Teachers of Preschool-Age Children in California

A Comparison of Lead Teachers in Transitional Kindergarten, Child Care Centers, and Family Child Care Homes

This brief explores the experiences of early care and education (ECE) lead teachers in California. In particular, we discuss teachers of four-year-olds in TK classrooms, child care centers, and family child care programs.

We examine their demographics, classroom context, working conditions, compensation, and economic well-being. By exploring the experiences of teachers by setting, we aim to understand the state of equity in ECE employment.

Key Findings

Demographics and Classroom Life

  • Virtually all lead teachers across settings are women, and most early educators are 40 or older. Educators in centers and FCC providers are much more likely to be women of color and/or immigrant women.
  • While center- and TK-based educators work similar hours per week, only FCC and center teachers work year-round. Within classrooms, however, differences in staffing ratios will be disappearing: TK classrooms must now adhere to the 12:1 standard of centers.
  • The majority of children across ECE settings are either Latine or White.1CSCCE is committed to eliminating oppressive language and using bias-free terms. Under this philosophy, for example, all terms used to describe race are capitalized, and gender neutral terms are used when appropriate.TK classrooms serve the greatest concentration of Latine children (45 percent), and overall enrollment most closely aligns with the composition of children in the state. In all three settings, around one in three children speaks both English and another language.
  • Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers across settings largely felt confident in their teaching skills, with the exception of managing children’s behavior. Only one in five FCC providers identified this concern prior to the pandemic, while approximately one half of lead teachers in centers and three quarters of TK teachers found managing children’s behavior a challenge.
  • While center- and home-based educators continued to work in person in late 2020, the majority of TK teachers were working remotely. Among those who were teaching in person, teaching challenges increased across the board. More than four times as many FCC providers felt that supporting children as individuals was a challenge, and more than six times as many center lead teachers struggled with group interactions. The majority of TK teachers reported struggling with all teaching challenges listed in our survey.

Working Conditions in Centers and Schools

  • TK teachers were more likely to report having no planning time at all (17 percent, compared to 5 percent of center lead teachers); at the other end of the spectrum, however, they were also more likely to have five or more hours of planning time per week (35 percent, compared to 14 percent in centers).
  • Center- and home-based teachers are more likely than TK teachers to speak languages besides English, particularly Spanish. Similarly, center- and home-based teachers report fewer language barriers in communicating with children and families.
  • Educators in all settings encounter children experiencing trauma. In both centers and elementary schools, more than four out of five lead teachers feel they can turn to their director or principal for support.
  • A majority of teachers in centers and schools purchase school supplies at their own expense. TK teachers, however, spend far more: more than 23 percent spent $500 or more in the first few months of school, compared to 3 percent of center teachers. While many teachers also purchased personal protective equipment (PPE) for themselves, the majority spent no more than $100 in the same period.
  • Roughly 48 percent of TK teachers of color feel they have to work twice as hard as their peers, compared to only 38 percent of White TK teachers. Similarly, more than one third of teachers of color felt they had been watched more closely than others, compared to only 21 percent of White TK teachers. In these two cases, the gap between teachers of color and White teachers was greater in TK, where White teachers comprise the majority.

Compensation and Economic Well-Being

  • TK teachers earn more than double the salary of their peers with a bachelor’s degree working in other settings. The median salary for a TK teacher is $84,700. Similarly, TK teachers are more likely to have access to benefits like retirement and health insurance. In retirement savings in particular, center- and home- based educators lag far behind both TK teachers and average Californians with a bachelor’s degree.
  • Most center-based educators with any healthcare coverage enroll via their employer, though 23 percent of center lead teachers rely on the plan of a spouse or other family member. By comparison, virtually all TK teachers have access to an employer-sponsored plan, and a strong majority (87 percent) of them ultimately enroll that way. FCC providers do not have the option of employer- sponsored coverage, so they also frequently rely on the plan of a spouse or other family member (38 percent).
  • Compared to other ECE teachers, TK educators are more likely to own their homes, maintain food security, and hold less student loan debt than center- and home-based educators.
  • A minority of teachers with a bachelor’s degree could pay for a $400 emergency expense outright (18 percent of FCC providers, 15 percent of center teachers, and 23 percent of TK teachers), compared to 48 percent of working Californians with the same level of education.

Policy Recommendations

  1. Continue the redesign of California’s public ECE funding to cover the true cost of care; simultaneously, continue advancing towards a truly universal ECE system for children birth to age five.
  2. Design policies that unify and uplift, rather than distinguish and separate, teachers in TK, centers, and FCCs. In particular, design policies that achieve parity in compensation and benefits across settings.
  3.  Ensure that early educators with a bachelor’s degree—particularly with a major in early childhood education or child development—can move freely between ECE settings by minimizing barriers to hiring eligibility. In hiring for TK, honor the expertise of California’s longest-serving preschool teachers: the workforce in FCCs and centers.
  4. Fund career pathways into the ECE field that support teachers who reflect the diversity of California’s children, including educators who start out as teaching assistants. Allocate funding to analyze and support the burgeoning assistant teacher workforce in TK.
  5. Gather data on the quality of healthcare plans and other benefits available to the ECE workforce.
  6. Allocate public funding to evaluate the impact of TK expansion on the broader ECE system in California. Assess and address inequities in the system—both for children enrolled and teachers employed.
  7. Expand investments in programs that support the economic well-being of the workforce: for instance, facilities grants for FCC providers and Credential Fee Support for TK teachers.

Suggested Citation

Powell, A., Montoya, E., Austin, L.J.E., Kim, Y., Muruvi, W., & Copeman Petig, A. (2023). Teachers of Preschool-Age Children in California. Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley.

Photo by: Brittany Hosea