Are Early Childhood Teachers Worth the Investment?
It’s Time for Naysayers to Step Up!

At both the community and federal levels there has been resistance to investing in the early childhood workforce. The rationale, wrongly conceived, but held by many workforce development boards and departments of labor, is that the early childhood field is without career pathways that lead to better jobs. In fact, even some community colleges and universities have refused to offer early childhood degree programs because they also believe that the jobs don’t pay enough. And for a number of years that might have been true. The big sticking point has been that individuals who want to be or who are early childhood teachers have no meaningful education, compensation and career pathways. But things are different now.

Career pathways should not only be well designed, but also should function adequately. Pathways should be clearly and consistently recognized by all stakeholders, have well defined milestones that are commonly accepted by employers and educational institutions, as well as national or state bodies that certify or license individuals. Career pathway steps should be meaningful and manageable. Each incremental step should create a real and externally validated increase in occupationally relevant knowledge or skills; yet the time, money or effort required to achieve each step should not be so daunting as to discourage most learners from pursuing it. Supporting services to enhance movement along a career pathway should be well suited to the needs of these individuals and deployed effectively and efficiently and made accessible in a timely manner.

We now have a national expectation, most prominently recognized in the recent IOM report, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8, that teachers of children from birth through age eight have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. One of the indicators that a career pathway exists is that it aligns with needs of stakeholders- employers, consumers and regulators. And in fact, lots of employers, consumers and regulators are looking for this qualification. Head Start programs, which can be found in every state, require this degree. Many states have set this as an educational standard for lead teachers within the higher levels of their Quality Rating Systems. And state-funded Pre-K programs often set this as the required standard for their lead teachers. And if employers can’t find early childhood teachers with a BA degree, they want to hire teachers who have associate degrees in early childhood education and encourage them to work toward their BA.

Unlike the nursing profession, the early childhood field does not have a consistent, national education and credentialing ladder for the early childhood teacher. But if we look at the field of early childhood more broadly, I would argue that we are getting there. There are clearly defined educational milestones that form pathways when linked together. The first step is the Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, followed by the Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education, then the Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education, often including a state teaching license or certification. On top of that there are specializations in early childhood special education, early childhood management and leadership, and in infant-toddler development and learning. At the CDA level, there is a national standardized test that candidates must pass to earn that credential. And at the upper end, there is a national test (PRAXIS II Early Childhood Education) that teachers must pass to earn their teaching-license. And some early childhood teachers are now becoming National Board Certified through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. So education and recognition pathways do exist.

But what about compensation? This is where our field has been misunderstood. Yes, it is true that teachers who do not get an education will not earn a decent wage. And because we have low entry standards for the workforce, there are many in our field who come in and remain without formal education. But for those who get an education, there are real career pathways...both within the teaching profession and beyond. First, as a field, teachers who have more advanced credentials and/or degrees earn more, in general. Second, there is role wage mobility. Even within some of our worst paying programs, there is often a wage, education and role ladder that allows teachers to move from assistant teachers, to teachers, to lead teachers within the same work places or across a single corporate or organizational setting.

There is a very real difference in teacher pay by type of program setting. Early childhood teachers who work in child care settings in general make less than Head Start teachers, who generally make less than early childhood teachers who work in public settings like public schools. And this setting-ladder is also mirrored by an auspice-ladder with for- profit programs on the whole paying teachers less than non-profit programs, who often pay less than those who are operated by public settings. And there are also pay differentials related to the type of classrooms involved; teachers who work with three and four year olds typically make more than those who work with infants and toddlers.

Ideally all teaching jobs would pay well, but inevitably there will be some variation. We know that not all nursing jobs pay the same. Settings, auspice and role matter in all professions. And teachers in our field have been figuring this out for a long time. Someone who wants to make a better salary as an early childhood teacher knows that they may need to change employers to achieve that goal. And if an early childhood teacher wants to earn even more, she may choose to become a center or site director, or become a technical assistance specialist working to help other teachers improve their practice, or become a regulator. This explains the high level of site-specific turnover we have in the field. But it does not mean we do not have a career pathway. In fact, what we are seeing is that when teachers earn degrees in early childhood education they stay in the field-at-large.

