Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children
Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children

The expansion of pre-K programs around the country has raised pressing questions regarding the early education workforce: Are there enough highly skilled preschool teachers to meet policymakers’ goals? If not, how do we develop the workforce we need to meet high standards and expectations? And perhaps most vexing, what should we pay them?

As a new report says, “it is a daunting challenge to ensure that all classrooms, whether in pre-kindergarten or in older grades, are staffed by teachers who are skilled at nurturing children’s curiosity and fostering learning.”

In addition, “It is also an urgently pressing challenge, given the persistent learning gap between children living in poverty and their more advantaged peers, and the poor academic performance of U.S. students on international achievement tests.”

The report — “Building a Skilled Teacher Workforce: Shared and Divergent Challenges in Early Care and Education and in Grades K-12” – was written by Marcy Whitebook, the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, which is part of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.

One dispiriting and well-known barrier to recruiting and retaining skilled teachers is low pay.

“A vicious cycle works to maintain a public view of teaching young children as requiring less-skilled and knowledgeable instructors than teaching older children, which in turn permits ECE teachers’ low status and pay to be viewed as acceptable,” Whitebook writes.

A sampling of average salaries for workers with bachelor’s degrees in 2012 makes the grim facts plain:

– elementary school teachers earned: $56,130

– kindergarten teachers earned: $53,030

– Head Start teachers earned: $33,072

– all other early childhood teachers earned: $28,912

“Economic worry is rampant among ECE teachers,” Whitebook writes. In addition, “many of the ECE teachers who have returned to school and obtained bachelor’s degrees, as required by Head Start and some public pre-K programs, fail to garner a reasonable return on their educational investment, even if they earn more than their less-educated colleagues.”

A First-Person Perspective

“What is it like to graduate from college with the lowest-paying major?” an article in the Washington Post asks.

Completely worth it, says 23-year-old early educator Cayla Calfee, who accepts the lower pay so that she can help children thrive.

“These moments, however slight, are why Calfee keeps education theory textbooks on her coffee table. It’s why she signed up for the 12-hour workday, why her biggest splurge now is a carton of frozen yogurt,” the article says.

“The sacrifice of this lifestyle, she said, is a privilege. Not everyone can afford to be a preschool teacher.”

The article adds:

“Calfee graduated last year from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education – the major with the lowest lifetime pay, according to a new study.

“Researchers at the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project recently set out to answer: As student debt rises – and devours our wealth – how do the high school students of today, feverishly applying to colleges this fall, decide what they can afford to study?

“A college degree, in any major, significantly increases your lifetime earning potential, the study found. Some do more than others. But all do more than Calfee’s.”

The Challenges of Elevating the Profession

NIEER (the National Institute for Early Education Research) has addressed the challenges of finding and keeping skilled early educators in several blog entries.

A blog by Jim Squires, a NIEER senior researcher, addressed the debate over whether the early education and care field is a full-fledged profession.

“Certainly, we are further along the path to being recognized and valued as a profession, but now is not the time to rest. Until the field of early education and care comes to agreement on criteria for its ‘profession’ and commits to meeting exemplary standards differentiating it from a ‘job’ or ‘occupation,’ we are destined to be viewed by the public as a lesser profession and reap commensurate benefits. It’s time for us to raise the bar.”

Squires adds, “I would be remiss if I failed to mention the need for adequate resources to elevate early education and care as a profession.”

To explain what those resources are, Squires links to a NIEER blog from last year by Megan Carolan, a NIEER policy research coordinator, who notes:

“Any discussion of teacher credentials must also discuss compensation: without adequate compensation, early education programs will likely see high turnover and difficulty in recruiting the best teachers who could be paid higher in K-12 classrooms. It is also difficult to require teachers to meet higher degree requirements without increasing salary.”

Policy Solutions

The Washington Post article says, “Calfee hopes that more scholarships become available for college students who want to study early childhood education but can’t shoulder tuition costs. The work will always be a privilege, she says. It shouldn’t, however, be restricted to the privileged.”

And Whitebook, in her workforce report, writes, “What is the key to building a corps of skilled and effective teachers of young children? There is no single ingredient.”

Instead, she points to four cornerstones that “a sturdy early childhood personnel structure” should have:

– Human capital development

“In many ways, it has made sense to focus on investments in individual teacher capacity, and these continue to be necessary, especially given the low level of teacher qualifications permitted in so many programs, and teachers’ consequent low levels of education in some settings.”

– A professional development infrastructure

“Almost every state lacks a preparation pipeline for pedagogical leaders in ECE—including teacher educators, mentors and coaches, and program administrators—and thus, many who are engaged in educating and training teachers are themselves in need of opportunities for professional development.”

– Teaching context

“Greater attention should be directed to the features of ECE workplace environments that enable teachers to apply their skills and knowledge and continue to hone them.”

– System finance

“Pre-K teacher salaries that are comparable to those of K-12 teachers create a pathway to the middle class for some who choose to work with young children; they are also essential in attracting a greater number of educated and talented young people from all backgrounds, many of whom, for now, rightly view ECE jobs as a pathway to poverty.”

Whitebook calls for “bold vision, creative approaches, and sustained investment. Reducing dysfunction and promoting exemplary practices across all of these foundational areas is necessary for creating a teacher workforce that can deliver on the promise of early learning programs.”