This piece was originally published by Next100, a startup think tank powered by The Century Foundation and created for—and by—the next generation of policy leaders.
Now more than ever, when a global pandemic has turned our work lives and access to care utterly upside down, it is important that we take steps at a federal, state, and local level to support early childhood educators, essential workers who are necessary to reopening the economy when the time is right. We need both short- and long-term investments in order to prepare and protect early childhood educators across the nation.
A Crucial, Dynamic, and Exceedingly Challenging Job
Even during ordinary circumstances, the typical day of an early childhood educator is far from ordinary. If you ask ten child care workers or early childhood educators what a typical day of work is for them, you’ll get ten different laughs from them. In the course of fifteen minutes, a child care worker or preschool teacher could be responsible for an endless assortment of tasks in the classroom: providing safety and care is only the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, there is no typical day when working with children ages 0 to 5, with every hour (if not minute) bringing a wave of unexpected surprises. Each and every one of these interactions is complicated and compounded in the era of COVID-19.
For those of you who aren’t yet up to speed on what the lay of the land looks like for early child care providers, here’s the gist of it: The work of caring for our nation’s youngest falls upon a workforce that is primarily female, largely people of color, and grossly underpaid. Women of color comprise about 40 percent of this workforce. From Los Angeles to New York City, cities are only just now figuring out the best way to invest in and empower their early educators and invest in early childhood education.
In the hopes that expansion and protection will become a national trend in the aftermath of this crisis, there are critical policy opportunities—starting places—for programs, cities, and states that are looking to prioritize an investment in early education and recognize that investing in early childhood educators is a critical, often overlooked, first step. In the era of COVID-19 it is especially critical to do so through an equity lens, recognizing that as programs reopen we are disproportionately placing women, women of color, on the front lines and at increased risk; and that status quo cannot stand.
Any meaningful conversation about reopening the economy must include an investment in and protection of early educators. Now more than ever it is apparent just how little our city, state, and federal governments have been willing to invest in the early educator workforce. The solutions below enumerate opportunities that local, state, and federal governments, institutions of higher education, schools, and community based organizations, can take to support the early educator workforce now and in the long-term investment in early educators.
How to Support Early Childhood Educators in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic
It’s irrefutable that early child educators are undercompensated, and especially now in the midst of a pandemic, given the risk they undertake each day and the responsibility they play in reopening the economy, their under-compensation must be addressed. Here in New York where I live, 65 percent of the child care workforce receives public benefits, and 78 percent of early childhood educators worry about having enough money to pay their family’s monthly bills. K–12 teacher salaries are between 14 percent and 25 percent lower than those for other professions available to college graduates; and salaries for early childhood educators are 10 percent less than the average teachers’. In fact, teaching in early care and education programs is one of the lowest-paid occupations in the United States. In 2017, median wages for early educators ranged from $10.72 per hour (or $22,290 full-time per year) to $13.94 per hour (or $28,990 full-time per year). That simply isn’t enough.
Think of the work that a child care worker does in return for that $10.72–$13.94 per hour—the trust we are placing in them, the responsibility we are expecting of them. Child care workers are responsible for educating and caring for a classroom of anywhere from four to eleven kids (the average for New York City classrooms). That means that at a rate and wage lower than some fast food workers, child care workers are responsible for not just engendering brain development, but also expanding cognitive abilities, modeling social interactions, providing snacks, diffusing inevitable tensions between young personalities, and attending to the myriad of child care needs for not just one child, but on average ten times over! And now, that includes working at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 from students and parents every day that a child care facility is open.
At a rate and wage lower than some fast food workers, child care workers are responsible for not just engendering brain development, but also expanding cognitive abilities, modeling social interactions, providing snacks, diffusing inevitable tensions between young personalities, and attending to the myriad of child care needs for not just one child, but on average ten times over!
In New York, there has been tremendous progress in improving pay parity amongst early educators: late last year, unionized child care workers successfully advocated for the payment of pre-K workers that matches elementary school teachers. While a great first step, there is still a significant gap between what early educators are paid and what elementary school teachers are paid in most states and cities across the country. One of the most important steps cities and states can take is to achieve parity between early educators and elementary school teachers, paying both parties equal pay for equal work. And of course, it should go without saying that K–12 teachers should be getting paid more in the first place.
We have to invest more in early educators in order to at least achieve pay parity with public school elementary school teachers.
Pipeline and Preparation Programs
Child care workers enter into the field for a variety of reasons. Sometimes there’s a personal stake in the career choice: what began as a mother in the neighborhood who occasionally watched over the kids of a friend ends up as a successful home-based day care. And there are plenty of child care workers who knew from an early age that they wanted to become a preschool teacher, and enrolled in a residency-style teacher preparation program. For many care workers, regardless of how they arrived at their work, they have been doing the work for years if not decades, and hold an immense amount of knowledge and the skills necessary to educate and care for young children. The pipeline for educating and preparing child care workers is almost as diverse as the students they care for.
