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Early childhood teachers get small pay for shaping young minds

Jun 17, 2016

State of Opportunity has reported on the importance of early childhood education time and time again. Research shows the first five years of a kid's life lay the foundation for lifelong learning and health.

This means early childhood teachers play a critical role in child development.

The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services released a report this week that shines light on the gap in pay for these educators. In some places they earn less than tree trimmers, or fast-food workers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national median annual wage for preschool teachers is $28, 570. That’s only 55 percent of wages earned by kindergarten teachers ($51,640) and 52 percent of elementary school teachers ($54,890).

These teachers are often seen as glorified babysitters, despite the significant importance of brain development in the toddler years. Marcy Whitebook is director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California at Berkeley. She told The Atlantic:

It’s an unjust situation. People tend to think of this as unskilled work, when in fact the work of facilitating the education and development of babies is every bit as complex as working with kindergartners. The low pay means that some teachers are under stress, which can make it harder to engage with children. Nobody working with young children should be worrying about feeding their own families.

Qualifications to teach preschool are often different from those needed to teach kindergarten or early elementary. But the pay gap exists even in states that require preschool teachers to have a bachelor's degree.

According to NPR, the report also found:

  • If preschool teachers in 13 states were instead teaching kindergarten, their annual wages would double.
  • Louisiana and Oklahoma teachers have the smallest gap in wages between preschool and kindergarten, with a difference of about $7,000 in each state.
  • Washington, D.C., and Louisiana preschool teachers have the highest median salaries: $39,940 and $39,970, respectively.
  • In six states (Arizona, Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin), preschool teachers earned less than $24,000 — a salary below the 2015 poverty threshold for a family of four.
  • That's also true for Head Start teachers in nine states: Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Utah.
  • As of 2015, 73 percent of Head Start teachers have a bachelor's or higher.
  • 24 state preschool programs require a bachelor's degree for the main teacher in the classroom.
  • 45 percent of preschool teachers working with children ages 3-5 have a bachelor's degree.

Research shows early childhood education is most effective when it's high-quality. But how can we expect to recruit qualified educators into these important roles as long as this pay gap exists?

President Obama has put forth proposals to invest billions in early learners over the next decade including the Preschool for All and Preschool Developmental Grants programs. Making sure we also invest in the people shaping our kid's young minds is critical. U.S. Education Secretary John B. King, Jr. said in a statement:

Undervaluing the nation's early childhood educators flies in the face of what we know about brain development and the optimal time for learning. Educating children before kindergarten requires significant knowledge, expertise, and skill—especially in light of the critical importance of the early years for children's growth, development, and future academic and life success. This report is a call to action for all of us.

You can read the full report, "High-Quality Early Learning Settings Depend on a High-Quality Workforce," here. And you can check out Michigan's early education statistics below: 

Credit U.S. Departments of Education & Health and Human Services