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Low Pay, High Attrition Rates Plaguing Day Care, Study Finds

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Low teacher salaries and high turnover rates are undercutting the supply and quality of day-care and Head Start programs in New York City, according to a study that experts say underscores an alarming national pattern.

The city's publicly funded child-care programs "are being strangled by an inability to recruit and retain qualified teachers,'' says the study by the Bank Street College of Education.

"The problem has reached a level where it presents disastrous consequences for both the supply and quality of these programs,'' concludes the report, "Who Is Teaching? Early Childhood Teachers in New York City's Publicly Funded Programs.''

New York is one of many cities across the nation in which growing numbers of working parents are finding it increasingly difficult to find child care outside the home. The shortage comes at a time when education and business leaders are stressing the importance of high-quality early-childhood programs in preventing academic and social problems among disadvantaged children.

Child-care experts say that New York City's problems in attracting and retaining qualified early-childhood teachers are typical of those faced by other parts of the country--and may even be less severe. Because its system of publicly funded child care is one of the most extensive and its salaries are well above the national average, "New York City is better off than a lot of other places in the country,'' said Marcy H. Whitebook, project director for the National Child Care Staffing Study, a survey of day-care employment patterns being conducted in five cities.

"It is among the best off in the country--which gives you some indication of just how bad the situation is elsewhere,'' she said.

The Bank Street study is "the first really systematic look in a community that provides documentation on the extent of the problem,'' said Barbara Willer, director of information services for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The $80,000 study was conducted by Robert C. Granger, a senior policy analyst at Bank Street, and Elisabeth Marx, a research associate. It was funded by the Ford Foundation.

Salaries, Benefits Cited

According to Paul Larsen, acting deputy commissioner of New York City's agency for child development, the city has the capacity to serve about 43,400 children in day-care programs funded through city, state, and federal sources, and 11,600 children in the federally funded Head Start program.

Another 3,900 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs in the public schools through the city's Project Giant Step. All three programs are targeted at low-income children.

According to the Bank Street study, which was based on a sample of 559 teachers from the three programs, about 27 percent of the teacher positions in day care and 13 percent of those in Head Start were vacant in December. The researchers also found that each year about 20 percent to 25 percent of the teachers in both programs quit.

The study attributes the high attrition to low salaries, which they say prompt day-care and Head Start teachers to seek more lucrative jobs, often in the public-school programs.

Although teachers in New York City's day-care and Head Start programs are required to have the same certification as those in public-school early-childhood programs, the researchers note, they are paid considerably less.

According to the study, the average salaries for certified day-care and Head Start teachers are $19,365 and $19,108, respectively, while early-childhood teachers employed by the city board of education earn an average salary of $33,303.

The study also notes that health-insurance coverage and other benefits are substantially better in the public-school programs.

Mr. Larsen said the disparity in pay and benefits, coupled with an expansion in Project Giant Step, contributed to the shortage of certified teachers for the day-care and Head Start programs.

"But the reality is that there are simply not enough early-childhood teachers coming out of school to meet the demand,'' he said.

As a result of the high vacancy and turnover rates, the study says, only 56 percent of the teachers in the city's publicly funded day-care and Head Start programs meet the state's "desired'' standard for full certification. The rest were hired under a contingency plan approved by the city to address temporary shortages.

Most of the uncertified teachers are working toward certification, but the plan permits a small percentage of positions to be filled by persons with no special qualifications or experience on an emergency basis for six months. Mr. Larsen noted, however, that many of the uncertified teachers in his agency's programs have specialized training in early-childhood development. He added that teacher aides and assistants, who are not certified and thus less likely to move to the schools, lend stability to the programs.

Solutions Eyed

Advocacy groups maintain that the study underscores the need for parity in the compensation of certified early-childhood teachers in the public schools and in day-care and Head Start programs.

They say the inequity is most clearcut in the case of Project Giant Step, which pays different rates to certified teachers based on whether the board of education or the child-development agency operates the programs.

To ease staffing problems and improve the quality of programs, the Bank Street College study says the city should offer Head Start and day-care teachers who are fully certified the same pay and retirement benefits as the public schools provide.

It also recommends that the city offer tuition support to Head Start and day-care teachers working toward their degrees. The study estimates that the recommendations would cost the city about $13.3 million.

In April, the New York State legislature approved a $12-million budget item to raise day-care workers' salaries and another $1 million for training.

Maryann Marrapodi, director of Mayor Edward I. Koch's office of early-childhood education, said city officials, prodded by advocacy groups, also are discussing ways to raise the salaries of day-care teachers.

The timing of the Bank Street report "could not have been better,'' she said. "It's mobilized everyone.''

