Three Lessons for Reforming State Early Childhood Systems “In Crisis”

preschool teacherLast week, Massachusetts’ House Speaker Robert DeLeo declared his state’s early childhood workforce “in crisis.” How did he come to this conclusion? A year ago, DeLeo asked local business leaders to examine the state’s early childhood education system, and last week they released a report showing unacceptably low salaries and high turnover among early childhood educators in the state.

But Massachusetts is no anomaly. If we applied the criteria used by the Massachusetts Advisory Group to any state in the country, that state’s early childhood workforce would also be deemed “in crisis.”

So what can state legislators serious about reforming their early childhood workforce do? Past efforts to improve public pre-k programs and federal efforts to professionalize the Head Start workforce offer several lessons.

The Massachusetts report detailed a series of woes. Massachusetts early childhood workers are woefully underpaid — $22,501 or $27,500, depending on the type of program. Yet, the median wage for Massachusetts child care workers has dropped 2 percent since 2010. As a result of these low salaries, 39% of Massachusetts early childhood workers are enrolled in at least one public assistance program. The annual turnover rate is 30%.

The fragmented U.S. early childhood system is plagued by the same woes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, early educators are among the lowest-paid workers in the country. Yet, only thirteen states have increased child care workers median salaries since 2010. Nearly half of child care workers across the U.S. participate in at least one public assistance program.

According to the Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, few states have made any progress on this issue. According to their 2016 index, only seventeen states have policies or programs in place to address the problem of low wages for early educators and many of these efforts fail to meaningfully address the issue. Turnover in the early childhood education (ECE) workforce remains a major problem — some estimate the turnover rate to 30% nationally — which has detrimental effects on small children across the country since continuity is incredibly important during the early years.

In the last decade, Head Start has tried to professionalize its workforce in response to these issues. In a new Bellwether publication, we examine Head Start’s efforts and offer broad lessons which can be applied to broader state ECE ecosystems.

First, mandating increased credentials without providing comparative salaries is unlikely to professionalize or stabilize the workforce. In fact, increasing credential requirements without increasing salaries may actually increase turnover, especially in states with robust state pre-k programs. States that are serious about reforming their ECE workforce should provide wage supplements or tax credits to teachers who receive degrees. These states should also provide salary parity with public pre-k and consider providing salary parity with Kindergarten teachers. In our analysis of Head Start, turnover appeared to be the highest in states with large disparities in compensation between Head Start teachers and public elementary school teachers. This demonstrates the importance of considering early childhood workforce policies in the context of the larger ecosystem of employment options for early childhood teachers, including those in elementary schools.

Second, states must include all aspects of compensation in their efforts. Our case studies of New Jersey, New York and Alabama demonstrated that benefits, along with salary, have a major impact on the stability of the workforce. For example, in New Jersey, even though they offered comparable salaries to Head Start teachers, the state experienced relatively high turnover. This is potentially attributable to a lack of comparable benefits. Head Start teachers in community-based organizations leave to work for district programs where they can receive a pension and health benefits.

Third, states must develop systematic approaches to improve preparation for early childhood educators. Currently, little is known about the the quality of preparation offered by existing programs except that it is highly varied. As state’s increase requirements for their early childhood educators, state policymakers should review the supply and quality of teacher preparation programs in their states, and take coordinated actions to ensure that public higher education institutions offer sufficient quality preparation options to help teachers meet new requirements.

So is Massachusetts poised to adequately address its “in crisis” early childhood workforce? DeLeo and the Advisory Group have set forth a series of recommendations including reimbursing early childhood providers for obtaining credentials and supporting coordinated professional development and scholarships. DeLeo has claimed he will advocate for more funding for early childhood programs and file legislation to improve professional development for early childhood workers. Charlie Baker, the Massachusetts Governor, has outlined a budget proposal which includes some increased funding to increase pay for unionized child-care providers. These are useful first steps and other states can learn from them. But to truly improve the current Massachusetts early childhood workforce, or that of any state, a lot more aggressive — and holistic — action is required.

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