NY Times Magazine: Why Are Our Most Important Teachers Paid the Least?

Recent article shines a light on the chronic undervaluing of early educators

“How are you today?” [Kelly Kejo] asked…. “Are you happy? Angry? Sad? Or silly?”

If any of her students — or ‘little friends,’ as she called them — had sung her song back to her just then, Kelly would have answered that she was stressed. Three teachers had called out from work that morning, including the assistant teacher assigned to Kelly’s room. Massachusetts state law prohibits the child-to-teacher ratio in full-day preschool classrooms from exceeding 10 to 1, so normally, Kelly had 13 students and one co-teacher. But staff shortages were a common occurrence at Springfield Arbors, where teachers earned $10 an hour on average and staff turnover was high. In practice, there was a lot of juggling: On any given day, students and teachers shuffled from one room to another, combining some classes and breaking others up in an effort to keep each room within the permissible ratio. That day, Kelly would absorb six additional students and one co-teacher from another classroom.

This recent New York Times Magazine article offers a sobering and important look at the challenges preschool teachers like Kelly face in classrooms around the country. Early educators are many children’s first teachers, tasked with the care and education of young children during what researchers are now recognizing as a key stage of cognitive development. And these teachers do it all with respect, skill, and kindness. However, they are constantly asked to do more and more while they are paid the same unlivable wages year after year, often about half of what their colleagues teaching kindergarten make: The national median annual wage for preschool teachers is $28,570, as compared to $51,640 for kindergarten teachers.

 “Teaching preschoolers is every bit as complicated and important as teaching any of the K-12 grades, if not more so,” says Marcy Whitebook, a director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. “But we still treat preschool teachers like babysitters. We want them to ameliorate poverty even as they live in it themselves.” Click here to read more.

At Jumpstart, we know that success in school begins with our early education workforce. Early educators should receive wages, benefits, and opportunities comparable to their peers in the elementary school setting. In addition, early education certification and accreditation standards need attention to address the vast differences in quality and standards that vary from state to state, and even city to city.

As a result of depressed wages and a lack of professionalization, the field suffers from rampant turnover and frequent burnout that undermine the critical importance of these educators in the development of our nation’s youngest learners. In order for children to build a strong foundation for lifelong learning, their educators must be well-prepared, trained, and supported in order to succeed and choose to stay in their preschool classrooms. Because of talented and committed teachers like the one profiled by the New York Times and the thousands of Jumpstart alumni teaching in preschool classrooms around the country, Jumpstart advocates for wage increases that work hand-in-hand with accreditation and professional development opportunities for early educators. For more information about Jumpstart’s early workforce policy recommendations, see our early education workforce policy principles here.

Together, we can help all children build the key language and literacy skills they need to take on the world.

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