A National Problem

Children's advocates note that the problems highlighted in the report are not unique to New York City.

According to a statewide study of day-care workers' salaries and benefits conducted in 1986 by Caroline Zinsser, project director for child-care policy at the Center for Public Advocacy Research, the average salary for full-time head teachers working year round is $10,358. Their average yearly turnover rate is 40 percent.

The report also noted that only about half of all day-care employees outside of New York City received individual health insurance.

In 1984, according to the U.S. Census Bureau , the average salary nationally for child-care workers was $9,024.

Craig Turner, a program analyst with the federal Head Start bureau, said the average annual salary for a Head Start teacher is $8,460 and the turnover rate is approximately 20 percent.

Nationwide, as in New York City, day-care and Head Start teachers who have teaching credentials often seek jobs in the public schools, experts say.

"We're also losing people to McDonald's. We're losing people to almost any other job that pays more,'' said Louise Stoney, executive director of the New York State Child Care Coordinating Council. As a result, she said, fewer people are entering the field and many centers are "whittling back services'' by serving fewer children.

'Children Suffer'

Excessive staff turnover ultimately jeopardizes children, advocates argue.

"Children suffer when the bonds of trust in a caregiver are broken and a new person comes to take her place,'' Ms. Zinsser wrote in the New York State study, "Day Care's Unfair Burden: How Low Wages Subsidize a Public Service.''

"Classroom routines are disrupted. When vacancies cannot be filled immediately, ... other staff must cover gaps by taking on extra responsibilities, resulting in fewer qualified adults caring for more children,'' she concluded.

The Bank Street study cites research drawing a correlation between the qualifications of staff members and "positive outcomes'' for children, and it says studies suggest that "teacher stability is critical to the positive development of young children.''

Because so many employees undergo training only to move on to other jobs, the high attrition rate not only disrupts programs but "puts a severe strain on training dollars,'' said James K. Matlack, executive director of the National Head Start Association.

Form of Discrimination?

Experts link the low salary rates of child-care workers to several factors.

In the March 1986 issue of Young Children magazine, Kathy Modigliani, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, contended that low wages are a form of discrimination, since 95 percent of early-childhood professionals are women.

She also maintained that society has been reluctant to accept high child-care costs because full-time care was largely provided as a free service by mothers until recently.

Lawrence Schweinhart, director of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation's "Voices for Children Project,'' also contends that wages remain low in part because a large share of child care is provided by relatives while parents work. "Professional child-care providers are competing with a free source of care,'' he said.

Other experts, however, say child-care workers receive inadequate compensation primarily because of public misconceptions about the value of their work.

Although educators and social scientists cite the importance of the first five years of a child's life, there is a perception on the part of the public "that the younger the child, the easier he is to teach,'' Ms. Whitebook said.

"Because child's work is play,'' she added, "it is hard to see what they're being taught'' or to recognize that a body of knowledge is needed to teach it, she said.

A recognition that higher fees will make child care unaffordable for many parents also has kept child-care providers from raising theirprices, Ms. Modigliani said.

Concerned about the wage issue, the N.A.E.Y.C. adopted a position paper last year urging that child-care costs, which have been subsidized mainly by parents and providers, be "shared more equitably by all sectors of society.''
Routes to Change


Some observers say day-care working conditions may improve as the public schools widen their role in providing early-childhood services.

As states invest more money in public-school programs for 4-year-olds, "people are going to realize that in order to recruit and retain teachers, they are going to have to pay reasonable salaries,'' said Mr. Granger, an author of the Bank Street report.

Owen B. Butler, retired chairman of the Procter & Gamble Co., added that the status of early-childhood teachers is likely to improve as business leaders place increasing emphasis on the need to intervene early in the lives of "at risk'' children.

"As we focus increased importance of the issue and demand more and better preschooling, that effort will naturally increase the kind of compensation being paid for those teachers and the education that will be required of them,'' said Mr. Butler, who chaired a panel of business leaders that produced the widely cited report, "Children in Need: Investment Strategies for the Educationally Disadvantaged.''

Some states have already begun to address the salary problem, according to Ms. Whitebook. Massahusetts, for example, has invested $10 million in the last two years to upgrade salaries in its publicly financed child-care system.

Connecticut also has upgraded its salary schedule for state-funded child-care programs, she said, and Minnesota passed a law last year authorizing higher reimbursement rates for child-care operators that pay higher salaries.

At the national level, the Congress is considering several proposals designed to increase the supply and quality of child-care and early-childhood programs, and the Head Start Bureau has commissioned a study to examine salary issues.

Mr. Schweinhart maintained, however, that attempts to study the problem may be too little, too late.

"It's sort of like Nero fiddling while Rome burns,'' he said.

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