Early-childhood experts in North Carolina were near desperation when they hitched their hopes to a tiny pilot project aimed at improving the training of child-care workers.
A study of the workforce had highlighted the turmoil caused in child-care programs by the poor education, high turnover, and low wages that had long been the standard among those in the field.
That was in 1990, when most child-care workers in the state had little more than a high school education, and the average wage was about $4.50 an hour without benefits. Some 40 percent of the workforce left the field each year.
With about $23,000 in grant money, 21 workers were sent to their local community colleges to work toward associate’s degrees in early-childhood education. Their success helped launch a statewide effort in 1993.
‘Really Could Do Something’
“As the field started to look at this issue more closely, there was such a level of depression and a feeling of a lack of empowerment about our ability to do anything to effect change in education, compensation, and retention,” says Susan Russell, who started the TEACH Early Childhood Project in 1990. TEACH (the acronym stands for Teacher Education And Compensation Helps) uses public and private money for scholarships for early-childhood workers.
“It became apparent pretty quickly that we really could do something that didn’t take huge amounts of money to at least start making a difference in the field,” says Russell, the executive director of the Child Care Services Association, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Chapel Hill, N.C., that administers the $3 million program.
TEACH is now a budding program in 17 other states. The program is expected to spread even more as educators and state lawmakers begin responding to research suggesting that children who attend child-care and preschool programs with trained teachers are better prepared for school than those whose caregivers have little formal training for the job. In North Carolina alone, the program has enabled more than 5,000 child-care workers to earn Child Development Associate certificates, associate’s degrees, or bachelor’s degrees.
The North Carolina program, which includes bonuses or raises for early-childhood workers who continue their education and requires recipients to stay in the field for six months to a year, took off under former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. TEACH will receive more than $2 million in state, foundation, and corporate funding this fiscal year.
By combining the initiative with two other programs--WAGE$, created in 1994 to raise the salaries of low-paid teachers and directors, and the 2-year-old TEACH Early Childhood Health Insurance Program--the state has been able to transform what many saw as poorly paid, short-term jobs into careers.
As a result, the programs have also improved the quality and stability of the workforce, many experts say.
WAGE$ has helped increase compensation--in some cases, by 30 percent or more over time--for more than 8,000 workers in the state.
“What they’ve done well in North Carolina is focus policymakers’ attention on the underlying salary and benefits issue,” says Adele Robinson, the director of public policy for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Since 1990, turnover in North Carolina has dropped from 42 percent to 31 percent, according to Russell.
And last year, for the first time, the number of TEACH recipients working toward a college degree exceeded those seeking a simple, four-credit credential.
“The fact of the matter is there are more teachers in this state with more education around early childhood than ever before, and there are more parents in the state who understand what they should be looking for in a program for their children,” says Stephanie Fanjul, who ran the state’s child-development division under Gov. Hunt.
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week