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Making Headway: Principles & Policy Recommendations to Improve Early Childhood Jobs
First published in 2016, the Early Childhood Workforce Index was designed before the pandemic and focused on specific policies that states can change. The impact of COVID-19 on the child care system, especially for the ECE workforce, also brings attention to racial inequity within the ECE system. The twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism have given us a new understanding of the harm suffered by the women providing ECE services and the urgent need to reimagine how early care and education services are provided in the United States. The entire market-based early care and education system is profoundly flawed and needs to be redesigned. Future editions of the Index will re-examine our indicators of state progress in an effort to encourage bolder action.
In the meantime, we offer the following principles and policy recommendations as a guide to ensure that we are moving toward a system that recognizes and promotes educators’ rights:
- The right for early educators to be respected for the skilled and foundational work they do;
- The right to have just and fair compensation for their work; and
- The right to working conditions that support their overall health and well-being.
Principles for Reform
At the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE), we are committed to advancing a public system of early care and education that is equitable for children, their families, and early educators. The ECE system in the United States is not immune to structural inequalities based on gender, class, race, and language that are woven throughout our nation’s institutions and culture. The current organization and financing of early care and education poses severe risks to educators’ well-being, reinforces disparities in earnings and opportunities among educators, and hinders efforts of all educators to facilitate children’s learning. These barriers to a functioning, equitable early care and education system have only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We approach our research and analysis with a sense of urgency to support the well-being of the current ECE workforce and to inform systemic change for the incoming and future workforce. We employ five guiding principles to assess the process and impact of our own work, as well as those reforms and proposals put forth by others. We understand these principles as matters of social justice and requisite for the reform of early care and education. Each principle provides a lens through which to assess current policies and practices as well as emerging initiatives.
Amplify educators’ voices, partner on decision making: Most early educators are not represented by a professional organization or union on the job, and their voices are missing from conversations where decisions are made about policies that directly impact their practice and well-being. The field must respect educators’ perspectives, prioritize their partnership, and create conditions for their participation in the design and implementation of policies that impact them. Furthermore, it is essential to establish robust pathways for educators to assume leadership roles. We must continually assess whose voices are being heard and whose voices are absent in decision making and address the conditions that create barriers for participation.
Provide opportunity, ensure access: Barriers reside within systems, not with the individuals who encounter them. Systemic racial and gender oppression combine to create substantial gaps in college attendance and degree completion for people of color, women, and especially women of color. Within the ECE sector, these achievements impact individual factors such as job mobility, compensation, and levels of student debt acquired over time. When barriers are removed and conditions are established that facilitate college access and degree completion, early educators have graduated at higher than average rates.1Kipnis, 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 https://cscce.berkeley.edu/learning-together-a-study-of-six-b-a-completion-cohort-programs-in-ece-year-4-report/. Dedicated, sufficient resources and intentional strategies are required to create equitable opportunities and conditions that allow early educators to access and successfully pursue higher education. This is especially important as ECE systems raise qualification requirements and reward programs and individuals for attaining education.
Ensure diversity, disrupt racial stratification: Although the early educator workforce is racially and linguistically diverse, that diversity is not distributed equitably across positions within the field. Women of color are overrepresented in the lowest-paying jobs, underrepresented in leadership roles, and frequently paid unequal wages for equal work. Intentionally disrupting racial and ethnic stratification requires implementation of mechanisms that facilitate racial justice.
Ensure sustainability, dedicate sufficient funding: ECE funding must be reflective of the true cost of services and thus requires substantially increased public investment. Parents shouldn’t be expected to shoulder high costs individually, and teachers shouldn’t be expected to subsidize the system through poverty-level wages. Additional investment alone is not enough: addressing the deficiencies of the current system also requires a new ECE financing structure. ECE must be recognized as a public good and funded accordingly to ensure access for all children and families and good jobs for educators.
Establish consistency, eliminate fragmentation: Inconsistency in program standards and funding fuels the current inequitable system, reinforced by reforms that address only certain sectors of ECE. It is important to assess the impact of these changes: are they inclusive of all early educators or do they drive inequities and create greater complexity for programs and other service providers?
