This story was originally published by The Dallas Morning News and can be found here.

AUSTIN — Educating Texas’ youngest students takes a special set of skills and training, but the state is one of only two that doesn’t have a teacher certification designated for such areas.

But a bill discussed Monday would fix that by creating a new certification teachers of prekindergarten through third grade.

Dallas teacher Laura Laywell told a House subcommittee on teacher quality that she struggled the first year she taught kindergarten despite having experience in other areas because she didn’t know how to reach youngsters and teach phonics or other fundamentals. She told of one girl she tried to work with who made little progress by the end of the year.

“She deserved more, and I still feel the weight of that — of being underprepared to be her teacher,” Laywell said.

Laywell said that following summer she went through an intense early education training offered by Teach For America, and she later went on to become a teacher of the year.

“Preparation matters,” she said.

The bill’s author, Rep. Dan Huberty, said emphasizing early childhood education would further boost the state’s efforts to improve the quality of pre-K. The certification would be optional and districts could still use the more general certification available, which covers a wide span of grades up to sixth.

“Aren’t we trying to make our education system better?” Huberty said. “So why don’t we do something about certification to empower and give these teachers the ability to learn their craft? The foundation for a child in prekindergarten to third grade is so important.”

Last session Huberty successfully sponsored legislation that created pre-K grants aimed at getting districts to adopt higher standards, including better-trained teachers. However, future funding for those grants is uncertain.

Texas has twice before had some form of certification that included an early childhood education focus. The first ended in 1991 and the second in 2004, according to the Texas Education Agency.  Montana is the other state that doesn’t have the early education certification, and that state also doesn’t have prekindergarten programs.

Experts say about 90 percent of brain development occurs before age 5.

Derek Little, Dallas ISD’s assistant superintendent for early learning, said teachers working with the youngest students do best when they’ve had deep training in specific methods in teaching fundamentals to young children.

“Teachers need a different set of skills and expertise to facilitate learning in early ed,” Little said. “There’s a huge difference between teaching sixth grade and pre-K because their brains and bodies are at different stages in life.”

Wendy Uptain, who works with the Dallas-area Commit partnership, told lawmakers that current optional endorsements offered in certifications aren’t connected to additional training or coursework to ensure that educators are actually trained in teaching younger children. The general certification process is too wide to be effective, and that’s reflected in poor STAAR performance for many third-graders, she said.

“The students in prekindergarten through third grade, we’re failing them,” she said.

Some educators asked the lawmakers to wait until the TEA and State Board of Educator Certification finished their reviews of certification issues.

A recent TEA survey of about 7,500 educators found they were split about whether the current certification system gives an adequate focus on early childhood education.

About 65 percent of respondents favored certification for pre-K through third grade. However, only about a third were significantly concerned about it.

Other bills

The  subcommittee also heard bills that would allow virtual observations in various educator certification and program requirements.

One bill would prevent the State Board for Educator Certification from requiring educator preparation programs to conduct formal observations of a candidate in a face-to-face setting. Another would allow a prep program to conduct least three of five field supervisor observations during an internship by video, internet or other remote technology.

Lawmakers pushing for such changes said it would ease financial burden on prep programs and expand access, particularly in rural areas.

But David Anthony, a former superintendent, said reducing in-person observations only loosens rigor and benefits educator prep programs, not the children who get those teachers.

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