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Teachers Are the Key to Quality Education

As we pause this Labor Day to celebrate the nation's workers, we should also think about those whose profession helps prepare the citizens and workforce of tomorrow: early childhood teachers who work with children every day.

A child's first five years are the most critical for neurological development, with their brains forming more than one million neural connections per second. This is the time when the foundation is built for future success – brain wiring for social, emotional, physical and cognitive development. Genetics and experiences both play a role in a child's early development. And that is why access to early childhood education programs and to quality early educators matters so much.

Having high-quality programs hinges on having a high-quality workforce. But the field suffers from low wages, which leads to high turnover. Poor pay also leaves little incentive for early childhood teachers to return to college and earn degrees or other certifications to deepen their competencies and knowledge about how best to foster early learning. Today, the median hourly wage among those working in child care settings amounts to $10.72 per hour – about $22,000 per year. Indeed, preschool teachers earn a little more at about $13.94 per hour – about $29,000 per year. Despite the salary bump, these teachers still struggle to support their own families.

Many teachers working with children from birth to age five are based in private child care centers. These businesses operate on a shoe-string budget with parent fees comprising most of their operating revenue. It is simply impossible to substantially increase teacher wages without passing on those fees to parents (who already struggle to afford the program costs). We know that high-quality care costs more to provide (to have educated teachers, to have low child-to-staff ratios, to have materials and supplies that promote creativity and learning). But, our current system is not funded in a manner to support high-quality settings.

The key lies in finding revenue streams outside of the traditional parent-fee model, expanding the pool of resources that can be used to support high-quality programs. In some states and localities, innovative leaders are moving forward with early childhood initiatives, which are fueled by creative, common sense approaches.

Consider Louisiana, for example: More than a decade ago, it passed legislation to provide a refundable tax credit for early childhood center directors and staff based on educational attainment or the achievement of certain certifications (such as a Child Development Associate credential). The tax credit increased as the level of higher education increased. And it worked: Between 2008 and 2015, the number of staff in the Pelican State who had the minimum qualifying teaching credential increased by 374 percent; the number who achieved higher qualifications increased at almost double that rate.

And then there is Mecklenburg County, N.C., which is perhaps the most recent locality to take important steps toward improving its early childhood opportunities. Dissatisfied with less than one-third of its four-year-old children able to participate in public pre-k, the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, a group of 24 Charlotte business leaders, funded a feasibility study to expand access to early childhood education for children from birth through age five. A five-point action plan was recommended. In June of 2018, the County Board of Commissioners approved a three-quarters of a penny increase in the property tax to fund the first year of voluntary, universal public pre-k for every four-year-old in the county and also several child care initiatives. This fall, 33 new "Meck Pre-K" classrooms will open serving 600 additional four-year-old children (beyond the state funded public pre-K program). The cornerstone of the pre-k initiative is a high-quality and fairly compensated workforce.

Here is what we know: High-quality early childhood settings make a difference for all children, but particularly for low-income children. Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman has estimated that such programs yield a 13 percent annual return on investment (more children stay in school, graduate high school and hold well-paying jobs).

Solutions abound for promoting healthy development and school readiness among our young children – to better prepare the next generation of workers. At the core of these initiatives is building a strong early childhood workforce – both in knowledge and competencies and also in pay. All we need now is the will power to implement them more broadly.