A New York Times Magazine headline last week put it bluntly: “Why are our most important teachers paid the least?”
Historically, early childhood educators’ salaries have been lower than those of K–12 teachers, in part because requirements for early childhood educators are lower. But many are beginning to question that model, particularly because research suggests that high-quality early learning experiences are critical for children’s success in school and beyond.
Yet a movement toward higher certification requirements and higher pay—already afoot in many places—would not be without potential pitfalls. Our data indicate that as education standards increase, teacher diversity—also critical to young children’s experiences—might suffer.
Teacher diversity in early childhood programs
In 2015, early childhood education (ECE) workers looked a lot like the children they served. Nationwide, the shares of black, Hispanic, and Asian workers were nearly identical to the shares of children from the same racial and ethnic groups. White teachers were somewhat overrepresented, but these disparities are smaller than the ones children encounter when they enter school.
There are, however, two caveats. First, an overall match between ECE workers and children does not imply that each child (or community) experiences this alignment. Early childhood education programs are generally small, and families often select programs close to home or work, so residential and occupational segregation may or may not lead to race mismatch in children’s earliest learning experiences.
Second, many children are not enrolled in ECE, and enrollment patterns are closely tied to race and ethnicity. One in four white, Asian, and other race children do not regularly attend ECE, compared with one-third of black children and nearly half of Hispanic children. Changes in ECE enrollment might shift the balance.
Looking at all ECE workers together also misses part of the story because these teachers work in a number of related but distinct occupations. Some of these roles may not traditionally be characterized as teachers, but we include them here because young children are learning (or missing opportunities for learning) wherever they are.
Every one of the ECE occupations is more diverse than K–12 teachers. Yet, these occupations vary in their racial and ethnic makeup. Roughly half of center- and family-based child care workers and teaching assistants are people of color, making these roles the most diverse. Preschool teachers and private home-based child care workers are less diverse, with each about two-thirds white.
The tension between diversity and qualifications
As is true in K–12 education, ECE teacher diversity is intertwined with professional qualifications and compensation. Early childhood education workers are more diverse than K–12 teachers, but they are substantially less well educated and compensated.
Among ECE workers, black and Hispanic workers are less likely to hold a bachelor’s degree and are more likely to have high school as their highest level of attainment than white or Asian workers.
Workers in the most diverse ECE roles are among those most likely to have a high school diploma (or equivalent) or less and least likely to have the kinds of degrees that lead to better teaching quality and child outcomes.
These patterns mean that changes to education requirements for ECE workers risk driving teachers of color away. But those higher requirements, many say, are necessary to justify paying ECE workers a salary that better represents the importance of their work.
Strategies for balancing pay, education, and diversity
Movements to increase educational requirements should ensure that financial and other support is in place to help ECE workers achieve these credentials. Otherwise, diversity may be at risk.
Washington, DC, which recently raised the requirements for its ECE workers, offers scholarships to help pay the cost of retraining its workforce. Cities or programs should also consider paid time off for continuing education and providing substitute teachers while workers are in school.
Other places, like Philadelphia, are considering apprenticeships for current teachers. These programs allow teachers to work toward higher credentials on the job, rather than trying to complete evening and weekend classes in addition to professional responsibilities.
The other option for ECE programs is to recruit teachers of color with higher qualifications. The catch is that recruiting more qualified teachers would likely mean offering higher pay, which programs struggle to justify based on the qualifications of their current workforce.
The diversity of the ECE workforce is promising, but the low levels of education and pay are troubling. The challenge going forward will be to raise educational requirements and concomitant pay without disproportionately losing or dissuading ECE teachers of color.