Study Finds Staff Turnover, Low Pay Plague Child Care

By Deborah L. Cohen — October 18, 1989 3 min read

Low wages and high staff turnover are undermining the quality of care that children receive in child-care centers across the nation, a California-based advocacy group charges in a report being issued this week.

The study by the Child Care Employee Project, which experts say is the most comprehensive national inquiry of its kind in more than a decade, cites an “alarming decline” in salaries, despite increased levels of education and training among child-care staff.

The group, which specializes in child-care working conditions, also states that low wages have led to a tripling of staff turnover at child-care centers nationwide in the past decade, “posing a severe threat to the quality” of such facilities.

The study could add fuel to the debate over child-care legislation now heating up in the Congress. It concludes that of the workplace conditions likely to affect the quality of child-care programs, wages are ''the most important predictor.”

Confirms Anecdotal Evidence

The study documents “what we’ve had anecdotal evidence about all along in terms of the severity of the problem,” said Barbara A. Willer, a spokesman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The “National Child-Care Staffing Study” is based on observations, interviews, and assessments of 227 child-care centers in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Phoenix, and Seattle. It was funded by a consortium of foundations, including the Ford Foundation, the Foundation for Child Development, and the Spunk Fund.

The report describing the study, “Who Cares? Child Care Teachers and the Quality of Care in America,” states that child-care wages, when adjusted for inflation, fell by more than 20 percent over the past 10 years, with the average teacher now earning $5.35 an hour.

More than half of the assistant teachers and almost three-quarters of the teachers in the study had some college background, compared with fewer than half of the women in the civilian labor force.

But the study found that child-care teachers and aides earn less than half as much as “comparably educated” women, and less than one-third as much as comparably4educated men.

According to the study, child-care teachers with some college background earn $9,293 per year on the average, while comparable women in the civilian labor force earn $19,369 and comparable men earn $29,251.

Staff turnover jumped from 15 percent in 1977 to 41 percent in 1988, states the report, which notes that staff members earning the lowest pay were twice as likely as the highest paid ones to quit their jobs.

The report found a correlation between the stability of centers’ staffs and the quality of care provided to children.

Children in centers with higher turnover rates, for example, “spent less time engaged in social activities with peers,” more time in “aimless wandering,” and had lower vocabulary-test scores than did those in centers with more stable staffs.

The report also states that children attending “lower-quality” child-care centers and those with more teacher turnover were less competent in language and social development.

Action in the Congress

Both the House and Senate versions of the proposed “act for better child-care services” would allow states to use funds to enhance workers’ salaries.

The Senate would allow up to 22 percent of the $1.75-billion measure to support “quality improvement,” which could include pay raises. The House version would earmark specific shares of funds for improving wages in various kinds of child-care programs. It would also require states to document improvements every four years in salaries and compensation in programs funded under the bill.

The report recommends promoting education and training for child-care teachers, adopting training and staff-child ratio standards at the federal and state levels, and developing industry standards for the work environment to “minimize the disparities” in working conditions at various child-care programs.

Compared with a decade ago, the report states, centers today receive less public aid, are less likely to be nonprofit, and care for larger numbers of infants. It found that “better-quality centers” were most often operated on a nonprofit basis, accredited by the n.a.e.y.c., and located in states with strict rules governing such factors as adult-child ratios, group size, and staff training.

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 1989 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Staff Turnover, Low Pay Plague Child Care