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Is Your Pre-K Teacher Giving What They Get?

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Updated on Oct 5, 2010

When it comes to childcare and preschool programs, teacher turnover is a big problem. Here's why: Research shows that stability and routine are crucial for children, not only at home, but also in daycare and school settings. So when toddlers and young children are confronted with a new teacher every few months, it’s no surprise that the learning suffers.

One of the biggest reasons preschool teachers cite leaving the field is salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wages of preschool teachers were $23,870 in May 2008, with the bottom 10 percent earning less than $16,030.

Because education is funded for the most part at the state level, location has a lot to do with how much teachers are paid. But according to Adele Robinson, Director of Public Policy for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the problem of low preschool teacher wages really has to do with how we as a country finance early childhood education at large.

“We’re still primarily putting the responsibility on the backs of parents who haven’t had 18 years to save,” Robinson says. She explains that parents pay about 60% of the fees associated with early childhood education and the other 40% is covered by public money. “There’s only so much more we can raise the tuition before parents say, ‘I can’t afford that.’ You want to hire the best teachers, and you want to not just hire them, you want to keep them—but teachers leave and it’s really because of pay.”

Steven Barnett, Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), explains that because families shoulder most of the responsibility for paying for preschool, and because most working families need long hours of care for their children, they simply can’t afford to pay very much per hour. “There’s a relatively small group of well-educated two-parent families that can pay a lot for these programs… $10,000 or $12,000 per year,” he says, “but most families aren’t paying anything like that, and that constrains the teachers’ pay.”

Though current research points to the relevance of prekindergarten in a child’s growth and development—that a strong prekindergarten experience sets the stage for a child to succeed in school—Robinson says we’re still struggling to match the rhetoric about the value to the public good and investment. “It’s really a question of what the tax payer values,” she says. “We could start creating a very strong, stable profession, but it starts with financing.”

Barnett agrees. “The only way we get adequate teacher salaries is when programs are publicly funded,” he says. “It doesn’t help that the government implements some programs on the cheap that aren’t comparable to the ones that produce great effects,” he says.

For example, Barnett explains, Head Start teachers make only about half what public school teachers make. “There are small positive effects, but I think the effects would be a lot bigger if we paid teachers what we do in the public schools,” he says.

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