Better Pay for Teachers Is a Key to Early Education Reform

The first in a series that explores compensation in early learning.


Preschool and child care teachers typically don’t earn high or even medium salaries. In fact, students who major in early childhood education earn the least during their careers, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution.


Low pay among early educators isn’t news, though a college degree should buy you a living wage. But it is one of the most obvious symptoms of the broken economics of early learning. In the Brookings review of 31 college majors, early childhood education ranked lower than fine arts.


It is also one of the central challenges that policymakers face when they work on improving early education. Until paychecks of early learning teachers get fatter it is going to be challenging to build high-quality early learning in Washington and around the country.


Decent pay makes it easier to retain staff, and continuity and attachment are building blocks of a good program. It also draws qualified teachers, who have developed the skills needed to teach in and lead quality programs. And when early educators are paid decent salaries they are more likely to see themselves as the professionals they are, according to Deeann Burtch Puffert, chief executive officer at Seattle-based Child Care Resources.
“You have to compensate people to attain quality and not only attract but maintain quality,” said Juliet Morrison, assistant director for quality practice and professional growth at Washington’s Department of Early Learning. With low pay, “we are also sending a societal message that the position isn’t worth a living wage.”

The good news is that Washington is sending a different message by taking steps to boost pay in early learning. In its application for a federal Preschool Development Grant, Washington proposes paying qualified preschool teachers in the same way as K-3 teachers. Its quality rating and improvement system, Early Achievers, includes salary supports.


The state still has a ways to go. Reimbursement rates for subsidized child care spots, for example, are too low to support high-quality care, Puffert says. But, “we are the closest to getting in a balanced place as I’ve ever experienced in my 30-year career,” Puffert adds.


Clearly, higher pay will not magically create high-quality preschool and child care. That work depends on many interconnected changes, including higher compensation.


But, to borrow, and tweak, a line from Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax”:


UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot (about it),
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.