Opportunity, Access, and Respect for Early Educators

The early care and education (ECE) system in the United States is built upon a foundation of structural inequality based on gender, class, and racial inequities that are woven throughout American institutions and culture. While ECE has the potential to interrupt the consequences of these inequities, the system’s current organization and financing poses multiple obstacles to educators’ efforts to nurture children’s optimal development and learning and implies risks to their own well-being.1

Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation serves as a call to action to support a skilled and stable early education workforce. It makes the case that all children from birth to age eight deserve equally well-prepared and well-compensated teachers. It provides a framework for aligning qualifications, preparation, compensation, and expectations of adult well-being with our expectations for what early educators should know and be able to do, while simultaneously putting an end to the intolerable economic conditions and working standards experienced by most early educators.

The follow-up consensus report, Transforming the Financing of Early Care and Education, acknowledges that the current system is “neither sustainable nor adequate to provide the quality of care and learning that children and families need – a shortfall that further perpetuates and drives inequality.” This report develops recommendations to finance a system in which lead teachers hold a bachelor’s degree, a vision articulated in Transforming the Workforce. The follow-up report further recommends that “the incumbent ECE workforce should bear no cost for increasing practitioners’ knowledge base, competencies, and qualifications, and the entering workforce should be assisted to limit costs to a reasonable proportion of postgraduate earnings, with a goal of maintaining and further promoting diversity in the pipeline of ECE professionals.”2

At the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE), we are committed to advancing a public system of ECE that is equitable for children, their families, and early educators. With a sense of urgency, we approach our research and analysis to support the well-being of the current workforce and to inform change for the incoming and future workforce. The guiding objectives we use to assess the process and impact of our own work, as well as those reforms and proposals put forth by others, include: amplifying educator voices; disrupting stratification; and providing opportunity and access. To date, our observations of and experience with the NAEYC-led Power to the Profession process and decision cycles leave us questioning why this effort has veered so far from the recommendations and evidence outlined in the documents cited above.

Amplify Educator Voices, Inform Decision Making

The Power to the Profession effort fails to adequately address the crisis today’s early educators are experiencing. Two million adults, mostly women, are paid to care for and educate more than 12 million children; and about 40 percent are women of color. Across almost all ECE settings in the country, early educators are in economic distress, with nearly half of child care workers and one-third of preschool teachers residing in families that rely on federal income supports because of their low wages.3 Surveys in communities as disparate as California, Colorado, and Arkansas reveal that more than half of early educators surveyed reported experiencing economic insecurity, with high levels of economic worry, food insecurity, and decisions to postpone or forego medical care.4 These realities fall disproportionately on those working with infants and toddlers, family child care providers, and women of color; even educators who have earned associate or bachelor’s degrees are not immune.

Given these well-documented conditions, the Task Force supposition that a definition of the profession is needed before demanding a living wage for those who support the development and learning of young children everyday leads us to wonder: Whose voices have shaped this effort and whose voices have been left out? Based on our surveys of teachers and providers over the years, we have no doubt that they desire economic stability for themselves and their own families and the professional supports necessary to refine their skills and help children succeed.

While the 15-member Power to the Profession Task Force is comprised of organizations with “a stake in the membership of the early childhood education field and profession” and that “represent and engage with large numbers of early educators,” survey results presented by NAEYC on earlier decision cycles showed that most survey respondents were not early educators, nor were they racially and ethnically reflective of the workforce. CSCCE is one of 30-plus stakeholder groups, and we have weighed in on previous surveys and make readily available our research in which we strive to capture educator’s voices and experiences directly, but we do not work in classrooms and homes on a daily basis.

To be an effort put forth by educators, this process must represent the experiences and aspirations of the more than 1.3 million members of the current workforce who do not belong to a professional association or union. It is critical that this process empower those who currently comprise the profession, not inadvertently entrench their long-standing limited representation at decision-making tables. In recent weeks, our nation has witnessed as many of the approximately 3 million teachers of older children across the country have leveraged the power of their collective voice to reverse state budget decisions that have undermined their professional status, well-being, and ability to meet children’s needs. This collective action, in concert with parental support, is garnering needed public recognition of their service, thus giving power to the profession.

