional unit’s conflation of two distinct developmental levels also underlie the proposal that school administrators have expertise in (early) elementary, middle, and/or high school education (Allen & Kelly, 2015). An implication of this proposal is that states’ teaching credentialing systems and instructional practices should be organized around three developmental/educational levels: preK-3, 4-8, and 9-12.  

The justification for formally distinguishing between the preK-3 and 4-8 grade spans is primarily based on the plasticity of educational trajectories during these years. Research has demonstrated that during the preK-3 years, achievement levels and academic self-image are relatively malleable because they are in formation. By the end of grade 3, however, school identity and academic trajectories “are fairly stable and a good indicator of long-term school performance” (Entwisle & Alexander, 1993, p. 412).  

A related difference between instruction in grades preK-3 and 4-8 is their respective approaches to content. Content instruction in grades 4 and beyond largely assumes that children have mastered foundational skills, such as self-regulation, which so heavily affect their school functioning. In preK-3 education, however, such foundational capacities must not be assumed; they must be taught.  

It is time to revitalize the educational system’s ad hoc progression of grade bands with an intentionally designed system, based on developmental science.

This does not mean, however, that content should be neglected in the early years. To the contrary, content in early years’ education is best treated as an object of inquiry pursued by active learners in a variety of teacher- and child-led activities. This approach is practiced in Boston’s kindergartens where content-based inquiries are rigorously pursued in 12- to 16-week units of study under the guidance of teachers who collaboratively tailor instruction to foster the emergent behavioral, social-emotional, and academic skills of their young learners. Such an approach shatters the mistaken dichotomy between “a focus on head (intellectual concepts and skills) versus heart (socio-emotional development and engagement of passion)” (Bardige, Baker, & Mardell, 2018, p. 4) that is too often found in the largely content-heavy (and socio-emotionally-light) preparation standards that guide the formation of teachers for K-6 elementary licenses (Fowler, 2016a, 2016b; Hyson & Tomlinson, 2014). 

It is time to revitalize the educational system’s ad hoc progression of grade bands with an intentionally designed system, based on developmental science. This effort should begin by aligning instruction in the early grades. Policy makers may take a substantial step in this direction by restricting grades preK-3 to teachers with ECE licenses only and thereby assure that the nation’s young children are taught by educators with specialized training in how to teach young children. 


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R. CLARKE FOWLER ( is professor emeritus at Salem State University, Marblehead, MA.

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