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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Animal Trainer. Parking Attendant. Child Care Professional.

Published:  February 17, 2010
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Hourly pay for those who teach preschoolers is about $15 an hour. Animal trainers make more.

People who are paid to take care of and teach young children make very little money. This has been true for so long that it is rarely questioned. Marcy Whitebook, a nationally recognized researcher on child care employment, has been trying to change that reality for decades. In an audio interview last week, she provided a stark but helpful synopsis of the problems of low pay -- and the challenges that make compensation equity such a tough nut to crack.

 “It’s sobering to remember that the majority of our children, before they enter kindergarten … are in programs where people are paid really low wages, maybe $15,000 to $20,000 a year,” says Whitebook, who directs the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California at Berkeley. 

The interview, produced by the BAM Radio Network in conjunction with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, offers a strong argument for why the push for better trained and educated early-childhood professionals must be accompanied by funding to pay salaries commensurate with their skills and training.
 
Whitebook starts the interview by confirming that, yes, child care workers are typically paid less than parking lot attendants. 
 
Here at the New America Foundation, Phillip Longman and David Gray have made a similar point. Their 2008 paper, A Family-Based Social Contract, includes a chart showing average salaries of various workers. (See the graph on page 11.) The data, based on information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows that animal trainers make $5,000 more per years than preschool teachers.
 
In last week’s radio interview, Whitebook laid out differences in pay within the teaching field based on 2008 data: The average wage for those working in child care centers is $9.32 per hour. For preschool teachers, it’s $15.48 per hour. And for elementary school teachers, $34.63 per hour.
In other words, there is a salary chasm between those who teach children before age 5 and those who teach children a year older. But as Whitebook notes, it doesn’t have to be this way. She points out that New Jersey and Oklahoma are bright spots.
 
Sara Mead provides details on New Jersey's compensation system in her new report, Education Reform Starts Earlywhich tells the story of how the N. J. Supreme Court's Abbott ruling has led to major achievements in several districts. New Jersey's state code requires that all Abbott preschool teachers -- even those in centers outside of the public schools -- receive compensation and benefits comparable to those of public school teachers.
 
In Oklahoma, the equity extends state-wide. There, teachers in the state’s public pre-K system are making the same as public school teachers. Again, this is because of leadership from the state.  New research on students in Tulsa’s public schools shows that those who attend these pre-K programs are making large gains in achievement and experiencing a higher level of quality than their national counterparts. 
 
Early Ed Watch conducted an interview last year with Deborah Phillips, one of the researchers at Georgetown University who has been tracking Tulsa’s students, and we discussed an intriguing theory related to preschool teacher pay. Could it be that children at age 4 are receiving such a strong education because teachers in Tulsa see no financial distinction – and therefore no professional distinction either -- between teaching 4 year olds and teaching older children?   (For more on that interview and the potential link between student achievement and pre-K teacher pay parity, see part 3 of Early Ed Watch’s  Head Start series.)
 
Compensation isn’t everything, and it shouldn’t be considered the only answer to improving the quality of the care and education that young children receive. Strong professional development, compelling career ladders and more respect and professional treatment go a long way too. But making pre-K a full partner in the primary years of a child's education is dependent upon eventually overcoming these pay disparities. It’s well beyond time to elevate these jobs above the pay grade of animal trainers and parking lot attendants. 

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