Some recent studies provide us some evidence of this. The report, Number and Characteristics of Early Care and Education (ECE) Teachers and Caregivers, found that teachers have a median of 10 years in ECE, but only 3.6 years in their current setting. In addition, a more recent study of the ECE teaching workforce in North Carolina found that teachers had 11.5 years experience. This is a state that has been investing in the education of their workforce through programs like T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® scholarships and Child Care WAGE$ salary supplements and requiring early childhood degrees in both their state-funding pre-k and rated licensing system. Hence, there has been a steady increase in teacher’s longevity in the profession over time. In fact the median years in the field has almost doubled in the last 12 years.

The basic reality of a career pathway is that the opportunity begins with education. Hence, we must call on our community colleges and universities to step up to build strong, accessible, articulated higher education programs for our field. And we must make the case to our workforce development boards and departments of labor that with this foundational education there actually are good jobs in the early childhood field, and that this pathway is worth the investment. We have to do this now, as our field requires the funding and support to get this needed education, while we continue to wait for our nation to finally invest enough in early childhood to ensure all educated early childhood teachers earn enough to stay in the classroom with the children that they love, doing the work that is so fundamental to our children’s future, and ultimately to our nation’s future as well.

-Sue Russell


Are Early Childhood Teachers Worth February 2016

It’s Long Past Time

May 2015

It’s long past time for the teachers of our young children to receive the respect, recognition and compensation they deserve. They make THE difference for so many children every day, helping them develop and learn, setting a trajectory for success in school and life. Their job requires a complex array of knowledge and skills, compassion, physical and emotional stamina, an ability to partner with families and the willingness to continue learning. They must have knowledge of child development and the ability to assess when children may need extra support. Good teachers observe young children and know when and how to stage activities that move their learning forward and keep them wanting to learn more. And they know how to support their emotional well-being by modeling respectful, nurturing relationships so they learn to work and play well with others.
We know that the pathway for learning is set in the first five years of life. We know that what we do in those years makes a difference. Yet we fail to recognize the value of teachers in our early care and education settings. They are not paid a living wage, only about $10 an hour on average; they often work without benefits and paid sick leave. Many have to work a second job to make ends meet. And, sadly, many have to rely on public assistance for things like food and child care assistance for their own families. We collectively have failed to invest in these significant adults who are such a critical part of the lives and futures of so many of our nation’s children. With the recent report from the Institute of Medicine, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation has made it clear. Young children need well educated, supported and respected teachers. We must find the ways to make that happen…It will take greater public and private investments, it will take communities coming together, it will take parents and politicians and funders all committed to paying teachers what they deserve.


It’s Long Past Time - Worth Wage

Minimum Wage Increases – Who Will Pay this Bill in Child Care?

April 2015

I just heard on the radio that the city of Oakland, CA raised its required minimum wage to $12.25 per hour, beginning on March 2, with ongoing requirements for annual cost of living increases. And the city is also requiring employers to provide employees with 5-9 days of paid sick leave, depending on the size of the business. The impact of this is significant. Even in a high wage state like California, half of the teachers in child care earn less than $11.10 an hour. Not only will the wages for more than half of the workforce increase, but for the first time many will be able to have paid sick days for themselves or to care for their children. My first response was to applaud. Oakland is an example of communities and states across the country trying to address poverty. What a great thing for our early childhood workforce. But then I thought about all of the implications of this decision.

In child care, who will pay this bill? There are really only two choices: raise rates for families or cut teacher-child ratios. Personnel costs make up the vast majority of a program’s budget. If we believe that teacher-child ratios matter to the quality of care being provided, then this should not be the first option.

And, what about raising rates for families? The two biggest payers for child care are parents and our federal- and state-funded child care assistance programs. Middle and upper middle class parents are already struggling with child care costs. Child care for an infant or toddler can easily exceed $14,000 a year. For a family with gross earnings of $70,000 a year, that is 20% of their gross, not net, pay. This wage increase could result in a sizable rate increase, because child care wage scales in centers are often indexed from the bottom. Wages for all teaching staff in child care centers will likely be increased. However, this family’s earnings will not necessarily increase as a result of this decision.   How can we help them?

We need to look at strategies that can bring more revenue into child care settings to pay the workforce what it deserves without compromising ratios or asking families to pay more than they can afford. Many states and the federal government have child and dependent care tax credits. These need to be increased and indexed, at some level, to the real cost of child care. High quality child care is a public good with a real return on investment. If we want the quality to remain high and we want better quality teachers who earn a fair wage, increasing the child and dependent care tax credits can be a part of the solution.

