When you think of an early educator, you might imagine a preschool teacher in a classroom full of children. In reality, only half of the 2 million early educators and caregivers in the early childhood workforce work in formal settings like schools and centers. The other half of paid early childhood caregivers and teachers provide care through formal and informal arrangements in homes. Of the 20 million U.S. children under age 5, nearly 7 million receive care in a center-based program and 3 million are cared for in home-based settings. An additional 4 million children are cared for by an unpaid caregiver who is not their parent.
There is a popular misconception that early educators are inexperienced and do not have much knowledge of the field. But the recent National Survey of Early Care and Education reveals that the average educator or child care provider has 10 to 14 years of experience. In addition to having experience in the field, early educators across settings tend to work full-time hours. The average center-based teacher works 39 hours per week; the average home-based caregiver works nearly 54 hours per week.
According to the National Survey of Early Care and Education, the average hourly wage for an early childhood caregiver is $10.60. Hourly wages vary depending on the age of the children in care. For example, caregivers serving infants and toddlers average $9.30 per hour, while their counterparts serving preschoolers make $11.90 per hour. Wages also depend on the setting in which teachers and caregivers work. A preschool teacher with a bachelor’s degree working in a public school earns an average of $22.90 per hour, but a provider operating a child care business in their home earns only $12.44 per hour. Nearly 1 in 3 preschool teachers and almost half of home-based providers are enrolled in a public assistance program to obtain health insurance, food support, and/or income support for their own families.
Last year, the Institute of Medicine released a report on transforming the early childhood workforce that calls for all early childhood lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree by 2025. While policy initiatives through Head Start have had some success in increasing the qualifications of early childhood workers, additional strategies will be required to meet this goal across settings. As of 2012, only 45 percent of center-based preschool teachers, 19 percent of center-based infant-toddler teachers, and 16 percent of home-based providers had earned bachelor’s degrees. The Institute of Medicine recommends strategies such as scholarships and tuition reimbursement that increase the affordability of higher education and supports to improve access to higher education.
Many early educators find it difficult to advance their careers. A 2016policy statement from the federal Administration for Children and Families calls for states to take action in several policy areas, such as 1) creating shared terminology for credentials across early care and education sectors, 2) aligning credentialing and higher education systems, 3) increasing access to professional development and higher education, and 4) tracking their state’s early childhood workforce (for example, throughWorkforce Registries). Some states, such as Wisconsin, Vermont,Nebraska, Indiana, and North Carolina, have already begun such efforts by engaging in statewide early childhood workforce surveys. However, even with better alignment and access to higher education, the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment points out that low wages dissuade early educators from pursuing a higher degree. For many early educators, the cost of higher education is not worth the low wages that await them when they complete their degree.
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