Maintain Diversity, Disrupt Stratification

We are disturbed to see the Power to the Profession Task Force cite data calling attention to the fact that women of color occupy a disproportionate share of the lowest paying jobs in the field as a rationale for maintaining, not disrupting, this stratification. We see this stratification in studies that have been conducted by CSCCE and other researchers nationally and in communities across the country.5

Absent from the latest decision cycles are references to strategies and recommendations, rooted in our data, that strive to overcome these long-standing barriers and systemic inequities. While we agree with the recommendation to raise the floor on qualifications so that all those working in ECE settings have foundational knowledge, the establishment of a lower bar for lead teachers in early childhood settings than in elementary settings is fraught with bias about the capacity of women of color to be successful. The Task Force makes their recommendation because of the belief that raising the bar, and thus a pathway to a better job, would “be more likely to result in the exclusion of educators from communities of color and those without bachelor’s degrees.”

To the contrary, our research, in which we have surveyed and interviewed early educators directly, reveals what should be obvious: regardless of background or circumstances, people aspire to be successful and pursue education, and when provided with the resources and structures to do so, they are indeed successful.

Provide Opportunity, Ensure Access

When barriers to education are removed and resources provided, the current workforce has demonstrated success in earning bachelor’s degrees. In a longitudinal study of early educators working in the field and participating in bachelor’s degree cohort completion programs, 40 percent of the study participants had made previous attempts to complete a four-year degree. With financial, academic, and access supports, early educators were successful: 81 percent of the cohort participants graduated, a rate more than double that of the typical transfer student from a two- or four-year institution. In addition, 76 percent were women of color, 31 percent identified their primary language spoken at home as being other than English, and most reported being among the first generation in their families to earn a college degree.6 These findings demonstrate that barriers reside within systems, not with the individuals who encounter them.

In the next cycle, the Task Force intends to develop compensation requirements based on qualification levels that they will propose. To date, early educators have experienced the most progress in securing better economic and working conditions in public pre-k programs that have established a bachelor’s degree requirement for pre-K. These educators have reached or are nearing salary parity with elementary school teachers.7 Considering this relative success, more focus should be placed on understanding the extent to which these efforts have included (or need to include) supports to advance a diverse workforce and on influencing the financing strategies to appropriately support a high-quality system.

Recommending less than equal educational requirements will result in unequal footing for lead early educators with elementary school teachers that will further entrench existing inequities, since compensation will be greatly influenced by levels of education. Notwithstanding the necessity to upend wage gaps driven by gender and race, across occupations people with bachelor’s degrees earn substantially higher wages than those with associate degrees; this can mean a difference of more than $16,000 for women with bachelor’s degrees, while men earn upwards of $35,000 more than women with associate degrees.8 Given the reality of market economics, it is reasonable to assume that an employer (including the government, as in the case of public pre-K) would choose the “cheaper” lead teacher with lower education if professional standards have codified this option as acceptable.

Reflecting on the Power to the Profession statement of core motivations to advance social and racial justice and grow diversity and equity, we encourage the Task Force to reassess not only their decisions to date, but to reverse the order of their cycles. Notwithstanding the efforts of those involved, the process and recommendations shortchange children and their educators.

We urge the Task Force to start anew and to begin with an examination of their own as well as the institutional and structural biases, then to consider the policies and resources necessary to remove barriers and establish pathways for the current and future workforce that are aligned with developmental science and the necessary competencies and that rest upon a foundation of respect for the people caring for and educating young children.

Advancing change undoubtedly invites debate and controversy, and disrupting the status quo requires a willingness to engage in an open discourse and a more critical assessment of our approach to change. In doing so, it is imperative to acknowledge that narratives about who can and should be included in the workforce are highly influential in policy and funding outcomes, and thus, it is critical that the voices of ECE’s frontline providers be included in policy conversations.

The following was submitted to the Power to the Profession Task Force on 3.22.2019 in response to revised Decisions Cycles 345+6

Nearly a year ago, CSCCE submitted comments (see above) to the Power to the Profession (P2P) Task Force that outlined the ways in which the P2P effort failed to adequately address the crisis today’s early educators are facing. The P2P Task Force responded to criticisms, including ours, by changing the rationale underlying Decision Cycles 3-5. For example, they utilized CSCCE- produced data to illustrate racial wage gaps among early educators and discuss the importance of racial equity. Nonetheless, the decision cycles have not been substantively changed.