States have a tremendous amount of latitude in how their ECE system is organized and implemented. As a result, they have a responsibility to prioritize ECE in their state, even with limited federal resources. In line with our core principles and based on our assessment of current status, we offer specific recommendations to improve early childhood educator jobs in U.S. states and territories for each of the five policy areas of early childhood policy included in the Index.
Qualifications & Educational Supports
- Align qualification requirements, across settings, with national recommendations (i.e., the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council report Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation).
- Establish minimum requirements that reflect foundational knowledge (i.e., a Child Development Associate Credential or equivalent) for all early childhood teaching staff.
- Require a bachelor’s degree with ECE specialization and individual licensure or certification for lead teachers and program leaders, in line with what is required for teachers of older children.
- Develop strategies and ensure sufficient financial resources to disrupt systemic barriers to education and create the conditions for success in higher education. Ensure that all members of the current and future workforce have opportunities and supports to acquire education and training at no personal financial cost. These supports should begin with entry-level foundational knowledge and align with a pathway based on degree and competency requirements to facilitate attainment of associate and bachelor’s degrees. Include targeted opportunities and supports for people of color as well as individuals who speak English as a second language.
- Collect data about scholarship programs and other educational initiatives to identify disparities in access and to assess whether such programs are providing appropriate levels of support.
- As new qualification requirements are implemented, develop an intentional strategy to support the existing workforce to avoid displacing current early educators from their jobs. Provide options for members of the current workforce to maintain their employment by accounting for existing experience and by providing financial support to acquire additional education, training, or certification. Ensure adequate timelines to meet new requirements.
- Until qualifications are established in regulatory requirements, educators allocated time and resources to meet those requirements, and programs funded to pay educators accordingly, neither individuals nor programs should be penalized for failing to meet qualifications that are only recommended and not required.
Work Environment Standards
- Adopt workplace standards, such as guidance on appropriate levels of paid planning time, which are necessary for educators to engage in professional practice to support children’s learning and to alleviate conditions that cause educator stress.
- Use existing models, such as the International Labour Organization Policy Guidelines and the U.S.-based Model Work Standards for Centers and Homes.
- Develop intentional mechanisms to engage educators as influential partners in the process of developing workplace standards to ensure these standards reflect their needs and experiences.
- In partnership with educators, assess and update definitions of quality, licensing, and competencies to include adopted workplace standards, with the goal of implementing equitable standards across programs. Recognize and remedy the racial and class inequities embedded in quality rating systems by providing sufficient public funding for all programs to meet standards.
- Provide financial resources and technical assistance to enable programs to implement standards in a reasonable period of time and to sustain compliance with these standards over time.
- Require all programs that receive public funding to complete training on the standards and to complete an annual self-assessment and improvement plan.
- Identify and implement strategies for ECE teachers, faculty, quality improvement staff and other stakeholders to learn about work environment issues, including via technical assistance, professional development, and teacher and leader preparation programs.
- Establish the right of all ECE staff to organize/join a union. Unions can serve as a way for the people doing the work to monitor working conditions and can provide a safe channel to report unsafe or problem conditions.
- Ensure protections are in place for workers who report workplace or regulatory violations (e.g., California’s whistleblowing law) and that all educators are aware of and informed about their rights, including state laws around occupational health and safety.
- Regularly collect data from early educators to assess how they experience work environment standards.
- In addition, as long as educators continue to work in emergency conditions in which they are risking their lives, states should immediately provide:
- PPE and sanitizing supplies that educators need for themselves and for the children in their care;
- Free access to COVID-19 testing and priority access to vaccines;
- Guaranteed paid sick leave if educators must quarantine because of a positive test or exposure to the virus or if they become symptomatic;
- Guaranteed health coverage for educators and family members in their household; and
- Guaranteed pay of no less than the locally assessed living wage.
Compensation & Financial Relief Strategies
- Prioritize appropriate compensation — wages/salaries as well as benefits (e.g., health insurance, retirement plans) — as an essential component for rebuilding the early care and education system. Include early educators working in both center- and home-based child care settings. Educate policymakers and the public at large about the importance of better pay and benefits for ensuring a skilled and stable early educator workforce.
- Establish wage and benefit standards that: set the wage floor at the locally assessed living wage; account for job role, experience, and education levels; and calibrate up to parity with similarly qualified elementary school teachers. Ensure regular adjustments for cost of living and changes in educational attainment.
