GAO Report: Preschool Teachers Making Poverty-Level Wages

Blog Post
March 5, 2012

Last month, the Government Accountability Office published a report examining the compensation and credentials of teachers and child care workers in early education. While many of the findings echo long-held concerns within the early childhood world, the implications are stark: State and federal programs do not sufficiently address the problems of workforce quality for young kids.

It comes as no surprise that early childhood and education workers are dramatically underpaid. The GAO found that 61 percent of full-time early childhood workers – and 77 percent of the full workforce – earned less than $22,000 a year in 2009. That’s roughly the federal poverty line for a family of four.

And the news is even more dismal when we examine the range of incomes paid to employees in other various childcare positions. Private, home-based child care workers averaged $11,500 annually, while preschool teachers outside of public school classrooms earned $18,000 on average.

The data on salaries came from the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey (ACS), an annual survey of 3 million American households, and Head Start and Early Head Start Program Information Reports for the 2009 program year. The data are muddled regarding public school preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers – providers who typically earn higher incomes. ACS surveys include separate classifications for preschool teachers and child care staff, but do not clearly identify the distinction between the two. Neither do they make distinctions between elementary school pre-K teachers and kindergarten teachers.

Head Start workers earned slightly more than some child care workers, according to Program Information Reports submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – $28,000 annually in 2009 for teachers and $18,000 for teaching assistants. But although salaries are higher for Head Start employees than for other ECE workers, they still fall well short of the market average for similarly-educated workers. Other workers with associate degrees made $41,500 annually according to the ACS, well over the less than $30,000 for comparable Head Start teachers (34 percent of whom held an associate degree in child development).

Low pay for ECE employment is an obvious obstacle to recruiting quality employees and retaining them as early childhood educators. (To read about states’ workforce improvement plans under the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, click here.) But it also shows imbalances within the field itself. Preschool teachers and even teaching assistants surveyed earned substantially more than childcare workers.

And it’s clear from the report that the low pay, likely combined with other factors including limited opportunities in the field for professional development and career advancement, have failed to attract candidates with a strong background in early education. Of the workers surveyed by ACS, 72 percent lacked an associate degree or higher.

Even in Head Start, which has federal requirements for teacher credentials, nearly half of teaching assistants (though only 4 percent of teachers) held no degree in child development. And among those workers who did hold a bachelor’s degree (only 330,000 of the 1.8 million workers nationwide, according to the report), 93 percent of those degrees were not specifically in early education, though 29 percent were in other areas of education.

GAO cites research on worker quality indicating that education and training is a critical factor in quality improvement. So with income levels hovering close to poverty levels, and with a workforce largely undereducated in its own field, is it any wonder that program quality has suffered?

In large part, though, the report centered its attention not on its findings, but on what it couldn’t find. Gaping holes exist in early childhood workforce data, meaning that GAO – not to mention other education stakeholders interested in research on early education – lack the information they need to change workforce policies. The federal government is missing large amounts of information on ECE workers, their qualifications, and their compensation. And while states have begun to collect more of that material in recent years, their data still represent only a patchwork of the full picture.

Between fiscal years 2007 and 2010, the 37 states that GAO surveyed used at least $1.4 billion of federal Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) money and of their own funds to improve ECE worker quality. But early education workers remain untrained in the field of child development, ECE employees are distressingly underpaid, and the availability of data is spotty. Federal efforts to improve child care and early education are vital, but those efforts clearly demand a continued focus on improving training and compensation for teachers and child care workers.