Jun 05, 2019

Invest in California’s Children by Investing in Early Childhood Educators

Author: Samantha Tran
Elementary aged students listening to a teacher read a book
Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Every day, in classrooms and home-based settings, California’s early childhood educators are building the academic and social-emotional foundation of the state’s youngest learners. With sufficient knowledge, skill, and experience, they are able to draw out each child’s potential and help set children on a path to good health, academic success, and economic security later in life. That’s the ideal, at least. In practice, however, California has undervalued and underinvested in its early childhood workforce, creating hardships for educators and undermining the many benefits of high-quality early care and education (ECE).

Nearly 60% of California’s ECE educators are on public assistance. A 2016 study of ECE teaching staff in Alameda County is illustrative of the economic challenges facing ECE educators throughout the state. The study found that 75% of those surveyed worried about having enough money to pay the bills, 70% worried about housing or health care costs, and 54% worried about being able to feed their family each month. Not surprisingly, given these economic hardships, an average of one in four ECE educators in California leave the profession each year. These conditions are untenable for educators, and the stress and lack of stability have a negative impact on children’s learning environments and achievement.

When we fail to provide educators with the supports they need to be successful and stay in the profession, we’re shortchanging our educators and our future.

Research demonstrates that positive adult-child interactions create a sturdy foundation for a child’s later healthy development. From cultivating a sense of efficacy to learning empathy and self-regulation to developing reasoning and problem-solving skills, interactions with teachers and caregivers have a far-reaching impact on a child’s acquisition of critical skills and habits of thinking. When we fail to provide educators with the supports they need to be successful and stay in the profession, we’re shortchanging our educators and our future.

For example, recent Getting Down to Facts research found that “California’s children are behind before they enter kindergarten,” noting that the state’s large achievement gaps by race, English learner status, and family income level are caused, in part, by unequal access to high-quality ECE programs. We also know the benefits of high-quality child care and preschool: an investment in ECE has a direct positive, multidimensional economic impact on parents, the workforce, and the local economy—not to mention long-term benefits to children and society as a whole.

As the recent report from the California Assembly’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education suggests, a comprehensive, systemic approach to supporting the ECE workforce is critical to expanding access to high-quality ECE in the state. Governor Newsom, in his first budget, also proposes investments in the ECE workforce. Taking a comprehensive approach involves addressing three interconnected ECE workforce imperatives: (1) implementing effective, accessible training and support; (2) increasing professional standards; and (3) ensuring competitive compensation.

A holistic approach to developing the workforce is critical to providing a solid foundation for children and to supporting and stabilizing the field. Educators can’t be expected to continue their professional growth if there are not accessible pathways for them to build their knowledge and skills. They won’t stay in the field if they aren’t appropriately compensated. And from both a practical and a political standpoint, raising their compensation to be on par with k– 12 colleagues requires that ECE educators demonstrate a similar acquisition of core competencies.

While achieving this desired outcome is not simple, it is possible.

California is not alone in trying to build a high-quality early learning system that supports and values its educators. There is much we can learn from other states, while leveraging what we know within our own context.

Pennsylvania is a good example of a state that has worked to promote coherence in its workforce development infrastructure by adopting an Early Childhood Education Registered Apprenticeship Career Pathway, which has seamless articulation from an initial Child Development Associate Credential through the state’s requirements for its instructional leadership and coaching positions. Pennsylvania’s approach includes extensive counseling and course preparation to provide tangible support for the existing and expanding workforce, as well as clinical experience and on-site mentorship to truly build the knowledge and skills ECE educators need to promote positive outcomes for children.

Other states have also wrestled with how to increase the education and experience level requirements of their ECE workforce, while at the same time recognizing and valuing the knowledge and skills of current educators. Colorado’s Early Childhood Professional Credential provides an interesting example. The state has established a framework that values accomplishments that are aligned with improving outcomes for children. This includes relevant college coursework, ongoing professional development, years of experience, and demonstration of competency through approved assessments. The system assigns points for each accomplishment, thereby providing multiple ways for ECE educators to demonstrate what they know and are able to do.

Raising compensation is a critical piece of the ECE workforce puzzle. A good first step toward addressing compensation challenges is to reform and invest in a unified reimbursement rate system for providers. A report commissioned by First 5 California found that (a) our current approach to rates, which includes the Regional Market Rate and Standard Reimbursement Rate, does not incentivize quality or represent the true cost of care, and (b) the low reimbursement rate is contributing to teacher shortages and excessive turnover rates. If implemented, the report’s recommendation for a single, regionalized rate approach would result in more funding to help stabilize the supply of early learning programs. It would also lay the foundation for a tiered reimbursement system that could incentivize quality and provide the resources needed to competitively compensate educators, especially as educational and training requirements are increased.

California has an opportunity to invest in its children by investing in its educators. To do so effectively, we need to take a multidimensional approach. By building a true infrastructure of support, applying higher professional standards, and competitively compensating educators, policymakers will be taking a holistic approach to building a strong, stable, and effective ECE workforce.

Samantha Tran is Children Now’s Senior Managing Director, Education Policy.