Most early care and education staff retention programs share common elements

BlogEarly ChildhoodJan 17 2019

Frequent staff turnover in early care and education (ECE) programs is a widespread issue that has been associated with negative outcomes for ECE programs and providers, as well as the children they serve. Because ECE providers earn among the lowest wages of any profession nationwide, experts believe that providers are leaving the field in search of higher pay.

To combat this issue, at least 11 states have launched retention initiatives to enhance provider wages. The Minnesota Department of Human Services contracted with Child Trends to review existing retention programs—including the state’s own R.E.E.T.A.I.N. Bonus Program (Retaining Early Educators through Attaining Incentives Now), which offers financial bonuses to highly qualified providers who agree to remain in their current positions for one year. Although a few studies suggest that retention programs encourage providers to remain in the field, little is known about how specific features of implementation influence effectiveness.

We reviewed 16 programs for this study[1] and learned the following (the full Child Trends report is here):

When determining appropriate retention award amounts, most programs weight qualifications more than financial need. Although 11 programs specify a maximum wage for eligibility (i.e., providers who earn above the wage threshold are not eligible), only one program awards larger bonuses to providers with lower wages. Most others award larger bonuses to providers with higher qualifications. To ensure that retention initiatives target providers most at risk for leaving the field, future research should examine the effects of prioritizing these specific factors.

Most programs set a minimum level of education for eligibility. For example, WAGE$ Delaware specifies that applicants must hold at least six ECE college credits to qualify for funds and, at certain education levels, providers are required to advance their education within a set period of time to maintain eligibility. Other programs with minimum education requirements include WAGE$ Iowa, R.E.E.T.A.I.N., and Arizona’s Professional REWARD$ Program. For these programs, the goal is to promote the retention of highly qualified providers as measured by educational achievement.

One concern with this approach is whether all members of the workforce are equally equipped to meet eligibility requirements. For example, Minnesota family child care providers are less likely than center-based providers to hold a college degree. This suggests that a smaller proportion of family child care providers are eligible for the bonus, compared to center-based providers, and that R.E.E.T.A.I.N.’s education requirements may disproportionately prevent family child care providers from accessing the program.[2]

Many programs require providers to participate in state career lattice systems. Career lattice systems, which are sometimes part of professional development registries, assign providers a numeric level based on their education and professional development. Some states not only require applicants to participate in these systems, but also award higher bonuses to those with higher lattice levels. Importantly, these systems may be a useful source of information for states about the ECE workforce. Some lattice systems maintain administrative data on participants (e.g., Develop, Minnesota’s Quality Improvement and Registry Tool). Linking these data to retention programs could help states understand how receipt of a bonus impacts ECE provider outcomes over time. Typically, lattice systems also have established procedures for verifying documentation, so linkages to retention programs could streamline application processes.

Most programs allow providers to receive bonuses annually. For example, WAGE$ North Carolina automatically awards annual bonuses to providers who meet continuing eligibility requirements. In contrast, R.E.E.T.A.I.N. only allows providers to receive bonuses once every other year and gives more points to first-time recipients during scoring. These policies allow R.E.E.T.A.I.N. to reach more providers over time, but also prevent the bonus from becoming a reliable source of income for providers. Future studies should examine these two models to determine which is most effective at improving retention.

Most programs do not restrict recipients’ use of funds. For example, the Louisiana School Readiness Tax Credit allows recipients to spend awarded funds on whatever they would like. These programs typically do not collect specific information on how recipients use their bonuses, but Child Trends’ evaluation of R.E.E.T.A.I.N. found that recipients report spending funds on personal expenses, classroom or program materials, and time off of work. Several recipients also noted using the funds as a safety net, which reduced their financial stress. Programs that restrict recipients’ use of funds to expenses such as tuition or classroom materials should consider whether those restrictions are in line with their overall goals.

[1] Reviewed programs include WAGE$ Delaware, WAGE$ Florida, WAGE$ Iowa, WAGE$ North Carolina, New Mexico INCENTIVE$ (no longer active), Arizona’s Professional REWARD$ Program, Arizona’s Professional Career Pathways Project, First Things First College Scholarships, Great START Illinois, Illinois’ Gateways Scholarship Program, California’s AB 212 Stipend Program, Louisiana’s School Readiness Tax Credit, Maryland’s Family Child Care Provider Grant Program, Maryland’s Child Care Credential Program Training Vouchers and Reimbursements, Maryland’s Child Care Credential Program Achievement Bonus, and REWARD Wisconsin.

[2] Center-based and family child care providers apply to R.E.E.T.A.I.N. during separate application periods and do not directly compete for bonus funds.