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Troubling pay gap exists for early childhood teachers


Preschool is a critical means of expanding educational equity and opportunity by giving every child a strong start. Studies show that attending high-quality early education can result in children building a solid foundation for achieving the academic, health, and social outcomes that are of benefit to individual families and to the country as a whole.

Children who attend these programs are more likely to do well in school, find good jobs, and succeed in their careers than those who don’t. And research has shown that taxpayers receive a high average return on investments in high-quality early childhood education, with savings in areas like improved educational outcomes, increased labor productivity, and a reduction in crime.

Yet, preschool teachers are paid less than mail order clerks, tree trimmers and pest control workers. Child care workers make less than hairdressers and janitors. In fact, most early childhood educators earn so little that they qualify for public benefits, including for the very programs they teach targeting low-income families. Occupation classifications at the Bureau of Labor Statistics are under review, however currently, BLS does not differentiate preschool teacher salary by setting (i.e., preschool median and average wages are reported, but the data reflects all preschool teachers combined regardless of setting).

“Undervaluing nation’s early childhood educators flies in the face of what we know about brain development and the optimal time for learning. Educating children before kindergarten requires significant knowledge, expertise, and skill — especially in light of the critical importance of the early years for children’s growth, development, and future academic and life success,” said U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. “This report is a call to action for all of us.”

Report shines light on gaps

The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services released a report that shines a spotlight on the gap in pay for early education teachers—97 percent of whom are women—and the impact that inequity has on schools’ ability to attract and retain experienced, high-quality staff with higher levels of education. The report is released in conjunction with the United State of Women Summit, convened by the White House Council on Women and Girls, to celebrate the great achievements by and for women, and to organize around solutions that address the many issues where inequalities and injustices remain for women and girls. The Summit will emphasize issues of educational opportunity, economic empowerment, health and wellness, violence against women, leadership and civic engagement, and entrepreneurship and innovation.

The national median annual wage for preschool teachers is $28,570, 55 percent of wages earned by kindergarten teachers ($51,640) and 52 percent of elementary school teachers ($54,890). It is worth noting that the pay for preschool teachers working in elementary school settings may be higher, but it is difficult to differentiate because the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not separate out the salaries by type of preschool.

The report found that while education and training requirements have increased for early education teachers, workforce pay has not. In fact, early learning caregivers and teachers with a Bachelor’s degree earn nearly half the average earnings of individuals with a Bachelor’s degree overall.  In all states, median annual earnings for the child care workforce would qualify a worker with a family of three for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, which equals an income less than $26,124 annually.

Across early learning settings—including child care, Head Start, publicly-funded preschool in community and school-based settings—teachers with the same level of education have markedly different earnings. For example, the report shows that for an individual with a Bachelor’s degree, there is a $6.70 per hour difference in median wages between employment in a public school sponsored program compared to a community-based program.  That translates to a difference of $13,936 per year.

“The quality of any early care and learning setting is directly related to the quality of the staff, their education and training and understanding of child development and the ability to translate that understanding through effective practice,” said Linda Smith, deputy assistant secretary for Early Childhood Development, Administration for Children and Families. “Wage parity across settings is critical to attracting and retaining a high-quality workforce, essential for a high-quality program.”

Higher expectations for early educators

The 2015 Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council (NRC) report, “Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation,” calls for a Bachelor’s degree, with specialized knowledge and competencies, for all lead teachers working with children birth through age 8. The IOM determined that the science of child development and early learning indicates that the work of all lead educators for young children of all ages requires the same high level of sophisticated knowledge and competencies. When early childhood educators are held to lower educational expectations and preparation than elementary school teachers, there is a perception that educating children before kindergarten requires less expertise than educating early elementary students. This helps justify the disparity in both the educational requirements and salaries for early learning teachers. Low salaries fail to incentivize teachers to earn Bachelor’s degrees.  Educators without Bachelor’s degrees have difficulty gaining higher compensation. An early childhood workforce without the necessary competencies compromises the quality of learning experiences for young children and their subsequent outcomes.

“A teacher’s salary level reflects how the work is valued by society. To maximize the potential of our young children and the educators and programs that serve them, we must do more to support and lift up preschool teachers,” said Libby Doggett, the Education Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Policy and Early Learning. “I have met many teachers in states like New Jersey and North Carolina who were provided the incentives and supports to get a college degree in early learning. The improvements they made in their instructional methods, classroom management and more told the story.  As a nation, we must do better to honor early childhood educators as professionals.”

The report also found:

·The states with the lowest disparity between wages for preschool and kindergarten teachers are Louisiana (84 percent) and Oklahoma (83 percent). Preschool teachers in Puerto Rico earned more ($22,010) than kindergarten teachers ($18,420).

· Preschool teachers earned less than 50 percent of the annual wages earned by kindergarten teachers in 13 states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Wyoming).

· In six states (Arizona, Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin), preschool teacher annual wages were less than the 2015 poverty threshold ($24,036). More info at for a family of four.

· In 2015, the median annual wage for Head Start teachers ($28,995) was 56 percent of wages earned by kindergarten teachers ($51,640) and 53 percent of elementary school teachers ($54,890).

· The states with the lowest disparity between wages for Head Start and kindergarten teachers are Arizona (80 percent) and Hawaii (77 percent). Head Start teachers in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico earned more than kindergarten teachers ($68,100 compared with $52,010 in DC and $22,650 compared with $18,420 in PR).