High staff turnover, low pay, and a dead-end career path are what those who care for and teach young children in Illinois can look forward to.
Researchers at National-Louis University detailed those conclusions in a report last summer, as well as finding that only one-fifth of the more than 330,000 preschoolers in the state were attending programs in which teachers were required to have a four-year degree and be certified.
Another 330,000 children younger than 5 were in informal child-care settings where no staff qualifications were necessary, according to the study, by the Center for Early Childhood Leadership on the university’s Wheeling, Ill., campus and the Illinois Network of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies.
Much of the same can be said about almost every other state.
At what experts say is one of the most important times for learning in a child’s life, children at the preschool level often have teachers who are required to have no more than a high school education and a few hours of training.
Yet research shows a connection between the readiness of children for school and the formal education and specialized early-childhood training of classroom teachers, and how well they’re compensated.
Based on the strength of the research, the National Academy of Sciences has recommended that children in center-based programs be taught by a teacher with a bachelor’s degree as well as special training in early-childhood education.
“Sadly, there is a great disjunction between what is optimal pedagogically for children’s learning and development and the level of preparation that currently typifies early-childhood educators,” the academy said in a 2000 report.
“You are not going to find another field that is as strangely configured in terms of what is required,” says Pamela O. Fleege, the vice president of the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators and an associate professor of childhood education at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “You can enter into the field with little or no training whatsoever. It can be a really scary thing for parents.”
In fact, 30 states don’t insist that teachers in childcare centers have any training before they begin working in a classroom, according to the Institute for Leadership and Career Initiatives at Wheelock College in Boston.
What’s more, those who already hold a degree or continue their training in early-childhood education are often not rewarded for the time they spent to improve their knowledge and skills.
Working with young children is often a minimum-wage occupation, and low pay forces many employees to seek employment in K-12 schools or leave the field altogether.
“Low pay for early-childhood educators continues to discourage qualified teachers from entering the field, and wide disparities in qualifications and compensation lead to high turnover rates,” says Paula J. Bloom, a co-author of the report on Illinois and the director of the National-Louis early-childhood center. “People working in Starbucks make more than many of the professionals educating our youngest children.”
The Washington-based Center for the Child Care Workforce, which tracks wages and working conditions in the child-care and early-education field, reported in 1998 that salaries had risen little over a nine-year period.
Annual turnover rates, meanwhile, had improved somewhat since 1988, but the average rate at the centers in the five cities studied remained at 31 percent.
In addition, a 2001 study focusing on centers in three northern California counties--conducted by the same group--found that three-fourths of the teachers and 40 percent of the top administrators who worked at a center in 1996 were no longer on the job four years later.
In contrast, while turnover among new teachers in K-12 schools can approach levels that are similar to those in early-childhood education, overall turnover among public school teachers is much less, around 10 percent annually.
The 2001 California study also found that the replacements at the child-care centers were not as well-educated. About half the former teachers had four-year degrees, while only one-third of the new teachers had earned one.
And the researchers found that teachers in the three counties--Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo--were more likely to stay at their jobs if they were paid higher wages and if they worked with colleagues who were college-educated and trained in child development.
Teaching in a preschool program, instead of a center that also accepts infants and toddlers, might bring someone a higher salary.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for preschool teachers in 1999 was $19,610, about $4,000 more than the amount earned by those who identified themselves as child-care workers.
A survey of state prekindergarten programs, conducted by Walter S. Gilliam and Carol H. Ripple of Yale University, shows that pre-K programs also have higher expectations of their teachers.
About half the state-financed pre-K programs Gilliam and Ripple studied required teachers to have a bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education or development.
Researchers at the Washington-based Urban Institute, in a paper released last year on worker-compensation issues, noted that one strategy for improving wages is to put state prekindergarten teachers on the same salary schedule as public school teachers.
But even if that happens, pre-K teachers still might not feel respected as professionals. Barbara T. Bowman, the past president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, a graduate school in Chicago, says she sees little evidence that preschool teachers--including those who teach in a public school-based program--are accepted into the larger K-12 community.
