Early Childhood Workforce Index 2020

State Policies to Improve Early Childhood Educator Jobs

Work Environment Standards

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A good work environment requires appropriate pay, benefits, and opportunities for ongoing learning. But much more matters — policies and practices shape the climate of the workplace. Being able to depend on certain benefits, like paid time off when sick or to take care of family members, is an important contributor to a good work environment. Supports that enable good teaching practice are also critical and include:

  • Sufficient staffing;
  • Paid non-child contact time for completion of professional responsibilities and reflection with colleagues; and
  • Opportunities to provide input into decisions that affect programs, classrooms, and teaching practices.

For decades, early educators have worked in settings that undermine their physical and financial well-being and have lacked the supports necessary to engage in effective teaching (see Early Educators Routinely Lack Teaching Supports). The persistent absence of early educator voices in policy decisions contributes to these poor work environments. The COVID-19 pandemic has escalated the problem. Many educators face exposure to a deadly disease without adequate protections to prevent illness or to care for themselves if they are exposed or fall sick and face quarantine, while simultaneously being called upon to implement challenging new public health requirements and, in some cases, to facilitate remote learning while public schools are closed.1Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE). (2020, May 7). California Child Care at the Brink: The Devastating Impact of COVID-19 on California Child Care. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from https://cscce.berkeley.edu/california-child-care-at-the-brink-covid-19/; Doocy, S., Kim, Y., & Montoya, E. (2020, July 22). California Child Care in Crisis: The Escalating Impacts of COVID-19 as California Reopens. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from https://cscce.berkeley.edu/california-child-care-in-crisis-covid-19/; NAEYC (2020, July 13). Holding On Until Help Comes: A Survey Reveals Child Care’s Fight to Survive. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/our-work/public-policy-advocacy/holding_on_until_help_comes.survey_analysis_july_2020.pdf; St. George, D. (2020, August 19). “Pandemic parents: Why can child care open in schools that won’t allow classes?” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/pandemic-parents-why-can-child-care-open-in-schools-that-wont-allow-classes/2020/08/18/fad0243c-dc9c-11ea-809e-b8be57ba616e_story.html; Strategies for Children (2020, April). Childcare Provider COVID-19 Survey, [Survey Results Brief]. Boston, MA. Retrieved from http://www.strategiesforchildren.org/COVID-19/COVID19_SurveySummary.pdf.

“Lack of adult-size seating and table options often affects my ability to comfortably interact with children and causes pain for me. Emotionally I am supported by staff/peers but have very little time to effectively communicate with them, as I am typically relieving them or filling in for them.
This can lead to stress and not enough time to prepare adequately for the needs of the children as well as adults.”

ECE Assistant Teacher, 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/.

The lack of national standards for early educator work environments exacerbate these challenges.3Federal programs, such as Head Start or the Department of Defense child care program, do not include explicit standards for work environments for providers that receive their funds nor are such standards required by the federal Child Care Development Block Grant. For information on voluntary accreditation standards, see: Whitebook, M., McLean, C., Austin, L.J.E., & Edwards, B. (2018). Early Childhood Workforce Index – 2018. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from http://cscce.berkeley.edu/topic/early-childhood-workforce-index/2018/. As a consequence, it has fallen to the states to set standards, yet state-level quality improvement initiatives have consistently missed the mark when addressing workforce needs. Workforce-related standards have largely focused on increasing opportunities for education and training, with little attention paid to improving work environments and adult well-being. 

The ability of Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) as mechanisms to improve quality equitably has been questioned,4Jenkins, J., Duer, J. & Connors, M. (2021). “Who participates in quality rating and improvement systems?” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 54(1), pp. 219-227. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2020.09.005; Lieberman, A. (2017, June 2). “Even With More Research, Many Q’s Remain about QRIS,” New America, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/edcentral/even-more-research-many-qs-remain-about-qris/. yet they remain the dominant framework and strategy in states’ attempts to improve quality. As states continue to use QRIS, the indicators of quality signal what elements of quality a state prioritizes, thus, it is critical to question whether a QRIS includes key work environment standards as part of the quality framework. The inclusion of work environment standards for educators in state policy and programs is an important step for prioritizing the well-being of educators, but to be clear, indicators alone cannot be the end goal: states must ensure that child care programs have the financial resources they need to meet these standards, whether they are providing center- or home-based care. 

Additionally, the pandemic has demonstrated the critical importance of elevating health and safety provisions for the workforce. As the Index indicators were underway before the pandemic struck, we recognize now that these elements are a missing component to be considered for future assessments.

