Preschool Teachers Earn Less Than Tree Trimmers

Science says early learning is crucial, but teacher pay suggests otherwise.

Preschool students cover their teacher with a confetti egg in Washington state, where preschool teachers make an average of $27,810 a year, according to a new report. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

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.

“People tend to think of this as unskilled work,” Whitebook said, “when in fact the work of facilitating the education and development of babies is every bit as complex as working with kindergartners.” The low pay, she added, means that some teachers are under stress, which can make it harder to engage with children. “Nobody working with young children should be worrying about feeding their own families.”

Beyond that, Whitebook’s research suggests that when wages are better, particularly for childcare providers who have invested in a college degree , the quality of the teachers increases, turnover decreases, and, most importantly, the quality of care and education that kids receive goes up. Yet, as the report outlines, only a slight majority of caregivers and teachers in center-based settings and not quite a third in home-based settings have an associate’s degree or more. “You can’t separate the preparation, the reward, and the support of the workforce from the quality of care that children receive,” she said. “They’re inseparable.” Right now, what teachers earn has little to do with their qualifications and a lot to do with where they work and how old the children are, so there’s little incentive to pursue higher education and those who do often leave the field for something more lucrative.

Research indicates that children who have quality opportunities to learn in the early years not only do better in school, but are more likely to have successful careers later, and even to be healthier as they age. And the need for these programs is greater than ever. More children are growing up in either homes where both parents work or single-parent homes than in previous generations. More than 11 million of the 23.7 million children under age 6 in the U.S. live below 200 percent of the poverty line, meaning that without early-childhood education, they are likely to start kindergarten already behind their more affluent peers.

“Undervaluing the nation’s early childhood educators flies in the face of what we know about brain development and the optimal time for learning,” Education Secretary John King said in a statement. “Educating children before kindergarten requires significant knowledge, expertise, and skill—especially in light of the critical importance of the early years for children’s growth, development, and future academic and life success.”

There’s certainly robust debate about what constitutes “quality.” Dale Farran, a professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, caused an uproar in the education world last year when she published a groundbreaking study calling into question the long-term benefits of some preschool programs. But Farran wasn’t saying preschool is bad. In fact, Farran is perfectly open to the idea that quality preschool programs do offer lasting benefits. Separate research indicates that schools with small teacher-to-student ratios that follow curriculum specifically developed to increase things like language development and cognitive skills have very real impacts. But she wants policymakers and other advocates to do their research before throwing money at programs that aren’t thoughtfully designed. One factor that helps explain why the country doesn’t have enough quality programs is, as this new report suggests, its failure to effectively cultivate or compensate a cadre of early-childhood educators who are prepared to offer quality instruction. Whitebook is careful to say that many childcare workers care deeply about children and are doing the best they can with the resources they have. But, she said, “it’s really hard if you don't understand children and what you can do in that situation to support their development.”

So how does the U.S. foster a better-trained workforce when pay is so low, funding so limited, and general respect for the industry so lackluster? “It’s a real problem,” said Allison Friedman-Krauss, an assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research. But Whitebook thinks increasing pay would go a long way toward upping the quality of the care and education young children receive. “If you changed the pay, you’d have the people,” she said. But she’s wary of changes that don’t preserve the diversity of early-childhood education. Right now, many childcare providers are women of color and many speak languages besides English, something that is increasingly important as the nation’s children become more diverse.

Whitebook’s team will soon release a separate report that looks at how each state is doing in terms of promoting and funding early-childhood education. While some are doing a reasonable job, she said, no single state is making headway on all of the indicators her team tracked. And even at the colleges and universities that train educators, she said, early childhood is seen as lowly, and departments tend to have more adjunct professors than other fields. (“Oh you’re the people in the childcare center!” she said she’s heard colleagues quip.) But she’s hopeful that’s “starting to change.” More people are at the very least concerned about early-childhood education, she said. Now, the trick is to transform that concern into policies that promote early childhood as a career path that is more than a ticket to poverty.