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Why Early Childhood Educators are Underpaid

Why Early Childhood Educators are Underpaid

Header_podcast-85-abbie-lieberman-new-america
February 19, 2018 | Ron Spreeuwenberg
There's not a strong understanding among both the public and policymakers that working with young children is highly skilled work. A lot of people unfortunately still view it as babysitting and don't understand that it takes a specialized education and skills.



Episode #84: Abbie Lieberman of New America guides the conversation on paying educators a fair wage. It's not an easy solution! Working with young children is highly skilled work - so why do so many people view childcare as babysitting? Abbie Lieberman describes the complexity around the work needed to have early childhood educators earn a fair wage. Public awareness, education, professionalization of the field are all important and nuanced factors that affect change. Ron and Abbie delve into why our important educators are routinely under-resourced and why we need to honour the profession and demand better.


Resources in this episode:

- Learn more about Abbie Lieberman's work here

- New York Times Article - Why are our most important teachers paid the least?



HiMama Preschool Podcast, Episode # – Abbie Lieberman Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – Feb. 15, 2018

- - -
Abbie LIEBERMAN:
There's not a strong understanding among both the public and policymakers that working with young children is highly skilled work. A lot of people unfortunately still view it as babysitting and don't understand that it takes a specialized education and skills.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.


Abbie, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.



LIEBERMAN:

Hi, thanks for having me.

SPREEUWENBERG:

So Abbie, you work for a New America. Maybe you can just spend a minute telling us what New America is all about?

LIEBERMAN:

Sure. So New America is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think-tank in D.C. We have some other satellite offices in the U.S. but D.C. our main office. And organization at large conducts research in a host of policy areas, but I'm on our education policy team. And we span birth up through the workforce. My work focuses specifically on early and elementary education policy. So we conduct research, develop policy recommendations and disseminate new ideas about policies that impact children from birth through third grade. And a lot of our work in recent years has focused on the early-childhood workforce.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Okay. And so as a policy analyst at New America this is of course where you're spending a lot of your time. What brought you to work for New America, and to focus on this subject?

LIEBERMAN:

That's a great question. I've always been passionate about young children and helping young children. And I went to grad school for public policy and I learned about all of the research showing kind of what I intuitively knew. But seeing it in real research that these years are so important, that if you're able to get children into high-quality early-learning that it can set them on a path to succeed in life. And there's been a lot of programs that have shown really great results. So I knew that that was something I wanted to be a part of. And I think in the U.S. that's an issue that we have a long way to go [with]. And so I wanted to be a part of making access to quality early education better for more children.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Cool. So there was a recent article in The New York Times magazine asking why our most important teachers are being paid the least, and of course that is early educators. And you write a lot about this subject matter as well. Can you tell us, based on what you've learned in your time as a policy analyst at New America, why it is that early-childhood educators are being paid so little?

LIEBERMAN:

Sure. So it was a wonderful New York Times magazine article, and it is an area that we also focus on here at New America. And basically the issue is that pre-K teachers really matter. There's a lot of research on the importance of quality and pre-K, and quality is usually something from a high-quality workforce. And so it's really important that early-education programs have a skilled and knowledgeable workforce. And yet our pre-K teachers are not compensated accordingly. So the average childcare worker makes less than ten dollars per hour. More than half of the childcare workforce qualifies for public assistance in the U.S. Pre-K teachers do marginally better at just over around $13 an hour. But if you compare that to a kindergarten teacher, they earn almost $25 an hour.

So even though the work of a pre-K teacher and a kindergarten teacher are extremely similar, they're making significantly less. And this low compensation makes it really difficult to attract and retain high quality educators. And a lot of it is that there's not a strong understanding among both the public and policymakers that working with young children is highly skilled work. A lot of people unfortunately still view it as babysitting and don't understand that it takes a specialized education and skills.

SPREEUWENBERG:

So how do we get that point across? And are activities that are happening right now to help make that happen? And of course I know articles like this certainly help.