Key Issue

Early Educators Routinely Lack Teaching Supports

CSCCE’s SEQUAL studies in communities with varying contexts1To raise awareness about the urgency of addressing work environments in quality improvement strategies, our research center developed the Supportive Environmental Quality Underlying Adult Learning tool, or SEQUAL. SEQUAL captures teachers’ perspectives on their existing work environments and brings their voices into quality improvement efforts. A multi-purpose validated tool, SEQUAL addresses five critical areas of teachers’ work environments: teaching supports; learning opportunities; policies and practices that support teaching staff initiative and teamwork; adult well-being; and how supervisors and program leaders interact with staff to support their teaching practice. For more information, see: https://cscce.berkeley.edu/topic/teacher-work-environments/sequal/. have repeatedly demonstrated that educators lack a range of workplace supports that influence teaching practice:

  • Dedicated time for observation, planning, and reflection with colleagues;
  • Materials and resources; and
  • Sufficient staffing.

These teaching supports are essential for enabling teaching staff to apply their knowledge and skills. Efforts to improve or sustain program quality are undermined when such supports are missing or unreliable. Additional burdens are then placed on the already complex and demanding work of teaching, which includes responding to the varied needs of individual children.

Even in Marin County, California, one of the wealthiest communities in the country, ECE programs lack the resources to adequately support teachers. For example, only one-half (50 percent) of teaching staff reported having sufficient time each week to carefully observe children, and less than one-half (42 percent) reported that they had paid planning time during which they were not also responsible for the care of children.2Schlieber, M., Whitebook, M., Austin, L.J.E. Hankey, A., & Duke, M. (2019). Teachers’ Voices: Work Environment Conditions That Impact Teacher Practice and Program Quality — Marin County. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from https://cscce.berkeley.edu/teachers-voices-work-environment-conditions-that-impact-teacher-practice-and-program-quality-marin-county/. Under such conditions, staff must choose between trying to perform both of these tasks simultaneously during paid hours or doing their planning during unpaid hours. 

Similarly, many staff members reported lack of access to key materials and resources: 38 percent reported that equipment and materials were either not quickly repaired or replaced when broken or that they could not regularly rely on this practice; 36 percent did not have access to or could not rely on access to technology; and 41 percent reported that their program did not provide comfortable places for adults to sit and be with children or such places were not reliably provided.3Schlieber et al. (2019).

As a result of high churn in the field and inadequate public funding for ECE services, insufficient levels of staffing impact early educators’ practice and work with children in their care. In the same SEQUAL study of early educators in Marin County, slightly more than one-half (51 percent) reported staffing levels that were insufficient for providing children in their classroom with individual attention.4Schlieber et al. (2019). Additionally, more than one-fourth (27 percent) of teaching staff assessed the ability to take paid breaks during their workday as undependable, although required by law in most instances.

COVID Spotlight

Going Beyond QRIS to Improve Educator Work Environments: State Responses During COVID-19

Many early educators were already lacking access to health insurance, paid family and sick leave, and other important provisions for healthy and safe work environments even prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the pandemic struck, the lack of these provisions became even more devastating. 

From the start of the pandemic, programs struggled to access essential supplies for cleaning and sanitation as well as personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff. In a study of more than 2,000 child care programs in California in April 2020, 62 percent of programs remaining open during the pandemic had difficulty accessing these supplies.5Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE). (2020, May 7). California Child Care at the Brink: The Devastating Impact of COVID-19 on California Child Care. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from https://cscce.berkeley.edu/files/2020/05/CSCCE_California-COVID-Data-Snapshot.pdf. In a follow-up study in June 2020, 38 percent of open programs continued to face difficulties accessing sufficient PPE or cleaning/sanitizing supplies. Surveys in other states have documented similar challenges.6See, for example, The Nebraska COVID-19 Early Care and Education Provider Survey II, https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/-/media/beci/docs/provider-survey-2-080420-final.pdf.