- Dedicate sufficient public funding for all programs to meet wage and benefit standards. Require and monitor adherence to those standards as a condition of the funding.
- Collect data on early educator compensation in order to identify and remedy racial wage gaps and other pay inequities, such as lower pay for infant-toddler teachers.
- Frame advocacy messages to clarify that financial relief initiatives (tax credits, stipends) are an interim strategy, not a long-term solution to achieve appropriate wages and benefits.
- Develop and commit to a plan to enact required participation in state workforce data systems by all members of the ECE workforce employed in schools, center- and home-based child care settings.
- Ensure that data systems support analysis and reporting and are used to:
- Assess the impact of policy and funding decisions on early educators;
- Inform local, state, and national ECE reform efforts; and
- Identify and remedy disparities in such areas as compensation, educational attainment, and tenure according to, for example, race, age, and geography, among others.
- Identify potential federal (e.g., Child Care Development Fund [CCDF]), state, and local funding sources and design advocacy strategies to secure funds for workforce data collection, management, and analysis.
- Ensure that workforce data collection and analysis are part of early childhood governance functions and support the integration of workforce data systems with broader early childhood data, such as licensing databases, resource and referral databases, quality rating and improvement systems, early childhood health data, and K-12 data. Prioritize workforce data system development and improvement in state CCDF plans.
- Join with other state leaders to encourage federal leaders to:
- Establish common fields to be used across datasets to ensure comparability;
- Resolve long-standing inadequacies in all federally funded datasets that include data on early educators; and
- Dedicate sustained funding for ECE workforce data collection, including a regularly implemented, national study that also provides state-level estimates.
- Identify the public funding needed at the state level to ensure ECE access for all children and families, as well as good jobs for educators.
- Estimate the true cost of services that relieve the financial burden on families while also advancing preparation, workplace supports, and compensation of the workforce. The values-based budget estimates developed by CSCCE and EPI (see Table 3.17) are a good starting point to understand likely costs at the state level.
- Determine the extent of the cost gap between existing resources and what is required to accomplish reforms.
- Create a plan for phased implementation. For example, an eight-year plan could include Phase 1: development; Phase 2: progression and learnings; and Phase 3: full implementation. Identify costs associated with each phase and incorporate data collection and analysis to facilitate learning and adjustments during the implementation process.
- Commit to securing dedicated, sustainable funds to enact reforms.
- Develop an educational campaign to assist policymakers and the public in understanding the costs of building an equitable system and the benefits of this investment.
- Support national proposals, such as a “New Deal” child care infrastructure investment, to increase the number and safety of community-based facilities. Funding for small center- and home-based programs to make needed repairs and improve ventilation is crucial to ensure a safe learning environment for children and a safe work environment for educators during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Prioritize ECE in state budgets in the absence of or in addition to increased federal funding.
A Call to Action
Changing how our nation invests in education and values its early educators is a matter of justice for educators, their own families, and the children of the families they serve. It is widely understood that public financing must be increased dramatically because services are unaffordable for families, while early educators’ low earnings undermine their own well-being and pose multiple obstacles to their ability to nurture children’s optimal development and learning.
This changing national discourse presents an unprecedented opportunity to remake early childhood jobs for the 21st century. But it likewise carries a risk that lack of clarity and timidity on the part of advocates and policymakers will squander this opportunity to uproot a centuries-long status quo that relies on the good will and sacrifice of women who care for and educate young children with far too little regard for their needs or their contribution.
Across the United States, early educators face urgent worries about food, shelter, and other basic necessities, as well as inadequate supports on the job. And this situation has only worsened in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is time to ensure that the women who bear the burden of this system every day are front and center in its transformation.
“In spite of all that we know about the importance of child development, the funding for preschool programming nationwide is abysmal. It is virtually impossible to earn a living wage as a preschool teacher or childcare worker in America, even though parents are struggling to pay the high costs of care.”Minnesota2Quote from CSCCE survey of teachers. For more information about the study, see Austin, L.J.E., Whitebook, M., Schlieber, M., & Phillip, G. (2019). Teachers’ Voices: Work Environment Conditions That Impact Teacher Practice and Program Quality – Minnesota. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from https://cscce.berkeley.edu/teachers-voices-minnesota-2018/.