Special Report

Vast Responsibilities, Minimal Pay

By Kathryn M. Doherty — January 10, 2002 2 min read
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As a nation, the United States pays about as much to people who watch its cars as to those who take care of its children, according to the latest wage figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With an average annual salary of $15,430 in 1999, child-care workers earned about as much as parking-lot attendants and dry-cleaning workers.

Preschool teachers--a category that includes workers who identify themselves as teachers in child-care settings--don’t fare much better. They earned an average salary of $19,610 in 1999, less than half of what elementary school teachers made.

But while teacher shortages and inadequate salaries for K-12 educators are persistent issues in public-policy debates, far less discussion takes place about the nation’s child-care workforce.

As schools are being held more accountable for student performance, attention has increasingly turned to the issue of how prepared children are emotionally, socially, and academically when they arrive at school.

According to the National Household Education Survey, 70 percent of 4-year-olds in the United States were involved in center-based nonparental care and education programs in 1999. A majority of children receive care outside their homes beginning with their first birthdays.

An ‘Insufficient Pool’

Given such statistics, it is clear that child-care providers are a major presence in the lives of young children.

“One of the strongest predictors of childcare outcomes is the quality of the teacher,” says Marilou Hyson, the associate executive director for professional development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington.

Yet, according to a Center for the Child Care Workforce study, the “insufficient pool of workers to care for and educate young children prior to kindergarten seldom registers on the radar screen of public awareness.”

A profile of early-childhood-care providers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Youth shows that the average center-based child-care provider nationwide earned roughly $7 an hour in 1999.

Ninety-seven percent of the child-care workforce is female, and the training and educational requirements for child-care providers vary widely across the states.

According to Wheelock College’s Center for Career Development in Early Care and Education, fewer than half the states require any preservice training for child-care providers.

And even in those states that do require training, the expectations often are minimal.

‘Alarmingly Unstable’

Not surprisingly, given the low wages, turnover among child-care providers is high.

“Then and Now,” a longitudinal study by the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California, Berkeley, says the teaching staffs in child-care centers are “alarmingly unstable.”

According to that study, a full 76 percent of child-care providers employed at centers in 1996 had left by 2000. Nationwide, it’s estimated that about one-third of child-care providers leave their jobs each year.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week

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