Some states, like South Carolina,7South Carolina Child Care Early Care and Education (2020). Sanitation/Cleaning Grant COVID-19. Retrieved from https://www.scchildcare.org/media/71289/Sanitation-Clean-up-Grant-COVID-19-Final.pdf. provided grants for purchasing PPE and other supplies while other states, like Vermont, provided assistance in accessing supplies.8Vermont Department of Health (2020). COVID-19 Guidance for Emergency Child Care Services Part 2. Retrieved from https://www.healthvermont.gov/sites/default/files/documents/pdf/COVID19%20for%20emergency%20childcare%20services%2C%20Part%202%2C%204-7-20.pdf. In New Mexico, the state not only distributed PPE to early care and education programs, but also directly secured health care access for child care workers in recognition of their labor as an essential service: any uninsured child care workers or their family members who tested positive for COVID-19 became eligible to enroll in the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool (NMMIP).9New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department (2020). ECECD Begins Distributing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to Early Childhood Professionals. Retrieved from https://cyfd.org/news/news/ececd-begins-distributing-personal-protective-equipment-ppe-to-early-childhood-professionals; Dunlap, S. (2020). Childcare workers with COVID-19 can get state-funded insurance. The NM Political Report. Retrieved from https://nmpoliticalreport.com/2020/03/18/childcare-workers-with-covid-19-can-get-state-funded-insurance/. New Mexico was also one of the few states to provide bonus pay to early educators during the months of April-June 2020; see Compensation & Financial Relief.    

Despite these efforts, the difference in crisis response for ECE and K-12 has been stark.10Whitebook, M., Austin, L.J.E., & Williams, A. (2020). Is child care safe when school isn’t? Ask an early educator. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from https://cscce.berkeley.edu/is-child-care-safe-when-school-isnt-ask-an-early-educator/. Teachers in K-12 were better able to mobilize and collectively voice their needs to challenge unsafe reopening of schools, yet the needs of early educators have largely been disregarded due to a lack of collective voice. In California, for example, efforts to open K-12 schools were reversed in response to teacher outcry, but early educators are still expected to face the same dangerous working conditions K-12 teachers rallied against. In some cases, state guidance for ECE programs has been actively dismissive and even harmful, even though such guidance was later revised. For example, initial emergency child care guidelines in Illinois stated in writing that staff should use garbage bags if protective gowns were not available, in recognition of the limited funding available to support programs.11Illinois Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development. (2020). Emergency Child Care FAQs – Updated 5/11/20. Retrieved from https://www2.illinois.gov/sites/OECD/Pages/COVID-19.aspx.

Overview of State Progress on Work Environment Standards

  • Stalled: 27 states
  • Edging Forward: 10 states
  • Making Headway: 4 states
  • Not Applicable: 8 states
  • Not Available: 2 states

In 2020, the majority of states do not include key work environment standards in their QRIS (see Figure 3.6) — a reality that has scarcely improved since 2018. Change primarily occurred for center-based programs, reflecting both gains and losses across all three standards: centers saw a net increase in standards related to paid professional development time (+2 states) and paid planning time (+3 states), but a net decrease by one state for salary schedules and/or benefits. Home-based programs saw no marked change since 2018, with only one state (Pennsylvania) adding a standard for paid planning and/or preparation time. As a result, only two states improved: North Carolina advanced from stalled   to edging forward, and Wisconsin changed from edging forward to making headway . Another change since 2018 was the number of states that could be assessed based on data availability from the QRIS Compendium. Florida, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C., could not be assessed in 2018 but were assessed in 2020; all three received a status of stalled; none of them included these work environment standards in their QRIS.


Figure 3.6

Map of State Progress on Work Environment Standards, 2020

TABLE 3.3

Key to State Progress on Work Environment Standards

0-4 points per categoryStalled
5-8 points per categoryEdging Forward
9-12 points per categoryMaking Headway
FIGURE 3.7

State Progress on Work Environment Standards, 2018 & 2020

  • 24
    27
  • 10
    10
  • 3
    4
  • 10
    10
0 10 20 30 40 50
2018 2020

Note: Ten states could not be included in this assessment for one or more of the following reasons: their state does not have a QRIS; their QRIS is not administered at the state level; their QRIS is currently under development; or data for their state were otherwise unavailable through the 2019 QRIS Compendium.


Figure 3.8

State Progress on Work Environment Standards per Indicator, 2018 & 2020



State Progress on Work Environment Standards: Indicators

Indicator 1: Does a state’s QRIS include standards for paid professional development time for center- and home-based programs?

Rationale: Paid professional development enables educators to engage in reflection and collaboration with peers, which is necessary for the ongoing development of teaching practice, while receiving compensation for their time and contributions. 

Current Status Across States 

  • Fifteen states include paid professional development time as a quality benchmark for center-based programs.
  • Vermont is the only state that includes paid professional development time as a quality benchmark for home-based programs. 

Change Over Time: Since 2018, there was a net increase of two states including paid professional development time standards for center-based programs in their QRIS: while four states (Indiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Wisconsin) added standards, two states (Georgia and Pennsylvania) no longer included these standards. For home-based settings, there was no change in the states that included paid professional development time between 2018 and 2020.