Child Development Associate Credential
Among leaders in the field, the belief is that children--no matter what kind of child-care or preschool program they attend--deserve teachers whose training at least mirrors that of K-12 teachers.
“The goal has been to say that regardless of the setting, children have the same needs--to be cared for by personnel who understand them as developing human beings,” says Carol Brunson Day, the president and chief executive officer of the Council for Professional Recognition, a nonprofit organization in Washington that is working to improve the skills of those who teach young children.
The council awards the nationally accepted Child Development Associate credential, which is granted to teachers in center-based programs, home-visiting programs, and family child-care homes. A specialized credential is also available from the council for providers working in bilingual programs.
Before taking the assessment that leads to the CDA credential, providers must be at least 18, have a high school diploma or the equivalent, and have clocked a minimum of 480 hours of experience working with children and 120 hours of child-care education, covering eight content areas.
Between 10,000 and 12,000 such credentials are awarded each year.
Earning a CDA, Day says, has served as a “bridge between the informal community and the more formal training community.”
Providers who take workshops and seminars before they earn the credential often go on to earn college credit.
Over time, the COA has also been incorporated into state child-care-licensing regulations. Forty-six states, plus the District of Columbia, list the credential somewhere in their rules for staff qualifications. But requirements vary by state.
Some require certain teachers, such as a lead teacher, to hold COA status; others allow those working as directors of centers to have a COA credential in lieu of more education. Traditionally, the COA has been the credential carried by thousands of teachers in the federal Head Start program. In fact, surveys of those who hold COAs, conducted by the Council for Professional Recognition, have found that many entered early-childhood education as parents of Head Start children.
Head Start Requirements
But the 1998 reauthorization of Head Start by Congress raised the bar. By 2003, 50 percent of teachers in the preschool program for disadvantaged children must have an associate’s degree in the early-childhood field.
At a congressional subcommittee hearing last summer, Wade F. Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reported that the percentage of teachers with at least a two-year degree had increased from 32 percent in 1997 to 41 percent in 2000.
“We’re well on our way” toward meeting the goal of 50 percent, says Townley Mailler, the director of the government-affairs division of the National Head Start Association.
A portion of the increases in Head Start funding during the Clinton administration was aimed at helping teachers earn their degrees. Teachers without associate’s degrees would receive $1,300 a year toward tuition.
Head Start advocates, however, were concerned last year that President Bush’s proposed $125 million increase in funding for the program--bringing the total to $6.3 billion--would barely cover cost-of-living increases, much less additional training costs.
The president’s primary goal for Head Start has been to strengthen the educational component of the program and improve the prereading skills of the children who attend.
“It’s fine to retool the program, but you’re still going to need resources,” Mailler says.
Leaders of the National Head Start Association argue that setting degree requirements for teachers in the program is a “simplistic solution.” They say that teacher performance is “best addressed by training and guidance.”
“While the attainment of higher educational levels should always be the goal of individual teachers, the NHSA believes that mandating a specific degree is unwise and may produce more problems than it may solve,” the group’s position paper says.
Child-care and preschool directors already face tremendous obstacles in scheduling training and releasing teachers to continue their education. Directors often have to balance the desire to send their employees to conferences or courses against the need to cover the classroom, and decide whether to spend money on training or raises for the staff.
“In the world of child care, whether you’re nonprofit or for-profit, we all face that same dilemma,” says Jim Greenman, the senior vice president for education and program development at Bright Horizons, a Boston corporation that provides employee-sponsored child care in 28 states. “Everyone has to make those kinds of calculations.”
Greenman says Bright Horizons has tried to take a combined approach by encouraging employees to seek and attend outside professional-development opportunities when possible, while also providing in-house training, including an up front, two-day orientation for all new employees. The company is also trying to be flexible and creative by allowing self-study and Internet-based training, he added.
Higher Education ‘Roadblocks’
Those who do pursue college-level training in early-childhood education might find their colleges and universities lacking an adequate supply of instructors.
A national survey of schools that offer teacher-preparation programs in early-childhood education found that such institutions did not have enough faculty members to meet the demand.
