Picture this: A 4-year-old is in a sandbox, running sand and pebbles through a sieve. An adult is at his side, asking him to describe the speed of the moving sand, prompting him to compare the sizes of pebbles, and introducing words like "filter," "capture," and "sort." The adult is closely observing his language development, assessing his abilities, bringing math and science into their conversations—and doing the same with 12 other children under her watch that day. By every indication, she is a teacher.

But in American society, she isn’t treated like one. Terms such as "babysitter," "caregiver," or "daycare provider" are too often the words that pop into people’s heads when they think of an adult who teaches very young children. And their pay is too often at the bottom of the income ladder, with salaries near $10 per hour. In fact, many adults working in child-care centers and other early-childhood programs make about $1 more than fast-food cooks and less than animal caretakers, according to a recent report by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.

This undervaluing of work is not just the case for infant and toddler teachers and assistants. Pre-k teachers, for instance, earn 40 percent less than kindergarten teachers, even though the demands of the job—and the education and training required—can be nearly identical. Research shows that these teachers matter a lot. The adults working in early-childhood programs set the foundation for future learning, developing essential knowledge in their young students as well as the skills, habits, and mindsets children need to succeed later in school and flourish in life. And the quality of interactions between teachers and children is especially important when it comes to sustaining the gains children make in pre-k programs.

The report, "Worthy Work, Still Unlivable Wages: The Early Childhood Workforce 25 Years after the National Child Care Staffing Study," lays bare the wide disparities in pay and benefits to teachers of children under 5 years old in the United States. And it shows the nation has made little progress in improving the pay and status of early-childhood teachers and assistants a quarter-century after researchers started examining the profession. In 1989, they earned poverty-level pay and few, if any, benefits—the same is true today. And since 1997, early-childhood teachers and assistants’ salaries have only increased by about 1 percent according to the report.

The Worthy Work study also offers new evidence that many teachers and assistants working in early-childhood programs have the kind of economic insecurity associated with near-poverty. Based on information from three national population and employment surveys, the study found that almost half of these individuals, compared with just 25 percent of the U.S. workforce, were from families enrolled in at least one of four government support programs: the Federal Earned Income Tax Credit; Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program; federal food stamps; or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. According to a survey of more than 600 early-childhood teachers—mostly working in high-quality programs—conducted for Worthy Work, nearly half worry about having enough food for their family and almost two-thirds worry about paying for housing. And these teachers often face the same challenges as workers in the retail and service sectors with last-minute schedule reductions.

The total estimated cost to the U.S. of these workers’ reliance on public supports? The authors of Worthy Work find it’s about $2.4 billion (this figure is based on yearly rate between 2007 to 2011). If early-childhood teachers were actually paid for the job they do and the education many are required to attain, increasingly an associate's or bachelor's degree, they would be better able to meet their families’ basic needs.

As it is, many early-childhood teachers are left to worry, which can lead—as it would in any sorely underpaid job—to depression and strained relationships with their own children as well as the children in their charge, some of whom may be from struggling families themselves. The authors of Worthy Work write that that "links between adversity, stress, and poor emotional-behavioral self-regulation are documented not only for children, but also for teachers, with consequences for teachers’ own physical and mental health, thus their capacity to support the learning and behavioral growth of young children."

If teachers of young children living in poverty are to help repair the damaging effects of poverty and stress on the young minds of their students, even as they enrich them, the country needs to ensure that at the very least they do not have to worry about whether or not they can feed their families. States and the federal government must make it a priority to provide good pay and benefits to workers from whom they require degrees and other credentials.  

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.


This post appears courtesy of  New America's Weekly Wonk magazine.