This diversity in preparation and setting is a good thing, but it does create a challenge with teacher pipeline and preparation programs that the education ecosystem has been dealing with for decades, and is, honestly, still dealing with. How should ability and readiness in the field be systematically, accurately, and equitably assessed? Teaching and caring for children is hard work under ordinary circumstances—and especially in the midst of a global pandemic.
Those who are responsible for the care of children should know a great deal about child rearing, brain development, nutrition, habit formation, and discipline—nobody wants unqualified instructors taking care of their children. But one’s ability to carry out all of those tasks effectively, in a way that supports the development of all children, is challenging to predict or swiftly assess; and raising entry requirements isn’t as simple as raising formal qualification methods, like requiring a particular certification or degree. What about those who have been doing the work for decades but never got a “formal” certification? And what about those who can’t afford to get certified or background checked again and again, as is required in states like New York? And this is to say nothing of early childhood educators who received their training from low-quality actors and need additional, high-quality preparation. And all this pertains only to the educators: never mind the hoops that directors and administrative staff must jump through in order to establish and maintain a program in the first place.
Despite these challenges, assessment and certification are still possible to do properly. A sustainable and equitable solution will ensure that teacher/educator certifications are maintained, and will provide a pathway for current educators to receive certification in an affordable way that does not require them to take time off. Furthermore, as much as is possible, the solution should not be punitive: states and the federal government should provide incentives through grant programs and scholarships specifically for early educators who intend to work in their state.
Recently, a group of early education professionals and organizations partnered together to develop what they’ve called a Unifying Framework for the Early Education Profession, which lays out particular tracks early education professionals can follow in pursuit of particular roles in the classroom. This framework provides guidance to educators and education programs alike on the skills and the preparation necessary for different levels of engagement with young children. And by expanding programs like the Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP) grants in Title II at the federal level to include child care programs, or including early educators as TEACH Grant-eligible, the federal government could clearly signal its support of early educators. TQP and TEACH grants are both federal-level grants designed to expand the teaching workforce by providing compensation and education assistance to educators in training. Furthermore, cities and institutions of higher education could foster partnerships with high-quality teacher preparation programs to fully fund at least one year of clinical practice with professional learning opportunities, as is laid out in a recent Bank Street report.
Seeing the list of requirements for early childhood educators and becoming overwhelmed is understandable; but removing regulations that ensure safety and quality of child care programs is the wrong call.
Let’s be clear: some may see the challenges of developing effective early educator credentialing, or the ongoing compliance (i.e. regular participation in continuing education classes) that early educators already must go through, and initially advocate for complete deregulation—that is, removing all requirements that exist entirely. Seeing the list of requirements for early childhood educators and becoming overwhelmed is understandable; but removing regulations that ensure safety and quality of child care programs is the wrong call. In the national recovery from the pandemic, ensuring that we maintain and properly prepare early educators will be crucial to the reopening of our economy.
Standards, Quality, and Transparency
Evaluating quality is tricky in early learning and child care, and yet it’s a development necessary for any long-term investment in early education. In the K–12 education policy world, there’s at least a common language, if not a common set of agreements about how to evaluate success. Most everyone understands reading and math tests, graduation rates, etc. But those equivalents in early education are less understood. Signals of quality in early learning are…well, complicated. Unclear. Hard to measure. Brain development at such a young age is jumpy, diverse, and uneven—and that’s very normal!
And honestly, even if there was a lingua franca, the vast neurodiversity child care workers see in a classroom would be terribly difficult, if not impossible, for any one policy about how to educate them to meet every child’s needs. And yet, parents should be able to rest assured that the program in which they have chosen to enroll their child is safe and high-quality. They should have peace of mind that the program they have selected will protect their child and, what’s more, that it will provide their child with all of the necessary social, emotional, and cognitive development that the child needs. So there need to be mechanisms for parents to access that information in a way that is digestible and meaningful.
At the same time, early educators should not just understand how quality is being measured, but have a voice in determining those very metrics. As a part of each state’s Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), which are each mandated by federal legislation, state education agencies (or whichever state-level department which has jurisdiction over early learning) could incorporate early educator voices into the development of their quality standards.
Here in New York, the perspectives of educators and program directors were integral in the development of the city’s Early Childhood Framework for Quality (EFQ), which provides programs and schools a model of continuous improvement in New York City.
“Traveling Monday through Friday with a 3 year old and a 1 year old, to get child care that can help not only her but her child, is every parents nightmare. And if they don’t have the means to pay tuition for their children to start on the way to a beautiful and bright educational future.”
—a New York City early educator
As the pandemic continues to reshape the world in which we live, it is absolutely imperative that we invest in early childhood educators in the short and long term—to protect them today and to prepare them for tomorrow.
Equity for child care workers is a cornerstone of expanding affordable high quality child care. Made up for the most part of women and people of color, the industry is underpaid, underprepared, and undervalued. As cities and states get serious about reopening their economies, expanding early learning and preschool is imperative. We all must make the commitment to invest intentionally in the early educator workforce.