Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
A new study points out the obvious — the early education and care workforce is undervalued and underpaid, and has been for decades. This is especially problematic today as economists and policymakers call for more children to have access to high-quality early education. The only way to provide this level of quality is by having highly skilled, well-paid early educators who can help raise educational standards, close the achievement gap, and prepare young children for success in kindergarten.
The study — “Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages: The Early Childhood Workforce 25 Years after the National Child Care Staffing Study” — comes from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, part of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. It was written by Marcy Whitebook, Deborah Phillips, and Carollee Howes.
The original 25-year-old Staffing Study “first shined a light on the fact that many early care and education teachers earn[ed] poverty-level wages a quarter of a century ago,” New America says. “This new report provides an update on the state of the child care workforce and offers new evidence of their economic insecurity.”
The report points to three “persistent features of early childhood jobs that require a new policy approach:”
• pervasive economic insecurity in the workforce
• the low-value afforded to educational attainment by workforce members, and
• an irrational wage structure
The study’s corresponding statistics are dispiriting.
“…preschool teachers earned 60 percent of the hourly wage of kindergarten teachers in 2013. Childcare workers’ wages grew by only one percent between 1997 and 2013, a smaller increase than that of fast food cooks and tellers, indicating that their wages during this period barely kept pace with the increasing cost of living,” the study says.
And although wages have remained low, parents’ child care costs have shot up. “Between 1997 and 2011, average weekly child care payments for children under five years of age more than doubled, from $67.40 in 1997 to $179.00 in 2011 (an 89 percent increase in constant 2011 dollars).”
The report adds: “In both 1997 and 2013, child care workers remained stuck at the second or third percentile in the BLS [U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics] rankings of occupations by mean annual salary. Among the occupations that shared these rankings with childcare workers are food preparation workers, parking lot attendants, bartenders, hotel desk clerks, and laundry and dry-cleaning workers.”
In Massachusetts, early educators earn far less than it takes to adequately support themselves and their families. The report shares these statistics about the commonwealth:
Child Care Workers’ Actual Mean Hourly Wage:
Preschool Teachers’ Actual Mean Hourly Wage:
Kindergarten Teachers’ Actual Mean Hourly Wage:
One costly result of this persistent low pay, is that workers rely on social support programs such as food stamps and Medicaid to make ends meet.
“Nearly one-half (46 percent) of childcare workers resided in families enrolled in one or more public support programs annually, compared to 25 percent of the U.S. workforce as a whole,” the report says.
To address the sweeping problem of low wages, the report calls for “a comprehensive reassessment of the nation’s early education and care policies” that attempts, in part, to:
• “identify and mobilize a sustainable, dedicated source of public funding to upgrade the compensation of those who care for and educate our nation’s young children,”
• “prepare a rational and equitable set of guidelines for determining regionally-based entry-level wages and salary increases based on education and training, experience, and seniority within the early childhood field.”
• “establish workplace standards necessary for teachers to engage in professional practice, such as paid planning time,” and,
• “develop a strategy and timeline for requiring that all ECE programs and providers receiving public funds comply with the compensation guidelines and work standards within a reasonable period of time.”
The report also points to “immediate opportunities” for improvement, including:
• states using their Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) and joining with organizations such as NIEER (the National Institute for Early Education Research) to strengthen quality improvement strategies by including “workplace and compensation policies” among their criteria
• Head Start’s next reauthorization could nclude a “request for increased and earmarked federal funding, dedicated to bringing Head Start and Early Head Start teaching staff salaries in line with Head Start teachers’ dramatically increased qualifications,” and,
• providing funds for states to “build, strengthen and sustain data systems, such as workforce registries, that provide comprehensive data on wages, benefits, educational levels, and turnover rates for all teaching staff across ECE settings receiving public dollars…”
Can the country muster the policy-making and financial strength to tackle this problem? It certainly has before. The report notes:
“During World War II, the nation mobilized and paid certified teachers to work in the child care centers serving the children whose mothers were ‘manning’ the war factories. The Head Start program has steadily increased the share of its teachers with bachelor’s degrees, now exceeding 50 percent. The Department of Defense re-invented its early care and education system as a compact with service members that their children would be well cared for by competent, adequately compensated teachers…”
“These decisive efforts demonstrate the power of leadership to set and achieve aspirational goals that spur our nation to make the changes we need. It is our hope that the new evidence reported here will spur the nation to not only aspire to, but also guarantee livable, equitable, and dependable wagers for early childhood teachers, of whom we expect so much, but to whom we still provide so little.”