By Megan Carolan, Associate Director for Policy Research
In December, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) released information from a detailed poll of Americans which found overwhelming support for early childhood education. As our colleagues at the New America Foundation noted, this poll was not the first of its kind; a number of polls in recent years have found bipartisan support from voters across the country for increased investment in the early years. However, the NAEYC results were notable for the depth of their exploration; NAEYC sought to understand current belief about the profession as well as consider strategies for attracting new educators to the field.
The report highlighted a positive perception of the role of early childhood educators. Eighty-eight percent of respondents reported that early childhood educators were “extremely” or “very” important for their local community – below only firefighters and nurses in the answer choices.
Respondents also felt that early childhood educators “play a critical role in helping children grow and develop” and defined them as compassionate, creative, and smart. They rejected the idea that early childhood education is an easy job or that teachers are equivalent to a local babysitter. Feedback from early childhood educators themselves reflect similar findings, with veteran teachers advising potential teachers that they need to love working with children and families.
In contrast to these warm and fuzzy findings about the important of teachers, compensation remains a key concern for both voters and teachers. Roughly 1 in 3 early childhood teachers would advise a potential teacher “don’t do it for the money.” Sixty-one percent of voters report that early childhood educators are paid too little, with another 18 percent indicating they don’t know. Low pay may shape employment choices; 19% of educators whose household earns under $30,000 indicate they “definitely will not continue” in this career, compared to 13% of all higher income groups. Educators were asked about several possible obstacles to pursuing a career in early childhood, ranging from navigating the process of getting a college degree to finding a job with sufficient salary and benefits. On each measure, educators of color were more likely to perceive obstacles compared to white teachers, presenting a serious challenge to the need for diversity in the classroom.
Adequate compensation and supportive work environments are essential to building a professional workforce who can best serve our youngest learners, and have a very real impact on the quality of classroom experiences. The Center for the Study for Child Care Employment (CSCCE) revealed in a recent report the range of stressors early childhood teachers face, from economic hardship to unsupportive work environments. Particularly troubling is the findings that these professionals had high levels of depression and anxiety; depression in early childhood teachers have been linked to less sensitive interactions with their students, a key feature of a high-quality classroom.
How can we as a field respond to the compensation question? Improving teacher compensation and increasing teacher education requirements tend to go hand in hand. More than half of veteran early childhood teachers surveyed felt an excellent educator in their field should have an academic background in child development, but were not in agreement about the specific degree required. When voters were asked essentially whether educator requirements should be increased before pay improves, or if salaries should be improved to attract teachers with higher credentials, voters were nearly equally split.
I have written before about the interplay between salary and credentialing in pre-K and Head Start programs, including staff turnover; New York City’s pre-K expansion also highlighted the issue, with teachers leaving private settings in order to access higher wages at public settings in the same program. These are not easy issues to address, but it is clear that progress for children can stall if we ignore staffing issues at the systems level.