In fact, “a 76 percent increase in early-childhood faculty would be needed if all current early-childhood teachers were required to obtain a bachelor’s degree,” according to the National Center for Early Development and Learning, which conducted the survey.
Researchers at the federally subsidized center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also found that the heads of early-childhood departments said that attracting and retaining “ethnically and linguistically diverse” faculty members was their greatest challenge.
That same concern resonates throughout the world of teacher preparation, says Jane Liebbrand, a spokeswoman for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.
“The teaching force is mainly white, female, and middle-class, and students are increasingly at risk and diverse,” she says.
The UNC survey also showed that early-childhood teacher-preparation programs tended to employ the greatest percentage of part-time faculty members at their institutions, and that students in the programs didn’t always receive the training they might need to work with some children.
For instance, 95 percent of the associate’s degree programs reported that learning to work with infants and toddlers was part of the curriculum. Yet only 60 percent of the programs required one or more courses in the subject, and only 63 percent required students to spend some time in the classroom with children that age.
Finally, the survey found that many students in two-year teacher-preparation programs--especially those earning associate’s degrees in applied science--had trouble transferring their course credits into four-year institutions.
“This situation creates roadblocks for early-childhood personnel,” the authors wrote.
The problem is we are trying to reform an essentially very shattered, broken system.”
As for the demand for professors, Fleege of the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators agrees that “there aren’t enough students coming out at the doctoral level that would want to teach.”
But she says she expects improvements in the future. “There are a lot of people in the pipeline,” she says. “It will catch up.”
Colleges and universities with early-childhood programs, Fleege notes, widely accept the standards for teacher preparation set by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which defines the early-childhood period as birth through age 8.
Those standards were recently revised and approved by NCATE. Drawing from the latest research findings about the best ways to teach young children, the updated standards place greater emphasis on what early-childhood educators should be doing to build children’s early academic skills and knowledge.
But Marilou Hyson, the NAEYC’s associate executive director for professional development, says her organization is not implying that children’s developmental needs shouldn’t be considered. What might be appropriate in a kindergarten classroom can be quite inappropriate with a group of toddlers. “It’s been very challenging not to send the message that early-childhood teachers should be prepared in the way that elementary teachers have been prepared,” Hyson says.
The standards that deal with recognizing children’s home language and culture have also been strengthened. And greater attention is given to the skills teachers need to work in programs that include children with disabilities or developmental delays.
“I think a lot of institutions didn’t understand the depth to which this needed to be included,” Hyson adds.
Institutions that want their programs for preparing early-childhood teachers to be NCATE-accredited will now have an 18-month period to phase in the new requirements.
But just because colleges might be on the same page about the preparation of early-childhood professionals doesn’t mean policymakers who make decisions about teacher licensing are following the same guidelines.
A license to teach early-childhood education in one state, in fact, may mean something very different in another state. The Council for Professional Recognition found 12 different age configurations throughout the country in a 1999 survey.
“For example,” the report said, “one state offers a credential titled Early Childhood Education that prepares teachers to work with children 0 through 8 years of age, yet another state offers a credential with the same title that prepares teachers to work with children 3 through 8 years.”
That “lack of common terminology,” the writers argued, “creates a mosaic that interferes with communication among professionals and limits reciprocity among states.”
But the council’s report, a follow-up to a similar survey from 1988, did find some trends that were encouraging to people in the field.
First, more states were developing regulations for early-childhood teacher education that included preparation for those working with children younger than 5. And second, the researchers found the state agencies in charge of teacher licensing were more supportive of the belief that specific knowledge and skills were needed to be successful at teaching young children.
State legislatures are gradually beginning to act on what experts in early-childhood education have been telling them.
A growing number of states now have some initiative either to help providers acquire more education or to supplement their wages.
“There is no doubt that there are more resources flowing into the child-care workforce for the purpose of encouraging educational attainment and rewarding educational attainment,” says Marcy Whitebook, a senior research associate at the Institute for Industrial Relations at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s also a consultant to the Center for the Child Care Workforce.
