Behind every successful lead teacher...

Jennifer Wallace Jacoby, Class of 1929 Dr. Virginia Apgar Assistant Professor of Education

By Keely Savoie

As students have returned to classrooms across the country, Jennifer Wallace Jacoby, Class of 1929 Dr. Virginia Apgar Assistant Professor of Education, is beginning phase one of her research on the vital role of assistant teachers in the federally-funded Head Start program. Her research is supported by the Foundation for Child Development as a part of their Young Scholars program.

Jacoby says that studies aimed at improving the program, which provides early childhood education and other support to low-income families, have consistently overlooked assistant teachers. Assistant teachers play a critical role in supporting students of color and dual-language learners — and according to Jacoby, ignoring their contributions comes at the cost of having a full understanding of how Head Start works.

“Much of the current research says, ‘Here is what’s wrong, here is what’s not happening, here is what we need more of to make this work right,’” said Jacoby. “My frame on this is that assistant teachers are contributing something and I want to highlight what that is.”

In 2007 the Head Start reauthorization act set a new goal to have 50 percent of lead teachers hold bachelor’s degrees. The requirement brought with it a new barrier to entry to the program for prospective teachers — and that may have unintended consequences for vulnerable learners, Jacoby said.

“They've met that 50 percent benchmark but the question is, at what cost?” she asked, noting that the change was based on the established fact that programs with higher requirements for teachers demonstrate better outcomes for students. The problem, she says, is that much of that data comes from programs that are embedded within K-12 schools where there are other variables at play.

Jacoby hopes to shine a light on the different factors that contribute to better outcomes, including the contributions of assistant teachers. 

“A lot of evidence suggests that when kids have teachers who share a cultural background or a language background with them, that supports not only their social and emotional development but also their academic development,” she said.

Teachers of color and native speakers of languages other than English are concentrated in the lower-paid assistant teacher positions, and the degree requirement creates another barrier for them to ascend to the lead teacher position. Jacoby sees the requirement as potentially increasing disparate outcomes in classrooms, with dual-language learners and students of color losing out.

“Increasing the qualifications of lead teachers in early education programs like Head Start will likely have many positive effects on the quality of the program,” she wrote in her grant application. “It would be unfortunate if those positive effects were limited to children who arrive at Head Start already speaking English proficiently.”

Jacoby has hired one of her former students, psychology major Allegra Corwin-Renner ’18, as a senior research associate for the three-year project, alongside three current Mount Holyoke students, who will help during the academic year. The project extends the nine-year partnership that Jacoby has enjoyed with the Holyoke–Chicopee–Springfield Head Start program. In addition to the hope that her research will help shape policy, Jacoby sees a role for institutions like Mount Holyoke to offset unintended consequences of policy changes and to ensure that all children have access to the tools of education that suit them best.

“A lot of the pipeline into early childhood right now comes either from high schools who have vocational programs for their students who are interested in doing early childhood work or through community college, and that's great,” she said. “But wouldn't it be great if a place like Mount Holyoke could contribute the talents and interests of its students and faculty to ensuring better outcomes for the community beyond our campus?”

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