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Increasing Early Childhood Teachers' Education, Compensation, and Diversity

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

Earlier this year, I visited a magnet high school that offered a four-year course of study for students interested in early childhood education (ECE). In addition to classes, they get experience working at an on-site pre-K classroom. Those who excel in the program can receive college credits or a Child Development Associate credential for entry-level early childhood educators.

The students, all of whom were Latina, were clearly passionate about early learning and development. This is what we desperately need in this field: a strategy to expose intelligent, motivated, and young people of color to early childhood education.

Yet, I couldn’t help but think: If they choose ECE as a career, I hope they get a four-year college degree. It’s just one ingredient that contributes to an effective and well-compensated ECE teacher. But without one, it’s unlikely anyone joining this profession would earn a salary that provides a living wage, much less a middle-class livelihood.

To understand what I mean, it’s worth pausing and taking a look at the changing ECE landscape. Increasingly, policymakers, parents, and early childhood teachers themselves accept the notion that ECE professionals should be well-educated and have rigorous preparation. In the last 10 years, for instance, policies in Head Start and many state pre-K programs have required these teachers to obtain bachelor’s degrees with specialization in ECE. In 2015, this trend culminated in the release of “Transforming the Workforce,” a report from the National Academies that recommended that all lead teachers of children from birth through age 8 obtain at least a bachelor’s degree with specialized early childhood competencies. The report also called on all levels of government to invest in pathways to help existing and new teachers reach that goal. (Full disclosure: I was part of the committee that produced the report.)

Some in the field have raised the concern that requiring early childhood teachers to get four-year degrees would push out teachers of color and threaten the racial and linguistic diversity of the workforce. Critics believe that such policies privilege those who have the resources to gain access to and complete higher education, while shutting out otherwise talented educators, especially teachers of color. Still others see the calls for “professionalizing” the workforce as devaluing decades of experience, competencies, and relationships with families and communities that less-educated teachers sometimes have. These critics also worry that this trend is part and parcel of the history of displacement, from public schools to housing, in communities of color that has come about in the name of “progress.”

These concerns forced me to question my beliefs about the benefits of a college education for ECE professionals, as well as diversity and equity. In the final analysis though, I maintain that a four-year degree should be the standard for ECE teachers and that such a policy can be compatible with the goal of fostering a racially and linguistically diverse workforce, one that reflects the demographics of the children and families it serves.

Let’s start with the evidence. What do we know about the relationship between increasing education requirements and the racial demographics of early childhood teachers? Systematic research is limited, but there are some interesting patterns. A study of center-based child care programs found that between 1990 and 2012, the proportion of teachers with bachelor’s degrees increased from just above 40 percent to more than 50 percent. At the same time, there was a decline in the proportion of African-American teachers and an increase in Hispanic teachers.

Also, as part of a school funding lawsuit, the New Jersey Supreme Court mandated in 2000 that all lead pre-K teachers who worked in the state’s lowest-income districts had to obtain a bachelor’s degree by 2004. By 2006, the percentage of teachers with BA degrees in these districts went from 35 percent to 97 percent. From 2003 to 2006, the best available data showed that the proportion of African-American teachers decreased by 9 percent while Hispanic teachers increased by 5 percent.

Finally, Head Start has made considerable investments in teacher training and education and supported articulation agreements to help educators obtain BA degrees. According to the Program Information Reports, the proportion of lead teachers with at least a BA degree increased from 44 percent in 2009 to 73 percent in 2016. During that same period, the national percentage of both white and Hispanic “child development staff” inched up 2 to 3 percentage points, while the proportion of African-American staff decreased by 2 percentage points. When changes in individual Head Start programs were analyzed, one study found that increasing staff’s education levels to a bachelor’s degree was associated with a slight increase in white staff and modest decreases for both African-American and Hispanic staff.

Of course, these data reflect correlations, not causation. What’s more, it’s unclear the extent to which existing educators are obtaining higher degrees and staying in their positions, or if current teachers are being displaced by more educated, but potentially less experienced, teachers. Even so, it’s fair to say that the concerns about creating a less diverse workforce are real.

And there’s another question at play here: How would teachers of color who obtain higher degrees fare in terms of compensation? On average, ECE teachers who have a bachelor’s degree do get paid more than those who don’t, regardless of funding stream or age group. For these professionals, a college education could be the difference between living in near-poverty or a living wage. In fact, one analysis showed that, among early childhood educators with bachelor’s degrees, there is no wage gap among different racial groups when other factors, like geography, years of experience, and age group served, are taken into account. That is, attaining a four-year college degree appears to minimize the racial gap in wages in the ECE field.

Even with a BA degree, though, the typical center-based teacher only earns about $30,000 in annual income—less than 200 percent of poverty for a family of three and just a little over half of what an elementary school teacher earns. And while Head Start teachers’ education levels have increased, their wages have stagnated since 2007. Compared to other workers, ECE professionals who earn a four-year degree do not get as high of a return on their investment. That’s why any advocacy to increase teachers’ level of education must also identify ways to improve compensation.

So if we don’t support and incentivize ECE teachers to obtain higher degrees and credentials, are we relegating a workforce made up disproportionately of women and minorities to low wages, with limited opportunities for advancement? Wouldn’t that also be an inequitable outcome? And how many college-educated minority students is the ECE field turning away because they can’t afford to be an early childhood teacher?

Or, put another way: Couldn’t a drive to increase educational attainment AND compensation be a strategy to recruit and retain a diverse workforce?

We can do this. States and communities have helped teachers with diverse backgrounds obtain higher education by investing in strategies like peer support programs, scholarships and grants, articulation between two-year and four-year colleges, and ways to give current teachers credit for their experience and competencies. It’s time to press for a more robust public investment strategy that supports higher levels of education, increases compensation, and preserves and grows the profession’s racial and linguistic diversity at the same time. The future of the early education profession shouldn’t be a choice between a well-paid, predominantly white workforce that has high levels of education, and one that is cash poor, less educated, but rich in diversity.  


Albert Wat is Senior Policy Director of the Alliance for Early Success.