Why Our Early Childhood Educators Deserve Better
Yvonne Atkinson knows toddlers. She understands where they’re at developmentally, how to cultivate their listening skills, and when they just need some unstructured playtime. When Kidsburgh asked Pittsburgh families to identify five exceptional early childhood educators, Atkinson—programs manager at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh—came out on top. No surprise, given her 45 years of experience as a beloved teacher.
Fred Rogers identified early on what helps children thrive. He said, “It’s through relationships that we grow best and learn best.” And early childhood educators like Atkinson are some of our children’s earliest and most important caring relationships that nurture healthy development.
Yet, often in the United States, our policies don’t reflect this value. In 1989, the National Child Care Staffing Study revealed the meager wages of early childhood education careers and the consequences on children’s learning and development. Recently, researchers at the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) revisited the seminal study to see what has changed in the past quarter century. It turns out what could have been a call to action ended up serving mostly as a forecast for the future. The new report, called “Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages,” finds persistent economic insecurity in the early childhood education workforce and proposes a new policy approach to combat it.
Some things have changed in the past couple decades. Since 1997, early childhood care costs have nearly doubled. The workers have become more educated, with many like Yvonne Atkinson obtaining college or graduate degrees. But the pay has remained dismal. Wages for preschool teachers have gone up by 15 percent, but center-based child care wages have barely changed, the report finds. In addition, the new CSCCE report finds nearly one-half of all early childhood educators—compared with one-quarter of the US workforce at large—are from families enrolled in government assistance programs like food stamps or Medicaid. The largely female workforce also has its own kids to raise. According to the report, “Many in the early childhood workforce worry about being able to feed their families and rely heavily on public supports despite the fact that they may have attained postsecondary degrees and certificates.”
Although wages haven’t improved much since the original 1989 report, our knowledge of child development has. Thanks to cutting-edge developmental science, we know kids’ brains are malleable. “On the positive side, it means that young children’s brains are more open to learning and enriching influences,” wrote Zero to Three. “It also means that young children’s brains are more vulnerable to developmental problems should their environment prove especially impoverished or un-nurturing.”
And the report finds there are consequences of these conditions on early education teachers too. Teachers who experience chronic stress, may not, write the authors of the report, have the “capacity to support the learning and behavioral growth of young children.”
The authors of the research update offer suggestions for policies supporting early childhood educators. Among them: creating a sustainable public funding source to raise wages and implementing a standardized set of guidelines to determine regional wages and salary increases. Another prospect is to create a form of wage insurance that all low-income workers could benefit from.
This time around, the authors hope the bleak picture they’ve painted inspires political and social movement. They write, “This reality calls for a major restructuring of how we finance and deliver early care and education in the United States.”
As the New America Foundation’s Laura Bornfreund writes at the Atlantic, “Those moments in the sandbox are essential to helping children get the right start in life. But without compensation and better benefits, adults with the skills and motivation needed for good teaching will not be attracted to the profession, and those who are already in the job will continue to be unable to afford the training that might improve their skills. And America’s children will continue to lose out.”