By: Kyle Snow
Teachers, family child care providers, program directors, professional development specialists– all contribute to the education of our youngest children. But describing the individuals who make up the workforce serving children birth through age five has been remarkably challenging.
First, the dedicated people who work with the youngest children are counted in a variety of occupational categories (such as child care worker, preschool teacher, or educational administrator) not necessarily exclusive to early childhood. Many who care for the children of family, friends or neighbors don’t even appear on any public lists, making data gathering difficult.
Second, there has not been a lot of research describing the early childhood work force. The most recent large-scale nationally representative study of regulated early childhood programs was conducted more than 20 years ago.
That is why the recently released report, Number and Characteristics of Early Care and Education (ECE) Teachers and Caregivers: Initial Findings from the National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE) from the National Survey of Early Care and Education is especially important as it provides a real window into those professionals and programs providing early care and education to young children before kindergarten in centers and homes.
Some of the early findings confirm long-held views of the field (i.e., largely female, under-paid) while others may be a bit surprising (e.g., number of early educators with college degrees).
Here ’s some of what we learn from this report:
The size of the early childhood workforce
There are an estimated 1 million teachers and caregivers working in center-based programs and 3.8 million home-based teachers and caregivers. About 41% of center-based teachers work in programs that are at least partly publicly-funded (e.g., Head Start, Early Head Start, public pre-k). Nearly all (97%) of home-based teachers and providers who are listed (included on federal, state or local listings of providers) are paid, while only about 25% of those not listed (individuals regularly caring for at least unrelated child but not listed on any public list of providers) are paid.
The Educational Background
One of the ongoing debates in early childhood focuses on the importance of completing a bachelor’s degree. There is general agreement that both degree level and quality early childhood content are critical components in teacher training. Standards for the preparation of teachers are also important. This national survey collected data on degrees and field of study, although only the level of degree attained is provided in this initial report (addressing the issue of the content of the degree must wait for future reports).
Among teachers and caregivers (including teachers, assistants and aides) in centers, 39% have at least a bachelor’s degree (BA). About 19% have a high school diploma or less, 28% have some college credit but no degree, and 17% have an associate degree (AA). There is a striking difference in educational levels based on the age of child served. For those working with children age 3 to 5 years, 45% have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 19% of those working with infants and toddlers. Conversely, 28% of those working with infants and toddlers have a high school diploma or less, compared to just 13% of those working with 3 to 5 year olds.
Home-based teachers and caregivers are less likely than their center-based counterparts to have completed any college degree (with 32% having either an associate or bachelor’s degree). Listed home-based teachers and providers generally have a high school diploma or less (34%) or some college credit (34%). Nearly half (47%) of unlisted home-based teachers and providers have completed high school or less.
While the report confirms the common view that early childhood professionals receive low wages, this report also shows that there is a wide range in salaries.
Among center-based teachers and caregivers (again including teachers, assistants and aides), hourly wages were higher among teaching staff for 3- to 5-year-olds than for infants and toddlers ($11.90 versus $9.30). Teaching staff with a BA or higher had hourly wages substantially higher ($14.70) than those with AA degrees ($11.00) and some college but no degree ($9.30) or high school diploma or less ($9.00).
Striking differences in wages were found when considering education and the center’s type of sponsorship and funding. In school-sponsored centers, teaching staff with a BA or higher degree earned a median hourly wage of $20.60 compared to $15.90 for those in Head Start funded centers, $16.20 in centers with Public Pre-K funded programs not sponsored by schools or Head Start, and $13.90 in all other centers. Differences were less dramatic for those with high school degrees or less, ranging from $11.60 per hour in school-sponsored centers to $8.00 in Head Start funded programs, $8.40 in Public Pre-K funded programs, and $9.60 in all other centers. This suggests that centers that are not sponsored by public schools and that do not receive Head Start or Public Pre-K funding have salary schedules that offer less incentive for higher levels of education. More than half of all centers (59%) were found to be in this category of funding or sponsorship.
