We are thrilled to have Marcy Whitebook, PhD, join us again in response to her recent whitepaper "Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages". Marcy began her career as a teacher of young children in the 1970s. Over the last four decades, she has been engaged in research, public education, policy development, training, and advocacy efforts focused on the early care and education workforce. She now directs the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California, Berkeley.
I enrolled my son in daycare three months ago. He was five months old, and I couldn’t believe I was leaving him in the hands of complete strangers. Since then, I’ve come to adore his teachers for the love they show him and the support they provide to me. I have tremendous respect for their work ethic. I find it challenging to care for my own son, let alone four kids at different developmental stages, and I don’t have to worry about documenting every feeding, diaper change, and nap. One of his teachers goes to school on the weekends and has kids of her own.
So, you can imagine my shock and frustration when I read “Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages,” a new report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment that highlights how few improvements there have been to the poverty-level earnings of the child-care workforce. I sat down with lead author and Teachstone guest blogger, Marcy Whitebook, to talk about her findings. If you haven’t read the report, I highly recommend it; and I hope this interview will provide further insight into the challenges the early childhood workforce faces.
Why did you decide to revisit this topic 25 years later?
My co-authors (Deborah Phillips and Carollee Howes) and I thought it would be interesting to assess early childhood teaching alongside all the changes in ECE over the past 25 years: our deeper understanding of child development; the more nuanced national conversation about the importance of early learning, particularly in the context of our economy and school reform; and greater support by federal and local policy makers on improving quality. In these conversations and in the research, the arrow keeps pointing back to the teacher. So we thought this was a good moment to look at the progress we’ve made in supporting teachers to apply what they know and get better at what they do.
And in the process of writing another recently released report, Building a Skilled Teacher Workforce, comparing the K-12 and early childhood personnel framework, it became clear that our expectations for early childhood teachers have grown so much, while the reward for their work has not. Early childhood teachers face all the same pressures as K-12 teachers, but they’re working under very different conditions.
Why have parents’ fees nearly doubled and pre-K wages stagnated or barely gone up?
I’m not an economist, so I can only speculate. There are many contributing factors: rising fixed costs such as real estate and insurance; cuts in public subsidies in many places, and the ongoing wage stagnation for all workers. For years, parents have been struggling with child care costs while wages have been low.
We expect the majority of parents to foot the bill for early childhood services. We don’t expect parents pay for K-12 education because we see it as a public good to which all children are entitled. The takeaway for me about these trends is that the solution can’t be on the backs of parents; we need a better way to finance early childhood to ensure that parents, children and teachers all win. Early learning is expensive; good, cheap early care and education doesn’t exist. The cost question is really about our nation’s values and whether we can eventually agree that high quality early learning services are a public good that we should be helping all families obtain.
With the growth of QRISs, there have been some initiatives to improve early childhood teachers’ salaries. Why haven’t these initiatives served as a better solution?
Overall QRISs don’t do much around compensation. The majority of our workforce initiatives focus on professional development— I am delighted that we are investing in teachers’ education and professional development, but there seems to be an implicit assumption that it alone will improve services and jobs. We have decades-long evidence that is not the case. The premium for education in ECE is a fraction of that in other fields and we learned from the original study how important wages and other environmental factors are to quality. If you look at initiatives around compensation, they’re not widespread. Stipend programs, for example, provide some relief, but they do not operate in all states, and when they do, they typically reach a limited group of teachers, the amounts of reward they offer are small, and teachers can’t depend on always being available. They don’t lead to an ongoing raise in earnings that sufficiently reward qualifications or attract and keep people doing the work..
In my opinion, the ECE field has had a tepid response to improving early childhood teaching. We bemoan poor wages, but are weak when it comes to advocating for initiatives or strategies to improve compensation. By not speaking out, we implicitly reinforce the idea that we can secure high quality services for all children while paying most teachers a pittance. We cannot. We have not had the courage to say, “we know this isn’t politically popular, but these are the facts: we can’t give you high quality services for all children with the current level of financing and a financing structure that leaves our teachers worrying in most programs about feeding their own families or drives our best educated teachers out of the field..” By not being willing to keep a drumbeat on this issue, we have allowed the status quo to persist.