The most recent revision of the decision cycles continues to propose a system designed to reinforce inequities endured by early educators. Unfortunately, the P2P Task Force still recommends that the existing hierarchy in the education system persist, with unequal requirements for educators that ultimately further entrench current inequities, as their new decision cycle related to compensation (Decision Cycle 6) is influenced by levels of education. Rather than repeat our critique of the inadequacies of this approach, we encourage you to read our previous statement (included above).

With regard to the introduction of Decision Cycle 6, which focuses on compensation, the Task Force makes progress in specifically recommending that compensation include critical benefits (like paid leave) and the elimination of existing pay penalties among those working in 0- 5 settings based on program sponsorship. Such penalties disproportionately impact African American early educators, those working with infants and toddlers, and those working in community-based settings. However, despite discussing the importance of a living wage for those working in the 0-5 setting, Decision Cycle 6 falls short of making explicit recommendations with regard to compensation benchmarks for this segment of the workforce. Indeed, Decision Cycle 6 effectively supports longstanding and systemic inequities between early educators and educators of older children.

As we explained in our initial response to Decision Cycles 3-5, the educator levels proposed by the Task Force reinforce a hierarchy between the qualifications considered necessary for educators in 0-5 settings and those necessary for K-3 teachers, and as we predicted, these levels are now connected to the compensation recommendations. Eliminating compensation disparities among those working in 0-5 settings is a laudable goal, but the premise of the proposed Early Educator II and III distinctions put forth by the Task Force result in unequal footing for lead early educators compared to elementary school teachers that entrenches existing inequities, since compensation levels are directly connected to the education levels associated with these designations.

The Task Force may suggest that employers and policymakers can decide whether they want to select an associate or a bachelor’s degree teacher and that individuals will self-select which they aspire to, but the reality is that recommendations presented as representing the voice of the profession, as P2P explicitly claims, give license to policymakers to set and enforce inequitable standards and sanction lower pay than the complexity of early educators’ work warrants.

We continue to call for policies and investments that not only acknowledge inequities in the system and among early educators, but that propose solutions designed to intentionally disrupt such inequities and advance a system that is effective and equitable for early educators and the children entrusted to them.


  1. Whitebook, M., Phillips, D., & Howes, C. (2014). Worthy work, STILL unlivable wages: The early childhood workforce 25 years after the National Child Care Staffing Study. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from
  2. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Transforming the Financing of Early Care and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:
  3. Whitebook, M., McLean, C., & Austin, L.J.E. (2016). Early Childhood Workforce Index – 2016. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from
  4. McKelvey, L., Forsman, A., Morrison-Ward, J. (2018). Arkansas Workforce Study: Instructional Staff in Child Care & Early Childhood Education, 2017. Little Rock, AR: University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Retrieved from; Schaack, D.D., & Le, V.N. (2017). At the Heart of the Matter: The Compensation of Colorado’s Early Educator Workforce. Denver, CO: Early Milestones Colorado. Retrieved from; Whitebook, M., King, E., Philipp, G., & Sakai, L. (2016). Teachers’ Voices: Work Environment Conditions That Impact Teacher Practice and Program Quality. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from
  5. Austin, L.J.E., Sakai, L., & Dhamija, D. (2016). 2016 Alameda County Early Care and Education Workforce Study. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from; Early Childhood Workforce Development. (2018). Buffett Early Childhood Institute, University of Nebraska. Retrieved from; Schaack, D.D., & Le, V.N. (2017). At the Heart of the Matter: The Compensation of Colorado’s Early Educator Workforce. Denver, CO: Early Milestones Colorado. Retrieved from Retrieved from; McKelvey, L., Forsman, A., Morrison-Ward, J. (2018). Arkansas Workforce Study: Instructional Staff in Child Care & Early Childhood Education, 2017. Little Rock, AR: University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Retrieved from
  6. Kipnis, F., Whitebook, M., Almaraz, M., Sakai, L., & Austin, L. J. E. (2012). Learning together: A study of six B.A. completion cohort programs in early care and education. Year 4. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from
  7. McLean, C., Dichter, H., & Whitebook, M. (2017). Strategies in Pursuit of Pre-K Teacher Compensation Parity: Lessons From Seven States and Cities. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley and New Brunswick, NJ: the National Institute for Early Education Research. Retrieved from
  8. Author’s calculation of data retrieved from Current Population Survey, 2017. https://www.census. gov/programs-surveys/cps.html.