Earnings in the early education field remain strikingly low when compared to other teachers, two new studies show – and that, in turn, is harming the learning environments that many young students encounter at an age that research increasingly shows is a key period of child development.
"Those first five years are foundational, they're critical years," said Libby Doggett, deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning at the U.S. Department of Education. "Unfortunately, the lower the age of the children, the lower the salary, which is in direct contradiction to what the research says is happening [at that age]."
Multiple studies have shown that brain development is critical during the early years of a child's life and that early education plays a significant role in long-term academic and social success. President Obama has highlighted early education, calling for "high quality preschool" for every child in America.
As a result, more is being asked of early education teachers. In 2015, for example, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council said all lead teachers that work with young children should have a Bachelor's degree, with specialized knowledge and competencies.
All that training requires student loans, expenses and investment of time to attain degrees and certificates. But the pay off is so low many workers are faced with stark choices about their career path. That's compounded with a stigma that still persists in early childhood education, with a workforce that is primarily made of women.
"We have a long tradition of thinking this was unskilled work and, basically, any woman could do it just because she was a woman," said Caitlin McLean, researcher at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at U.C. Berkeley. "That's not totally been dislodged yet."
Wide gap in pay persists
A June report released jointly by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services shows that the national median annual wage for preschool teachers, at $28,570, is about half of what is earned by their kindergarten and elementary school colleagues.
In California, the salary is slightly higher for preschool teachers, $31,720, but due to higher wages across the board, the state is one of 13 in the nation where preschool teachers' earnings are less than 50 percent of kindergarten teachers, making the disparity even wider.
The gap is more extreme for child care teachers, especially for those in community-based programs, where annual median wages are $24,150 in California.
"Preschool teachers are paid less than mail-order clerks, tree trimmers and pest-control workers and child care workers make less than hair dressers and janitors," said Doggett of the Department of Education.
Those findings were bolstered by a second report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, which found that low wages also lead to high turn over and low job security for workers.
Nearly one-half of child care workers, or 46 percent, are part of families that participate in at least one public assistance program, such as Medicaid or food stamps, according to the report, called The Early Childhood Workforce Index. That's compared to 26 percent of the U.S. workforce overall.
For early education workers, the vast majority of whom are women, that puts pressure on their own families and local communities.
“The low wages, even among teachers with degrees, generates worry about food, housing and creates a kind of economic stress,” said Marcy Whitebook, director at Berkeley's Center for the Study of Early Child Care Employment and co-author of the study.
Unlike K-12 education, which is funded and supported publicly, much of early childhood education relies on tuition from individual families.
"The two have been tied – parents' ability to pay and the wages – and so everybody's ending up disadvantaged by that," said Whitebook. "It puts economic stress on the families and on the people doing the work."
Advances in research demand more training, higher skill
Experts say as more is known about early childhood development, the training required to be an effective teacher has also changed.
"It takes an incredible amount of analysis on the spot, it takes knowing about children and child development, and it takes knowing a lot of content about the world," said Megan Gunnar, Professor of Child Development, University of Minnesota. "If we really want to do well, we need a highly-trained, highly-educated workforce."
The more research showing the sophistication and importance of early childhood development should guide the profession, said Caitlin McLean of Berkeley's Center for the Study of Early Child Care Employment, who also co-authored the Center's study. That's been a change from the past.
"I don't think people understood what goes on in early childhood," she said. "Now that we understand what early development is like, we need to shift our understanding of what's involved in the work and the complexity of the work."
Low wages, strain in the classroom
Denise Campos is a teacher and director at Creative Minds Preschool in Whittier. She's run the school for 11 years, enrolling 3- to 6-year olds in a half-day program from her home. Businesses like hers employ the majority of the early learning workforce and, as private preschool and home child care, usually pay the lowest wages, according to the Department of Education study.
"It is hard making ends meet," said Campos. "Making $15 an hour, let alone $12 an hour and having a family and paying rent, at least here in California, you can't get by with that."
Campos typically employs three other teachers at her school. One of them has a B.A. and the other two have their A.A. in early childhood education. All of them have their teaching permit through California's teaching credential program, she said.
"They are very committed to what they do and are really dedicated with the children, but from a business aspect, we just have a really tight budget and it doesn't allow for us to give any increase in wages," said Campos.
Until last month, Campos was funded through Los Angeles Universal Preschool, but after a decade, that funding expired in June. So her business will rely more heavily on families paying private tuition. That's cast even more uncertainty over the future. Recently, Campos returned to get an additional certificate from the University of Southern California so that she could teach more classes in reading and expand instruction to higher ages. She's near capacity with enrollment for the summer, but has had to cut her staff down to two. With the Fall coming and California's new minimum wage law going into effect, there's a lot to adjust to.
"This is something that I'm learning as I go," said Campos. "We're in a transition. I'm not even sure what it's going to look like, even two months down the line."