Children who receive a quality education from an early age are more likely to graduate high school, attend higher education institutions and are less likely to be incarcerated. That's the findings from a new report released by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
And yet, early childhood educators remain one of the most underpaid in the nation.
“[Educators need] a pedagogical understanding of human development and child development,” said Rhian Evans Allvin, CEO of NAEYC.
Allvin surveyed close to 30 higher education leaders in higher education institutions and organizations to identify the problems with the current early childhood education (ECE) system and what could be done to resolve them.
The report highlights the pay disparity and notes that even with a bachelor’s degree, the average pay for early childhood educators is $11 per hour, a rate lower than most fast-food restaurant workers and dog-walkers. Over half of this workforce is eligible for public assistance and only about 15 percent of them receive health insurance from their employers. Early childhood educators of color have an even harder time than their white counterparts. Even though over half of the ECE workforce identifies as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color), they have fewer opportunities for promotion and advancement in the field and they don’t have the same equitable access to higher education.
The low compensation has led to underfunding in ECE programs at a number of higher education institutions and even the closure of some ECE programs during the pandemic.
“Higher education has found it hard economically to sustain ECE programs in the face of poor salary prospects for their graduates. Despite growth as a profession, the pool of applicants for bachelor's degree credentials is challengingly thin,” said Dr. Camilla Persson Benbow, dean of education and human development at Vanderbilt University.
Yet many parents in America are already spending more than they can afford on childcare, with some families paying more than in-state college tuition for early childhood education. Allvin said that the gap is created due to the lack of public investment in early education, adding that she is particularly excited about the Build Back Better Act proposed by the Biden Administration. She is hopeful that the $1.75 trillion package could solve the financing barrier many higher education institutions experience by increased funding in higher education, financial aid and compensation for public educators.
“Public higher education is driven by two factors—research and students. That is our funding model," said Dr. Gregory Washington, president of George Mason University. "Driving demand for degree programs with financial aid and creating a pipeline of research dollars is what will motivate public institutions of higher education."
Allvin said that whenever there’s a shortage of early childhood educators, the market response is lowering the barrier to entry rather than increasing compensation. This mismatch, she said, is caused by not aligning our structures and systems to the science of early learning.
“We have continued to perpetuate this notion that there's not a distinction between a babysitter and someone with a Ph.D. in early childhood education. And that's what has to change,” she said.
She argues that employers need to set the floor of compensation and competency requirements for early childhood educators, adding that leadership that prioritizes ECE programs is also an important factor in driving change.
"If you have strong leaders in early education who become department chairs, deans, and/or provosts, there tends to be a strong program,” says Dr. Shirley Raines, president emerita at the University of Memphis.