This week, the White House Council on Women and Girls gathered activists, celebrities, and leaders across sectors for the United State of Women Summit to address some of the most pressing issues facing women today, including education, violence, health, and economic empowerment. The conversation around economic empowerment focused on barriers to full workforce participation and wage parity -- issues that are also receiving abundant attention in the early childhood education field, where 97 percent of the workforce is made up of women.
In 32 states, early child care workers earn below the federal poverty line for a family of three, according to a new report from the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. This finding has significant implications for the quality of early childhood programs. As studies continue to show the benefits of early childhood education (ECE) for children and the country as a whole, researchers have also worked to uncover the most effective components of high-quality early learning experiences. Increasingly, their results suggest a strong link between job quality and outcomes for children. Unfortunately, the current landscape of early childhood programs and policies is a disconnected patchwork unable to fully support families and teachers. As research continues to highlight issues in ECE teachers’ work environments, policymakers are faced with crafting effective solutions.
In a recent report, Quality Jobs, Quality Care, The Century Foundation (TCF) offers a multi-pronged strategy for policymakers to address some of the workforce’s most pressing needs. According to the report, high quality early childhood education is accomplished through a well-compensated, appropriately educated, diverse, and culturally competent workforce.
Wage gaps at all levels of the workforce are striking. In context of the entire economy, average wages for childcare workers (about $10.47) fall below 97 percent of all occupations. Moreover, pre-K teachers also earn far below their counterparts in K-12 classrooms. While debates over fair compensation for teachers resonate throughout the education space, pre-K teachers earn among the lowest wages in the field. The median salary of pre-K teachers is $28,750 compared to $51,640 for kindergarten teachers (a state-by-state table is available here) even though their jobs are almost identical. Closing this gap is crucial to achieving economic security for pre-K teachers, which can lessen turnover and boost productivity.
An education gap is also apparent among early childhood teachers. Advocates and researchers often call for elevating the education requirements for teachers, but it’s important to consider the implications for individuals already facing barriers to higher education. The report highlights how teachers of color across all settings have lower educational attainment compared to their white counterparts: 28 percent versus 45 percent, respectively, have a bachelor’s degree or higher. One of the main goals in strengthening the workforce should be carving better pathways for all teachers to advance their careers, according to the report.
While the ECE workforce faces several equity issues, its diversity and cultural competency should be acknowledged as strengths. Forty percent of ECE teachers are people of color and 23 percent speak a language other than English, closely matching their students’ demographics--44 percent are children of color and 21 percent speak a language other than English. However, this diversity isn’t always reflected in leadership roles due to inequities in education and training required for career advancement. Creating and maintaining diversity at all levels is paramount as new generations of Americans become increasingly diverse and enter pre-K classrooms.
TCF’s strategy to strengthen the workforce involves five overarching components: increasing public investment, defining quality, promoting workforce development, creating career pathways, and achieving salary parity.
Increased investment in early childhood programs is essential for carrying out any other efforts in the field. And it’s a wise investment: for every $1 invested in early learning programs, the return is about $8.60 by some estimates. Additionally, the long-term outcomes of high-quality early childhood education could increase GDP by $210 billion. Public funding for childcare subsidies to lower- and middle-income families, along with a $15 minimum wage for teachers, could be effective first steps towards increasing access to these programs.
The current definition of quality in early childhood can also be amended to better reflect factors that contribute to quality. TCF recommends adding workforce compensation and diversity specifically. Currently, indicators from widely-used quality rating and improvement systems (QRIS), are only directly linked to compensation incentives in a few states. Most state and local QRIS include linguistic and cultural diversity indicators, but they focus on family engagement and materials rather than staff. Fortunately, more groups, like NAEYC, are beginning to focus on professionalizing the ECE workforce, which includes wage parity for teachers as essential to quality. The recent reauthorization of the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) does include compensation in its definition of quality, but TCF argues that it isn’t necessarily a requirement. Consequently, they urge states to earmark increased funds from the reauthorization for evidence-based programs that improve quality -- including compensation and diversity.
Promoting workforce development and creating career pathways can also help increase workforce diversity. Flexible development programs like T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood and Child Care WAGE$ provide opportunities for diverse groups of teachers to continue their education and increase their compensation. By meeting teachers where they are, these programs diminish barriers like time, money, family structure, and location that often hold back minority and low-income individuals.
Lastly, TCF addresses salary parity. The recommendation here is clear and simple -- all early childhood educators who meet the increasingly elevated requirements should be paid on par with their K-12 counterparts. The report cites policies in New York and New Jersey that raise salaries and include benefits and raises over time.
As discussions of women’s economic empowerment continue after the U.S. State of Women Summit, it’s important to focus not just on breaking down barriers women face in entering some occupations, but on elevating professions where women currently dominate as well. Women, particularly women of color, stand at the front lines of educating America’s youngest learners and the quality of their work should not be attenuated by economic insecurity.