“My program gives us paid planning for one hour per week. We use this time wisely but it’s still insufficient for all the required planning, paperwork, and environment changes.”

ECE Lead Teacher, New York5Quote from CSCCE survey of teachers. For more information about the study, see Whitebook, M., Schlieber, M., Hankey, A., Austin, L.J.E., & Philipp, G. (2018). Teachers’ Voices: Work Environment Conditions That Impact Teacher Practice and Program Quality — New York. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from https://cscce.berkeley.edu/teachers-voices-new-york-2018/.

Indicator 2: Does a state’s QRIS include standards for paid planning and/or preparation time for center- and home-based programs?

Rationale: Paid time for teachers to plan or prepare for children’s activities is essential to a high-quality service, but it is not guaranteed for early educators, many of whom must plan while simultaneously caring for children or during unpaid hours. 

Current Status Across States 

  • Sixteen states include paid planning and/or preparation time as a quality benchmark for center-based programs. 
  • Eight states include paid planning and/or preparation time as a quality benchmark for home-based programs.

Change Over Time: Since 2018, there was a net increase of three states including paid planning and/or preparation time standards for center-based programs in their QRIS: while four states (Arkansas, Indiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina) added standards, one state (Nevada) no longer included these standards. For home-based programs, there was an increase of one additional state since 2018: Pennsylvania now includes paid planning and/or preparation time.

Indicator 3: Does a state’s QRIS include standards for salary scales and/or benefits for center- and home-based programs?

Rationale: QRIS could be an opportunity to signal that — just like education levels — compensation and retention are important markers of quality, but not all QRIS include standards for salary scales or benefit options (e.g., health insurance, paid sick leave, family leave, vacation/holidays) as part of their ratings. Additionally, even when QRIS include such standards, they may still lack guidelines for programs about what is appropriate (e.g., salary scales that begin at a living wage rather than the minimum wage). 

Current Status Across States 

  • Twenty-one states include standards for salary scales and/or benefit options for center-based programs.
  • Eleven states include standards for salary scales and/or benefit options for home-based programs.

Change Over Time: Since 2018, two states (Arkansas and New Jersey) added standards for salary scales and/or benefits for center-based programs, while three states (Arizona, Georgia, and Oklahoma) removed such standards from their QRIS, resulting in a net loss of one state. For home-based settings, there was no change since 2018.

Policy Recs

Policy Recommendations: Work Environment Standards

The pandemic has demonstrated how varied the working conditions are across the ECE system, the hazardous conditions in which educators have been expected to work, and how far afield their conditions are from those of K-12 educators. A starting place is for federal and state agencies to adopt guidelines for model workplace standards for centers and homes. An essential next step is to provide the financial resources that programs need to implement those standards.

Actions that can be taken in this regard include:

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 of 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.

International and U.S. Models for Adopting Early Educator Work Environment Standards

More than two decades ago, early educators in center- and home-based programs led an effort to articulate standards for their work environments to support their teaching practice. Recently updated, the Model Work Standards for Centers and Homes continue to provide a vision for ensuring ECE teachers’ rights and needs are met throughout the United States.12Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) & American Federation of Teachers Educational Foundation (AFTEF) (2019). Model Work Standards for Teaching Staff in Center-Based Child Care. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Washington DC: American Federation of Teachers Educational Foundation; Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) & American Federation of Teachers Educational Foundation (AFTEF) (2019). Model Work Standards for Early Educators in Family Child Care. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley. Washington DC: American Federation of Teachers Educational Foundation. Retrieved from https://cscce.berkeley.edu/creating-better-child-care-jobs-model-work-standards/.

Internationally, the importance of teacher work environments for quality early care and education is increasingly recognized. In 2014, the International Labour Organization (ILO) published Policy Guidelines on the Promotion of Decent Work for Early Childhood Education Personnel — the first international text to specifically articulate standards for the work environments of early educators.13International Labour Office, Sectoral Activities Department (2014). ILO Policy Guidelines on the promotion of decent work for early childhood education personnel. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office. Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@ed_dialogue/@sector/documents/normativeinstrument/wcms_236528~1.pdf. In 2018, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducted the first international survey focused on the ECE workforce, including information on the quality of their work environments and work-related stress.14Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (2019). Providing Quality Early Childhood Education and Care: Results from the Starting Strong Survey 2018. Paris: TALIS, OECD Publishing. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1787/301005d1-en.

Table 3.4a

Progress on Work Environment Standards, by State, 2020 – Included in QRIS Standards



Table 3.4b

Progress on Work Environment Standards, by Territory, 2020 – Included in QRIS Standards



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