In the past several decades, advances in brain science have suggested that the learning that occurs in the first few years of a child’s life lays the groundwork for a productive adulthood. The expansion of preschool is one of the few topics where both Republicans and Democrats in Congress find common ground; while lawmakers don’t always agree on how programs should be funded or structured, the belief that good early-childhood education can help prevent later gaps in test scores and graduation rates from emerging between poor and well-off children is widely shared.
Yet most early-childhood educators still make so little money that they are eligible for public benefits, according to a new report from the U.S. Education Department and Health and Human Services. Childcare workers, nearly all of them women, earn less than tree trimmers and pest-control workers, hairdressers and janitors.
“It’s an unjust situation,” said Marcy Whitebook, the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California at Berkeley, who has been studying early childhood for four decades.
Childcare workers earn just $20,320. Preschool teachers, who typically work with slightly older children than childcare providers more broadly, and often use a particular curriculum or teaching philosophy, make an average of $28,570 a year, the report found, which is only about half of what elementary-school teachers earn. The discrepancy exists in part because the public perception of early-childhood education and the salaries of those charged with delivering it haven’t caught up to the science. Just four states— Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee—require salary parity for lead teachers in all settings, according to the report. While a number of states have passed laws requiring early-education teachers to be more educated—and while a report produced last year by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council found that the science of child development shows these teachers need as much knowledge and training as other teachers—salaries have not increased. These teachers are often seen as glorified babysitters, despite the significant importance of brain development in the toddler years.