The best-known program that helps providers gain education in the field--and gives them something to show for it--is the TEACH Early Childhood Project. Under TEACH, which stands for Teacher Education And Compensation Helps, child-care providers receive scholarships to attend school and bonuses or raises from their employers when they complete their studies. The recipients, in turn, commit to working in their sponsoring child-care centers for at least another year, a feature that reduces staff turnover.
The program, which began in North Carolina in 1990, is based on the principle that everyone involved in early-childhood education-providers, program directors, college instructors, professional associations, and state officials--has to be involved to achieve success.
As a result, TEACH “has been more than just a scholarship program,” according to a report that marked the 10th anniversary of the initiative. “It has been a catalyst for many system changes, both in and out of North Carolina,” the report pointed out. “As the availability of scholarships has increased, demand for more relevant coursework and a more flexible education-delivery system have increased.”
North Carolina teachers who complete the coursework receive an average raise of 10 percent, which is more than the project’s organizers had expected. And turnover in the state dropped from 42 percent in 1994 to 31 percent in 1999.
The program’s success is now being felt outside North Carolina. An additional 17 states are using both private and public money to offer the program.
“In the beginning, states were hesitant to jump in with public dollars,” says Susan Russell, the executive director of the Child Care Services Association, the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based nonprofit agency that developed the TEACH project. But that is now changing.
Other models to improve wages--thereby helping to keep people in the field--have also emerged throughout the country.
Researchers at the Urban Institute found that “policymakers are usually reluctant to take action that directly relates to the wages and benefits of a specific group of workers.”
“But,” the think tank noted in its study last year, “the continued concern over the poor quality of many childcare programs, the limited training of many child-care workers, and lower-income families’ lack of access to quality care have led to some innovative efforts to address worker-compensation issues more directly.”
One such program, launched last year with $1.75 million, is REWARD Wisconsin, which stands for Rewarding Education With Wages And Respect for Dedication.
Money from the federal Child Care and Development Fund block grant will be given annually to Wisconsin providers and teachers who have attained specified levels of education. In the first year, stipends ranging from $500 to $1,500 will go to those who have earned at least an associate’s degree and have been working in licensed center-based or family child-care programs for at least two years.
“It’s nice to be able to recognize people who have been in the field for a long time,” says Jeanette A. Paulson, a program coordinator with the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association.
Other states have concentrated their efforts on helping providers get the health-insurance coverage they often don’t receive from their employers. According to the Urban Institute, four states--California, Michigan, North Carolina, and Rhode Island--have worked to make low-cost health insurance available to providers, including those who operate family child-care homes.
Advocates for early-childhood education have also pushed at the federal level for a few initiatives to improve the skills and salaries of early-childhood professionals.
For example, the Early Childhood Educator Professional Development program, a proposed amendment to President Bush’s education plan that was moving through Congress last year, would provide $10 million for one-time competitive grants to community partnerships that train people who work with children from birth through age 5. The money would be targeted to low-income communities and focus on helping teachers identify and prevent behavioral problems, as well as work with children who have been abused.
Efforts are also under way throughout the country to improve the skills of center and preschool directors. Those people are often in the job because they were excellent teachers, but they may have little business and administrative knowledge, says Pam J. Boulton, the director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee children’s center and a member of the faculty there.
“I think we have systematically underestimated what it takes to be the director of a children’s center,” Boulton says, listing business sense, customer-relations abilities, and skills in human resources among the qualifications.
The University of Wisconsin is one of several sites statewide now offering a six-course, 18-credit credential for directors. About 140 people have graduated from the program, which began in 1996, and another 500 are taking the courses. Wheelock College’s Center for Career Development in Early Care and Education turned up 14 states, as well as the District of Columbia, that offer a director’s credential.
But even with momentum building around such issues, the University of California’s Whitebook and others in the field maintain that significantly more public funding needs to be committed toward improving the skills and salaries of professionals in early-childhood education.
The many initiatives, in fact, often share some of the same characteristics of the “nonsystem” of early care and education in the United States, Whitebook argues.
“They are scattered, they’re not universal, and there is not enough infrastructure,” she says. “The glass is fuller than it was, but the problem is that we are trying to reform an essentially very shattered, broken system.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week