LIEBERMAN:

Sure. So it has made headlines, and its been getting a lot more attention than it has in the past. And so it's great to see broader public discussion on this issue. But we're really far from getting early-childhood educators the pay that they deserve. So I think raising public attention is important, but it's a very complicated issue on the one hand. There is a large push to professionalize the early childhood workforce. And many programs are requiring teachers now to have bachelor's degrees. And the argument there is that unless pre-K teachers have the same qualifications as K12 teachers they're never going to be paid the same, until we view them with the same respect and view the jobs as requiring the same qualifications.

But the other side of that argument is that you really can't expect pre-K teachers to go spend tens of thousands of dollars and likely go into significant debt for a bachelor's degree if their pay isn't going to change as a result. And the federal Headstart program in the U.S. in 2007 changed the requirements that 50% of teachers would need to have bachelor's degrees. And they did. But follow up research has shown that that their salaries have not increased significantly as a result. So this is a really valid concern of, “What do you do first?” And I think really they have to go hand-in-hand. If we're going to professionalize the workforce we need to make sure that the workforce has the financial and work supports that they need.

SPREEUWENBERG:

So what is, from a public policy perspective, what's the messaging that you think will help move the needle on this? Because there's kind of different angles that you can take, right? So one is, quality early-childhood education requires quality workers and we need to get the word out that it is important and it is very specialized and it is a very difficult position that requires education. But there could be other angles, too, of, like, “What's the return to the economy?” for example, with an investment in this area. Is there different messages that you think will resonate more with policy makers and people that will end up making decisions about investing in early-childhood education?

LIEBERMAN:

Yeah, I think both of the examples you just gave are great. And they're very interconnected. We have seen a lot of multiple early-childhood programs that have been around for a long time have shown long-term return on investments. Children that have high quality preschool are more likely to graduate high school, they’re more likely to go to college. Sometimes, depending on the program, likely to experience teen pregnancy, less likely to commit a crime. So there are real long-term benefits to society at large for early-childhood education. But I think really making that connection, that it's not just any pre-K program, just putting a child in a classroom with some toys is not going to guarantee that they have these long-term successes. You really need highly skilled teachers in those classrooms to guide their learning.

And I think connecting that return on investment to the workforce is what's really important. And while investment in the US and early ed. has increased in recent years, a lot of that investment has gone towards giving more slots to children. So I think politically it's easier to say, “We're going to increase funding X amount, and that's going to serve more kids.” I think politically it's a little harder to say. “We're going to increase funding by X. Instead of serving more kids we're going to support our teachers.” And that's where we need to get to.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, that's an interesting point. And certainly when I see the headlines about investment in early-childhood education it is oftentimes about creating more childcare spaces. And this is where the politics kind of comes into play, I suppose. Is any key studies out there, maybe on a more micro-level, like in a state or in a county or a municipality where there has been a higher investment in early-childhood education, where we can look to and say, “Wow, in this city or this county or in this specific center, even, they've really decided to invest in their workforce to have high quality staff and we've seen great results from that?

LIEBERMAN:

Yeah, there's many great local examples of that. In the New York Times Magazine piece they focused on the Abbott Preschool Program in New Jersey that requires all teachers have bachelor's degrees with specialized training in early-childhood. And Abbott is often held up as a high quality early-learning program. But they did also explain requires a lot of investment. They needed early-childhood degree programs that were able to serve the workforce, that the workforce could afford to attend. They needed to provide substitutes so that teachers could go during work hours if needed, or night classes, Saturday classes. It's really important that they're able to work around the existing constraints of the workforce. And so Abbott is a good example.

Another state is, Oklahoma has a universal pre-K program and potential long-term gains for students. And they also hold teachers to high standards. But it definitely requires time and money and it really is not going to happen without greater public investment.