Are you hopeful that this new spotlight on ECE will eventually lead to higher wages? I’m deeply frustrated by the lack of progress, but I have to believe that eventually teaching young children will be respected and valued for the complex work it is, and rewarded accordingly. I have been heartened by the response to our report because I think there’s a whole new generation of people eager to engage about these issues, they are emboldened by the science behind the issue in addition to their own experiences. I’m hopeful that emerging leaders in the field will have the courage to talk about these issues and organize behind it.
You note in your report that the Department of Defense (DoD) provides an exception to the disparity in wages for early childhood teachers. As a result, the DoD has seen lower rates of turnover. Why did the DoD decide to take this path, and why do you think other organizations have not followed suit?
The DoD had a big problem: they didn’t have good child care, there was enormous turnover, and they knew it was a lose-lose-lose the way they were doing it. As they switched to a volunteer army, they needed to support soldiers and families; they knew that many future soldiers would come from military families, and they wanted to make sure they get off to a good start; and they understood that helping parents and providing good care to children was essential. The DoD, like must business enterprises, understood that when you have low wages, you have high turnover and it’s harder to attract skilled people. But they also knew that improving the wages and training could not fall to parents, and they had resources that allowed them to decouple wages from fees. Parents pay a set amount of their income, teachers have an equitable and dependable wage scale.We need a model like that—a third party payer--for our country as a whole..
Based on the research you’ve done for both of these reports, in addition to addressing salaries, what can be done to improve teacher quality in early childhood classrooms?
In ECE bad things go together just as good things go together. If you look at the programs that are doing the best for kids, they have well trained teachers, well compensated teachers, and supports in place to support professional practice. And if you look at the programs that are weaker for children, it’s not just that they have low salaries, but they don’t have the other supports that teachers need—no planning time, limited professional development, etc.
We need to be thinking about how we build an infrastructure that allows educators to function professionally. We need to stop some practices, like sending people home when enrollment is low. That time could be used for planning or professional sharing; there is other work teachers need to do when children aren’t present, and we know most teachers don’t get that. We need to start thinking about the environment in which teachers are working and whether or not it really supports them in applying what they know and continuing to develop.
Given your findings in these reports and your experience in this field, would you encourage someone to enter the early childhood profession? What advice would you give?
Teaching young children is incredibly intellectually challenging and gratifying work. It breaks my heart that young people see this job opportunity as a pathway to poverty. We have a generation of young people graduating from college who want to do meaningful, challenging work, and we have these jobs for them but there’s a disconnect. The daughter of one of my closest friends, Simone, graduated from college two years ago and decided she wanted to be an early childhood teacher. Her parents were apprehensive. They asked me to talk with her.
At dinner one night Simone told me about her recent job in a program and fell in love with working with young kids. And she said, “This is what I want to do for my career; what do I do?”
I encouraged her—directing to good classes, etc.--, but I also said. “If you’re going to do this—and I think you should—I think you have to see it as part of your professional responsibility to be an advocate to change the conditions for teachers that work against children getting what they need.” I also told her to learn about the programs where she would be most likely to be paid comparably to K-12 teachers—and pursue the appropriate certification. .Simone can live with her parents, she doesn’t yet have a family. She can make it work, at least for now. .
But if someone came to me and said I want to be an early childhood teacher and I have a child who is getting ready to go to college and I have two other children, it would be much harder to advise her with confidence that she could pursue the work and meet her family’s needs. That’s tragic.
I was a teacher right when I came out of college and I loved teaching. I thought then and I think now that our nation needs really skilled early childhood teachers. It’s incredibly important and fulfilling work. And so I decided, alongside other teachers, that we would try to secure the rights, raises and respect that early childhood teachers need and deserve. I had no idea what lay ahead. There were other things I might have done, but I have no regrets that I have spent four decades of my life trying to improve early childhood jobs. It’s a long distance relay race, and I know other people are going to keep running until we get it right---for our nation’s hopefully long before another forty, or even twenty-five years has passed.