The NCSL Blog


By Andrew Barton

The challenges facing the early education workforce and potential policy options to support early learning teachers and programs were the focus of a meeting hosted by NCSL’s Education team in June.

Kids with preschool teacherNCSL’s Jennifer Palmer, a policy associate with the Children and Families program, led with an overview of the developmental brain science of early learning that supports early investment in young learners, their teachers, and building quality programs.    

National data illustrating the inequalities faced by early learning teachers was shared by Karin Garver, early childhood policy specialist with the National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) from the 2020 State of Preschool Yearbook. Garver explained the rarity of true salary parity between early learning and K-12 teachers. Only four states (Hawaii, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island) require preschool teachers to be paid comparably to K-3 teachers with similar qualifications. Looking beyond salaries and benefits, the yearbook also shows state-funded preschool teachers have less access to scholarships, loan forgiveness, mentoring, coaching and retirement planning than K-12 teachers.

Dr. Caitlin McLean, senior research specialist at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley, shared findings from the Early Childhood Workforce Index 2020. This report is a biannual, 50-state study on the status and conditions of the entire early care workforce, including policies to strengthen that workforce. McLean said the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened existing economic and health insecurity for early educators leading some providers to close their businesses. As of March 2021, the childcare and early learning industry is substantially smaller than it was in February 2020 and many child-care employees had lost their jobs. Several workforce policies and initiatives have been proposed in the report, such as adjusting qualification requirements, expanding scholarship availability and wage increases. State-specific data can be viewed on CSCCE’s State Explorer.

Experts on the disparities in professional development, compensation and career advancement opportunities for early learning teachers explained how these inequalities harm both educators and children.

Valora Washington, founder and CEO of the Community Advocates for Young Leaders Institute, said early learning teachers often cannot make ends meet, even working full-time, and face high rates of poverty. These disparities also grow existing racial and gender wage inequalities in the U.S. workforce as early learning teachers are disproportionately women of color. Nationally, early learning teachers have a high rate of accessing government assistance programs like CHIP, SNAP, and TANF compared to their K-12 peers. Washington highlighted potential policy options, which include increased scholarship opportunities and access to higher wages. She recommended legislators fund and analyze statewide data to find effective solutions and that it will be important to approach the problems through a systemic lens, rather than tweaking individual performance outcomes.

Daphna Bassok, associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia and associate director of EdPolicyWorks, shared findings from Virginia’s Early Childhood Teacher Recognition Program. The Virginia’s Teacher Recognition Program, was a $9.9 million federal grant program that provided small retention bonuses--$1,500 paid in $500 increments--  to early learning teachers. The program focused on addressing high rates of staff turnover in early learning programs, compared to K-12 teachers. Bassok noted that turnover is problematic as young children benefit from close and stable relationships with their caregiver. The retention bonus program resulted in a significant increase in teacher retention in early education programs. Bassok said that most teachers used the bonus on basic needs such as housing, food, bills and paying off debt.

Lauren Hogan, managing director of policy and professional advancement with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, discussed the Unifying Framework for the Early Childhood Education Profession, a report constructed by Power to the Profession,  a national collaboration to define the early childhood education profession, across states and settings, by establishing a framework for career pathways, preparation, competencies, responsibilities, and compensation. The project included 15 national organizations and 11,000 early childhood educators. The report highlighted opportunities to use federal funds to reevaluate provider contracts focusing on consistency and stability to retain educators and improve child outcomes.

A panel of experts discussed what “quality” means in early learning based on their experiences researching, developing, and retaining high-quality early learning teachers.

Michelle Maier, research associate on family well-being and children’s development at MDRC, discussed her research in early learning educator quality and ways to enhance it, specifically by providing professional learning and advancement opportunities. By investing in the early education workforce, states can help teachers grow skills to improve both educator satisfaction and child learning outcomes.

Beverly Falk, professor and director of graduate program in early childhood education at the City College of New York, shared her experiences with educating early learning educators and noted the importance of ensuring that educators have knowledge of the science of early learning and learn how to be culturally and linguistically responsive to their students. Falk said children learn through experience and active multi-modal experiences, rather than rote learning and caring, and reciprocal relationships are integral to children’s healthy development. Educators must meet children where they are, assessing their strengths and supporting their needs in their current development. Additionally, to build sustainable, quality early education systems states should focus on recruiting and supporting teachers who reflect the identities of the children they teach. More information about Falk’s work can be found at The High-Quality Early Learning Project.

Jason Sachs, executive director of Early Childhood at Boston Public Schools, spoke about Boston Public Schools’ strategic plan. He noted that success in early education programs has come from creating parity with K-12 schools including pay parity, requiring degrees for early educators, professional development opportunities and supports for teacher’s classroom planning time. The Boston Public Schools program is housed within K-12 school buildings, but Sachs noted community-based programs can offer equivalent quality, but structures and supports need to be put in place that are more available in public school programs.

Be sure to check out additional resources and information on our Building a Strong Early Learning Workforce webpage.

Andrew Barton is an intern in NCSL's Education Program.

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Posted in: Education, COVID-19
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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.