SPREEUWENBERG:

So of course investment can come from the public side, which is the ideal outcome, I think. But funding could also come in the form of parents paying more for preschool programs. So let's say if I'm a parent and I have a couple of different options for preschool for my child, I can say, ”Okay, here's option 1, it's cheaper. But maybe the quality is not as good, but I'm okay with that because it's convenient.” Or, “Here's another option which is a bit more expensive but I know it's really high-quality, and I value early-childhood education and I want my child to be there are some willing to pay more.” Is this also an avenue that childcare programs should explore as maybe having more funding coming from increased prices? Or is that not really an option?

LIEBERMAN:

I mean, that's definitely something that some childcare centres do. I don't think it's a solution because the parents that don't have as much money don't end up having to put their child in the lower-quality programs. And pre-K works for all children but it's especially effective and important that children from low-income families and disadvantaged families have access to high-quality programs. They're the ones that see the largest gains. And childcare is already so expensive, and especially at a time when parents don't have lots of savings. And yet it costs more than college in a lot of states. I know in D.C. I think the average childcare cost is something around $20,000 a year. And for young parents, especially if they have multiple children in childcare, that's not possible. And so it's an option but I think it's not really going to solve the problem.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, good point. So there's a lot of organizations and associations out there like New America that are working really hard to make progress in this area. But what about for an early-childhood educator, a director of a childcare program? What can I do? Is there anything that I can do to help move this conversation forward and get early-childhood educators the pay that they deserve and increase the quality of early-childhood education across the country?

SPREEUWENBERG:

That's a great question. I think it's going to vary from state-to-state or locality-to-locality, based on what is going on in their state. So I'm trying to think of some local examples of different things that states are doing. So some states are part of this program. They have TEACH [Teacher Education and Compensation Helps] scholarships. And so there is an opportunity – if the state participates in that – for the early-childhood educator to pursue higher education. And if they get this scholarship it's fully funded. It comes with guaranteed wage increases as they pursue higher education. So I think as teachers and directors looking for opportunities like that in their state or district that they can take advantage of. Other states like Louisiana, for example, is offering tax credits to teachers or childcare centre directors who go on to pursue more education and training.

So I think being aware of the programs that do exist and the supports that do exist, and then also advocating for themselves and advocating for the fact that they deserve higher education and that they also need better supports to do their jobs well. Teacher well-being is a huge problem, and if a early-childhood educator is stressed about feeding their own family and exhausted from working two jobs to help cover the cost of living where they live then it's understandable that they won't be able to provide their best level of care.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, totally, totally. And what about on the side of parents? So if I’m a parent, and I understand that early-childhood education is important, what can I do or what should I do to help support the field?

LIEBERMAN:

I think parents can also be great advocates. And parents are their children's first and most important teachers. So parents can also support their children's development at home. They can build on what the child is learning in school. It's hard, I don't know exactly how parents can make conditions better for teachers, other than choosing a center that they feel teachers are well supported in. Yeah, it's a hard place for parents to play a role.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, fair enough. So, Abbie, this is some great information about what's happening and things that we can do to improve wages for early-childhood educators. We're running a little bit short on time. I want to ask you just one last question, which is if you have any final messages or words of advice to early-childhood educators out there?

LIEBERMAN:

I am just so in awe of how hard early-childhood educators work, especially the sacrifices that they make. I visit classrooms on occasion for research and you just see these teachers who are so passionate about what they do and care so much about the children they work with. But doing this job is a sacrifice. The hours are long, the pay is low, the work is tiring. And it's really inspirational to see them keep doing what they're doing against these adverse environments that they're placed in. And I think, continue to pursue education and training where available and continue to do your best to provide children with the best care possible.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Totally. There's one thing that's for sure, and that's that early-childhood educators aren't putting themselves first when they decide to take on this super-important role in society of helping our youngest children. And I would also like to say thank you to you, Abbie, because the early-childhood education field also needs more people like you who have an expertise in an area that's not early-childhood education – in your case public policy – to support the field. So thanks so much for your work, and thanks so much for everything that New America is doing for early learning. And thanks for coming on the show today.

LIEBERMAN:

Thanks so much. It was great to be able to speak with you about this issue.

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