When considering the hourly median salaries, the study points out that Census data indicate that the average hourly wage across all occupations for workers with a BA degree is about $27 an hour.
Years of Experience
Despite the low wages, center-based teachers and caregivers have a great deal of experience, with a median of 10 years. As with wages, the mean was found to be higher than the median, suggesting a small number of teachers and caregivers with a very large number of years of experience. Just 23% of all center-based teaching staff have 5 or fewer years of experience. In other words, 77% have more than 5 years of experience. This reflects a stability in the workforce overall (although not necessarily within a specific program) that is noteworthy. Listed home-based providers also have substantial experience, with a remarkable 84% reporting more than 5 years of experience. Unlisted providers were the least experienced, but still 50% reported having more than 5 years of experience.
A striking finding from the NRC report was the lack of benefits (generally health care, retirement, and paid time-off) received by many in the early care and education work force. The importance of these benefits is underscored by a recent study of the health and well-being of Head Start teachers in Pennsylvania.
Teachers and providers in both center- and home-based settings were asked if they had health insurance, and whether this was provided to them through their employer, through their spouse, an individual plan, or a public health fund. Here, the news is positive – three-quarters of teachers and caregivers in centers, and in listed and unlisted home programs reported they had health insurance.
Key takeaway points
The data provided in this initial report are extraordinary. Future reports are likely to be just as valuable. Being able to define the number of early care and education teachers, their education levels, whether or not they have health insurance and other benefits and other general characteristics is critical in defining the profession. Data reported here offer some confirmation of some long held views, especially as to how underpaid early childhood teachers and caregivers are when compared to other professionals, given the importance early learning and their work. These disparities are even more striking given the higher than expected level of educational qualifications and years of experience of many in the early childhood work force. The findings suggest that recent state and national efforts to focus on early childhood professional development have made a difference, and they underscore that investments in professional development are worthwhile because of the professionals’ commitment to remain in the field. The study also makes clear the need for additional funding with a target of improving compensation, with particular focus on equity for those working with infants and toddlers.
Many questions remain that should be addressed in future analyses, for example, how do educational qualifications and salaries vary by professional role (lead teacher, teacher, assistant or aide)? What is the content of the degrees held by teachers and caregivers? How common is specialized content in child development and early childhood education? We are likely to be turning to these data for many years to come as we work to advance high quality services for more young children and strengthen the early childhood profession.
Resources and Additional Information:
Number and Characteristics of Early Care and Education (ECE) Teachers and Caregivers: Initial Findings from the National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE) (2013) Information about the study's methodology
Some technical notes about this study - What you should keep in mind:
It must be noted that the data provided in the report (and future reports) are estimates. This means that they are the best estimate that can be obtained based upon the sample and design of the study. It also means there is room for error – the standard error (this is similar to the “plus or minus” when you hear results from public opinion polls). Generally, the smaller the error, the better the estimate is.
This study sought to include all settings, including licensed and unlicensed center- and home-based programs. It also sought to identify all teachers and caregivers, including those working for pay and those not paid. For home-based providers, the study includes those who are “listed” – meaning they are appear on state or national lists (including licensing, registries, or Early Head Start) of regulated providers as well as “unlisted” providers who were identified by contacting a sample of households directly to identify individuals caring for at least 1 unrelated child between birth and kindergarten entry, for at least 5 hours per week. As such, the workforce this study describes is much broader than in previous studies, including for example, an unpaid neighbor providing care for one child as well as a public preschool teacher in a classroom of many children.
The report makes an important note that looking at the average (the “mean”) wage may be misleading because it can be affected by a few very high, or a few very low, paid individuals. Because the report found that some teachers are paid far above the mean, it uses the median estimate instead. This estimate describes the wage in the middle of the entire population – it is the 50th percentile value – the wage that is higher than that earned by half of the field and lower than that earned by half of the field.
Wage data is provided only for center-based teachers and caregivers only. It is important to note that these figures include all instructional staff and do not differentiate by roles, for example, lead teacher, teacher, assistant teacher or aide.