Surprising Results in Study of Child Care Hiring Practices

Applicants with higher levels of education and experience less likely to earn an interview
Blog Post
May 22, 2017

Imagine you’re applying for a teaching position at a child care center. You have a college GPA of 3.8, two years’ previous teaching experience with a well-regarded program, and a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. You’d have to feel pretty confident in your chances of being called in for an interview, especially considering the fact that you’re competing against other candidates with less education and experience.

New research suggests your confidence might be unfounded. A study published by the Institute of Labor Economics has turned up several surprising facts about what child care directors look for in teaching applicants.

For one, it turns out that your bachelor’s degree, stellar GPA, and years of experience teaching in a high-quality setting actually make you less likely to be called in for a job interview. The study also finds evidence of racial bias in hiring: applicants with predominantly black- or Hispanic-sounding names were less likely to receive an interview request compared to candidates with the same qualifications who possess a white-sounding name.

Researchers for the study sent out just under 11,000 fictitious resumes in response to about 2,700 child care job ads in 14 major cities across the country. The cities were chosen because they represent urban areas that are demographically and geographically diverse and located in states with a mix of early childhood education (ECE) regulatory environments. The resumes were sent in response to job postings for lead teachers as well as assistant teachers and aides in classrooms with children ranging in age from birth to five years. The postings included teacher positions in Early Head Start and Head Start.

The researchers submitted four resumes in response to each job advertisement. The fake resumes varied by work experience (none, six months’, or two years’), education level (high school diploma, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree), and the GPA earned for the degree attained (2.8, 3.3, or 3.8). In order to test for racial bias, the researchers used applicant names that are predominantly black- , white-, or Hispanic-sounding.

The results of the study are surprising on a number of levels. For example, center directors prefer to hire teachers who have some prior ECE experience, but not too much.

There seem to be decreasing returns to ECE experience - applicants with six months or two years of experience were much more likely to receive an interview request than applicants with no prior experience, but applicants with two years’ experience were actually less likely to receive an interview request than applicants with only six months of experience.

And the study found that where that prior experience was earned doesn’t seem to matter to employers; providers were indifferent to whether ECE experience was gained by supervising children while parents exercised at the local YMCA or by teaching in a well-regarded early learning center, such as Primrose School (a national family of early care and education providers that the study authors consider high-quality).

When it comes to applicant education, the results suggest that directors prefer applicants with more than just a high school diploma. However, what’s surprising is that applicants with a bachelor’s degree were no more likely to receive an interview than those with only an associate’s degree.

This pattern of center directors sticking to the middle when it comes to desired qualifications holds for applicant GPA as well. Applicants with a 3.3 GPA were more likely to receive an interview request than those with a 2.8 GPA and those with a 3.8 GPA.

Perhaps the most troubling finding of the study was the level of racial bias found in hiring practices for child care centers. While applicants with predominantly black- or Hispanic-sounding names were considerably less likely to receive an interview request than whites, black applicants in particular were burdened by their presumed ethnicity. In fact, applicants with black-sounding names were about 32 percent less likely than whites to receive an interview, while those with Hispanic-sounding names were 13 percent less likely.

What are some possible reasons why center directors might be less likely to hire applicants with more experience and higher levels of education? It’s possible that center directors don’t believe that the most credentialed applicants will necessarily provide higher-quality care.

The study’s authors conclude that much of the explanation likely lies in the difficult financial considerations directors must make. Yes, directors want their programs to offer a high-quality learning experience, but they must weigh this desire against the need to earn enough revenue to stay open. A job applicant with a bachelor’s degree and two years of prior teaching experience is likely to require a higher starting salary than someone with an associate’s degree and six months of experience.

Simply put, a more experienced and educated applicant might be seen as too expensive to employ. While providers want to provide the best care and education possible, they also have to be able to pay the bills at the end of the month.

States can ease some of the financial pressure on center directors by increasing the reimbursement rates providers receive for serving families receiving child care assistance. In 2016, only one state (Oregon) set its reimbursement rates at the 75th percentile of the 2016 market rate compared to 22 states who met this threshold in 2001. Low reimbursement rates make it less likely for providers to offer slots to families using subsidies since the reimbursement received per child is often much lower than the actual cost of care.

As the early education movement continues to increase the educational requirements of teachers serving young children, the financial pressure on center directors is likely to increase as a better-educated workforce rightfully demands higher wages. This study provides reason to believe that limited funding is incentivizing directors to hire less experienced and less educated staff.

A committee under the auspices of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is currently conducting a study about how to fund early care and education in a way that supports a well-educated workforce that provides high-quality care and instruction to young children. For more on efforts to improve the birth-through-third grade workforce, check out New America’s Thriving Workforce, Thriving Early Learners series.