Early Educators Need Improved Working Conditions to Advance Children’s Development

Early educators play a fundamental role in the environments in which millions of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers develop and learn. Yet our current system of preparing, supporting, and rewarding early educators in the United States poses a number of obstacles for teachers to nurture children’s development and learning, as well as risks to their own individual well-being.

Economic insecurity, linked to low wages, remains endemic among those who care for and educate young children from birth to elementary school. This finding is demonstrated by our recent report, the Early Childhood Workforce Index. Early educators are among the lowest-paid workers in the country. As of 2015, the median hourly wages for child care workers range from $8.72 in Mississippi to $12.24 in New York. Nationwide, the median wage is $9.77. Preschool teachers fare somewhat better: wages range from $10.54 in Idaho to $19.21 in Louisiana. In contrast, the median national wage for kindergarten teachers is $24.83.

A major goal of early childhood services has been to mitigate poverty among children, yet many of these same efforts continue to generate economic hardship in the predominantly female, ethnically and racially diverse ECE workforce, especially for educators who have children of their own. Nearly one-half of child care workers (46 percent), compared to 26 percent of the U.S. workforce, are part of families that participate in at least one public assistance program, such as Medicaid or food stamps.

Low wages and economic insecurity for early educators have persisted over time, despite a much-altered landscape in which developmental scientists, economists, and business and labor leaders have widely recognized the importance of early care and education in shaping children’s development, promoting the health of families, and building a strong economy. This changing landscape has also led to increased recognition of the knowledge and skills required to facilitate early learning.

Educators’ abilities to apply their knowledge and skills and to continue to hone their practice require a work environment that supports their ongoing learning and professional activities, and offers dependable benefits that ensure their well-being. Yet compared to K-12 teachers, early educators receive lower earnings, fewer workplace benefits such as health insurance and retirement contributions, and fewer professional supports such as paid planning time. The result of low pay and status among early educators is economic stress, high turnover, and difficulty retaining and recruiting the skilled, experienced workforce necessary to help children learn.

State policy: compensation strategies and public investment in ECE

State policies are largely at a standstill in addressing low pay and poor working conditions in the early care and education sector, the Early Childhood Workforce Index shows. A few states have developed policies requiring salary parity for teachers in state-funded pre-K programs compared with K-12 teachers, but these represent only a small portion of the wider workforce working with children age birth to five. Other states have implemented short-term solutions by supplementing early educator pay with stipends and tax credits.

Much of the problem lies in the way that early care and education is currently structured and funded. Compared with K-12, per-child service costs are higher in ECE because lower child-teacher ratios are critical to facilitating young children’s learning and development. Yet K-12 is largely taxpayer-funded, while ECE relies heavily on parental fees. Currently, no state spends the same or more per-child on pre-K services compared with K-12.

What can business leaders do?

Ultimately, the goal of securing high-quality learning for all children from birth onward will require sufficient investment in the sector to recruit and retain a skilled workforce with adequate compensation and supports for instruction, similar to K-12 teachers.

Business leaders are well-positioned to champion young children’s learning and advocate greater investment of public and private dollars in how we prepare, support, and compensate those responsible for their care and education as a strategy to build a strong, future workforce. Corporate leaders can make the case by highlighting the costs of failing to invest sufficiently in early care and education. They can assist families in their own companies and communities by sharing information and supporting greater investments in quality early learning services that also ensure improved education and economic prosperity for their children’s teachers. The business community can play a pivotal role in redefining and re-imagining the value and skill required to teach young children, as well as garnering the necessary support from policymakers and others to align the importance of early educators’ work with the quality of their jobs.