For programs receiving child care subsidy payments for families, the rates on which payments are based are critical. In most states rates do not reflect the market. And this type of mandated compensation increase will have a big effect on costs. States have failed to keep up with market rates because it would mean fewer children could be served. But without some type of rate increase, children on child care assistance may have fewer options for care because providers can no longer carry the loss. Obviously, our larger federal and state child care systems need more money to help adequately fund the need for and quality of child care for low income children. That should happen now, but realistically will take time and public will.

In the meantime, can anything be done to increase rates within the limited resources that are available? For many families receiving subsidies, their incomes will increase as a result of this same legislation. As a result of their increased incomes, they will be required to pay a larger co-payment mandated for most families receiving child care assistance. This potentially results in a lower payment cost for communities and states.   More children could be served with those savings, but I would argue, instead, that all of those “saved” dollars need to be targeted to rate increases. Communities and states need to calculate the amounts of those savings and use them as part of the funds needed for fairer rates, helping those child care businesses pay their teachers the compensation they deserve. It is only fair.



Education: The Big Divide

March 2015

Disparity begins at birth, is perpetuated in early childhood, and continues through school and life. Poverty affects everything…access to health services, access to high quality early childhood education, access to good schools and ultimately one’s ability to earn a college degree. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal profiles this difference. By the age of 24, 77% of twenty-four year olds from families in the top quartile of earnings had completed a baccalaureate degree, while only 9% of this age from the bottom income quartile had earned a degree. A college education has always been the ticket out of poverty; it’s just that few are getting that ticket.

We also know that the best investment we can make is providing poor children access to very high quality early care and education. One of the most critical components to this high quality is the knowledge and skills of the teachers in those classrooms. Yet in some communities not a single early childhood teacher has even a two-year degree in early childhood education. Many early childhood teachers lag in basic reading, writing and math skills…skills they need to be effective in teaching those skills to young children and in communicating with their families. A recent article in the Washington Post profiles the extensiveness of this challenge, with surprisingly large numbers of teachers not even having high school level math, reading and writing skills.

Our work with the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® (T.E.A.C.H.) scholarship initiative over the last 25 years has confirmed this as well. So many of our T.E.A.C.H. scholarship recipients have to take multiple developmental courses at their community college to be able to meet basic college entry standards. The good news, however, is that many of our recipients are quite capable of gaining that proficiency, doing really well in their college coursework, and completing two- and four-year college degrees. Often they, like the children they teach, came from poor communities with low performing schools. They were never given a fair chance. But now, with their college degree in hand, they are giving that chance to the children in their classrooms and in their own homes. Wonder Woman pales in comparison to these women. They are my heroines.



Going Forward

January 2015

New years bring hope for new possibilities, accomplishments and milestones. Here at the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® National Center we are in the midst of a yearlong celebration of 25 years of T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood®. The first part of our fiscal year we have spent time looking back and celebrating what we have accomplished. And there is much to be proud of. Over the past 25 years, we saw a small investment ($23,100) turn into a $375 million, enabling 126,000 teachers, family child care providers and directors to go to college to complete coursework leading to credentials, degrees and teacher licensure in one of almost 500 higher education institutions. We started in two counties in North Carolina and are now in 24 states and the District of Columbia. Our initial work focused solely on scholarships; now our focus includes a deep focus on strengthening the professional development and higher education systems for early educators across the country.

But time does not stand still and children and our workforce can’t wait another 25 years to get what they need. So over the next 6 months we are looking forward. What do we vision for our work in 2025? We will be engaging our state projects, our National Advisory Committee, the workforce, our national early childhood partners and others in the process. We will be answering key questions including what should the Center be doing to achieve that vision over the next 10 years? Who could the Center partner with to leverage our history and advance investments in the early childhood workforce for the future? What 21st century strategies and tools should we utilize to engage our partners? How could we advance the development of new leaders and advocates through our T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® Alliance?

We would love to hear your vision for the Center and your thoughts on the ways we could partner to grow and educated, compensated, stable early childhood workforce. Join the conversation this spring at our annual Professional Development Symposium --T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® 25 Years: Looking Back, Going Forward-- on April 28 & 29 in Chapel Hill, NC. Details coming soon!