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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Promising Trends, but Discouraging Numbers, in Early Childhood Education Workforce

Published:  July 1, 2013

An oft-repeated lament in the early childhood world is that child care workers are so low-paid that, on average, they earn less than parking lot attendants. A new analysis supported by the Institute of Education Sciences and published in Education Finance and Policy finds this old adage is correct – but the authors say there is some promising news, too.

The study, “The Early Childhood Care and Education Workforce from 1990 through 2010: Changing Dynamics and Persistent Concerns,” examines Census data from the Current Population Survey for early childhood employees in schools, centers and home-based care. It looks at four characteristics: educational attainment of child care workers, pay of those workers, the “brain drain” of early childhood workers from the industry and the prestige of the workforce, as measured by the education level and compensation of people new to the field.

The results are both disheartening and encouraging. Nearly 40 percent of workers in 2010 lacked education beyond a high school degree. On average, child care workers earned $16,215 annually, which works out to $11.70 per hour – a low-paying job, though up from the average annual salary of $10,746 in 1990. About a quarter of all early childhood employees in 2009 had left the industry completely by the following year, 2010.

The results are even more severe when examined separately by sector. The home-based care world was the worst off, the authors found. Among those workers, who made up about 26 percent of workers in the study, half did not have education beyond a high school degree. They earned an average of only $12,415 annually, and left the child care industry at higher rates – 28.5 percent from year to year. Workers at child care centers fared better, though they still fell well short of early childhood workers in schools.

Over the past two decades, however, the percentage of early childhood workers with some college education increased from 47 to 62 percent. More employees were afforded health or retirement benefits from their jobs, and incoming child care workers were rated as more prestigious in 2010 than in 1990.

What has caused these upward trends? At least 78 percent of the movement toward higher pay could be attributed to increases within each sector, the largest share of which occurred in home-based care. Only 22 percent of that change was due to shifts across sectors, with workers leaving home-based care, for example, to work in centers or schools. But that does not mean that shifts across sectors were insignificant. Policy efforts to expand state-funded pre-K and school-based pre-K and kindergarten programs have meant the hiring of more early childhood workers in these higher-paid settings. The authors note that while the percentage of school-based workers has not changed much since 1990, the actual number of early childhood employees in schools has increased by 45 percent.

Tracking and understanding the early childhood care and education workforce is no easy task. The variation across sectors of the workforce and a lack of systematically collected data means it is hard to even identify who these workers are. The report’s authors acknowledge a number of limitations in using Census numbers. This study lacked the data to even comment on effective teaching.

But the report’s findings are significant nonetheless. They show an improved workforce, but one still badly in need of change to ensure a high-quality, well-paid workforce across the entire early childhood industry.

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