Helping the Early Care and Education Workforce Thrive

Helping the Early Care and Education Workforce Thrive

Jun 27, 2024
A teacher playing with a group of students.
Photo By: kali9

The demand for affordable, high-quality child care continues to outpace availability. In 2019, more than three-quarters of U.S. families who needed early care and education (ECE) services struggled to find care for their children.

Both publicly and privately funded ECE services have been shown to benefit young children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. Reliable access to child care also helps remove a barrier for parents who want to stay employed and improve their family’s well-being and economic self-sufficiency. To support the health and well-being of children and their families, it is critical to understand how to strengthen the supply and quality of child care.

In the face of strong demand for ECE services, the center- and home-based workforce providing those services is in crisis. ECE programs face ongoing challenges recruiting and retaining staff. Most educators contend with poor compensation and high-stress environments, which affects their ability to deliver high-quality care and perpetuates child care challenges. The infants, young children, and families in ECE programs are vulnerable to the downstream effects when teachers and other care providers are not well supported.

Supporting the ECE workforce through evidence-based policy and programs will play an important role in addressing the gap in available, quality care and creating sustainable solutions for the future.

High turnover rates and job dissatisfaction among ECE educators can limit the quality and availability of child care and underscore the need for better support.

Turnover rates among ECE professionals are the highest in decades. Nearly one in every 10 Head Start centers had to replace teachers more than once over a 12-month period. High attrition can disrupt continuity of care for young children and interfere with establishing the types of stable and nurturing educator-child relationships that have been associated with behavioral development. These effects can be particularly significant for children experiencing poverty and other adversities.

As early educators leave the field, they take their valuable expertise with them, and additional burden on those who remain grows heavier. For the center- and home-based care providers who stay in the ECE field, burnout is harmful to their own well-being, and Early Head Start and Head Start teachers may face even higher job demands and related stress than those in other ECE settings. Evidence suggests that early educators’ own psychological stress can interfere with their ability to have nurturing interactions with children in their care, resulting in suboptimal developmental outcomes.

How to stabilize and support the ECE workforce

For decades, Mathematica’s research and evaluation have grown the evidence base in the ECE field. The following evidence-informed policy and programmatic approaches are demonstrably effective ways to stabilize and support the ECE workforce:

  1. Build and strengthen decision-making opportunities.
    Creating opportunities for ECE educators to make meaningful decisions in their classrooms can enhance staff performance and boost waning energy. For example, the ECE Leadership Study explored the use of distributed leadership. This is a practice that involves both ECE administrators and frontline teaching staff in making decisions about change and quality improvement in the classroom. Staff who participated in an effort to increase distributed leadership reported that it motivated them, enhanced their well-being, and improved retention—all promoting a healthier ECE workforce that can deliver high-quality child care.
  2. Invest in professional development, training, and technical assistance.
    Substantial federal investments and regulations, such as the Head Start Program Performance Standards, have focused on supporting quality in ECE systems. Ongoing training and technical assistance can help ECE programs better support their educators and enhance their key professional competencies. The Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey 2014–2018 (FACES 2014) found that most Head Start programs provide coaching supports and practice-based coaching. This cyclical process comprises planning goals and action steps; engaging in focused observation; and reflecting on and sharing feedback about teaching practices.

    Evidence shows that assessing quality, training, and professional development can inform caregiver practice. The Quality of Care for Infants and Toddlers (QCIT) is an evidence-based observational measure used to understand the quality of interactions in caregiver-child relationships in ECE settings. The QCIT helps identify caregiver strengths that can, in turn, be leveraged to enhance the caregivers’ professional development. Mathematica and its partners used the QCIT to develop a collection of professional development materials and resources to support the quality of caregiving in ECE settings.
  3. Provide adequate and equitable compensation.
    Early educators experience sizeable pay disparities compared with other educational professionals and are consistently among the lowest-paid workers in the country. Wages for early educators—a workforce disproportionately made up of women of color—fall short of the living wage for a single adult in most states. In fact, their median earnings in 2015 were more than $20,000 lower than those of kindergarten and elementary school teachers. Head Start has acknowledged these issues and recently proposed changes to its performance standards related to staff compensation. (Mathematica commented on this proposed rule.)

    Research suggests that improving early educators’ compensation may help retain teachers, potentially improving program quality and children’s outcomes. This has been seen in action recently in Washington, DC, where the city’s Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund raised wages for ECE educators, including Head Start teachers. An analysis of impacts in the first two years found a 7 percent increase in employment levels for ECE educators over the employment levels that would be expected in the absence of this wage increase.

An involved, skilled, and well-compensated ECE workforce is the best equipped to offer high-quality and consistent care. By investing in early educators and supporting them through evidence-based policy and programs, we can foster a strong, sustainable, and equitable ECE workforce to help children and families thrive.

About the Authors

Sara Bernstein

Sara Bernstein

Principal Researcher
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Nikki Aikens

Nikki Aikens

Principal Researcher
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Colleen Psomas

Colleen Psomas

Senior Communications Specialist
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