The Solution for the Workforce Dilemma is the Public Schools

The second post in the series Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators
Blog Post
Feb. 6, 2018

To facilitate interaction among ideas presented in Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators, Series Editor Stacie G. Goffin provides opening comments. For readers new to the Series, her introduction explains the Series' intent.

Jason Sachs' assumes a different position from the first post on the interplay among preparation and education, compensation and status, and diversity and inclusivity. Rather than focusing on the comprehensive supports early childhood educators -- both teachers and program administrators -- need to improve their level of education and be recognized financially, he argues for a targeted focus on preschool teachers and a change agent role for the public schools.

Albert Einstein is credited with exclaiming “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” I think most of us who follow the early care and education field (ECE) would agree that neither wages nor education have changed substantially in 25 years. According to the Early Childhood Workforce Index from 2016, only 35% of center based teachers have a Bachelor's degree or higher and 65% of lead teachers in these same programs earn less than $15 an hour.

The tragedy continues when we know:

  • Americans agree, according to polls by Atlantic Media and elsewhere, that we should have a well trained and compensated workforce to compete internationally.
  • Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that having a higher education degree is associated with improved prosperity.
  • A recent paper from the Brookings Institution showed there is consensus among early childhood education researchers that a strong connection exists between the quality of instruction and student outcomes.
  • Teaching is hard. National studies show teacher instruction, based on measurements of teacher-child interactions, is not at the level necessary for facilitating desired student outcomes, according to researchers at the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.

Given that most Americans seemingly are in agreement that we ought to have an educated and compensated workforce, why are so few preschool* teachers well educated or compensated?

ECE’s challenge comes from its ambivalence regarding who defines and sets policy and who defines what preschool is as a field of practice. Whether preschool should be designed for educational purposes i.e., for closing the achievement and opportunity gap, to promote children’s social skills, or to help parents participate in the workforce is repeatedly debated. Yet, if preschool were part of the public schools, this debate — both in terms of policy and expected child outcomes — would largely be resolved because the public education system has a defined set of educational requirements and expected student outcomes. In contrast, when society primarily views preschool in terms of children’s social development or as a support for working families, what the market can afford defines teachers’ educational requirements and compensation, which in turn affects our workforce’s diversity.

The U.S. has a hybrid model comprised of public systems and fee-paying parents, both of which are currently defining preschool’s purpose. Given their differences, these co-existing systems often are confronted with the nasty, unintended consequence of having to pit program quality against access.

To resolve this challenge, I propose that policy makers and advocates agree to make preschool for three- and four-year-olds a public educational right or “good,” shifting it entirely to the public education system. This would establish a policy mandate to educate all Americans, preschool through 12th grade. This decision alone would raise preschool teachers’ pay to s to $27 an hour, matching what kindergarten teachers earn, according to 2016 data from the Early Childhood Workforce Index.

This doesn’t mean public schools would have to become the sole delivery system for preschools. What would be obligatory, though, is for public school funding sources and quality assurance policies to be applied to all early childhood providers, especially in terms of degrees, certification, special education, compensation, and access. In Boston, for example, we are developing a mixed delivery system involving public schools and community based programs. As a result, all preschool teachers are earning the same starting salary as public school teachers. They are required, though, to use the same curricular materials and receive coaching. Further, this program increases assistant teachers’ and center directors’ salaries.

I realize our public schools have many critics, and acknowledge that as currently constructed, they are not optimally designed for educating students from preschool to third grade. Knowing this, my proposal requires public schools to develop stronger out-of- school time options, strengthen the PreK-3rd grade curriculum, and support families to a much greater degree than they currently do. In the case of a mixed delivery system, public schools would also have to develop improved partnerships with community- based providers and create meaningful linkages between curriculum and professional development supports.

Yet the benefits have the potential to be transformative for all ECE stakeholders as additional resources become available for birth to three programs, and vertical alignment would be greatly strengthened between preschool and early elementary school. While partnerships with public schools may be unsettling for providers who currently lack a relationship with school districts, I would point out that the current system has done little to meaningfully elevate compensation and educational attainment over the last 25 years.

Dramatic change is needed. Every year we wait, we are sentencing students and teachers to an academic and economic life trajectory that threatens our country's ability to compete successfully in a global market. If we make this bold change, I believe our focus can at last shift to where it belongs — to student instruction, public school reform, and pathway degree programs for preschool teachers in community based programs. While this may create a hardship for teachers lacking degrees (and unintentionally threaten the diversity of the ECE workforce), over time, as more and more students succeed in school, ECE will at last find itself celebrating, rather than defending, wise investments in its work.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of his organization.

*Note: New America typically uses the term “pre-K” to mean all early learning experiences in classroom settings for 3- and 4-year-olds, but “preschool” was the term desired for this post by Sachs and series editor Stacie Goffin.

Related Topics