Growing Recognition and Real Hope

Looking ahead at where the early childhood workforce can go from here.

4 mins


We know from the science that how we learn shapes who we become. That learning begins for many by dedicated educators and caregivers starting in our youngest years. Of the many key issues impacting the field of early learning and child development — from prenatal care to developing high-quality, culturally-relevant curriculum — reforming the early education sector to better support the workforce is top of mind for leaders in the field.

Child Trends, a research organization focused on child well-being, released practice and policy findings in a 2021 report that tracked the connection of systemic racism in the U.S. with early childhood workforce stability, including provider pay and benefits. The Black Infant and Toddler Equity Project recently laid out 14 priorities that we need to attend to get to a better early childhood. Those include family, leadership, workforce training and compensation.

With support from the Early Educator Investment Collaborative, in 2021 Child Trends conducted a literature review and developed a policy and practice report to map the history of systemic racism in the U.S. and how it has influenced early childhood education (ECE) policy and practice, with a particular focus on educator pay and benefits, preparation, and workforce stability.

Dr. Iheoma Iruka, a research professor in public policy at UNC and founding director of the Equity Research Action Coalition works alongside a team of researchers together around workforce as a crucial issue impacting the early learning field today. Specifically, calls for better compensation and public policy supporting those who educate children in crucial early years of brain development. “We need to have high-quality programming available to families so parents and caregivers can work, but also high-quality for children to be able to thrive,” Dr. Iruka says. The strengths of early childhood exist in the presence of a lot of ongoing challenges. The inequities that are built into early childhood at large. “For example, we need to ask how we consider the positives of early childhood while recognizing that it is not without deep entrenched racism, sexism and classism.”

We need to have high-quality programming available to families so parents and caregivers can work, but also high-quality for children to be able to thrive.

Dr. Iheoma Iruka

Surfacing Inequities

To identify embedded inequities within the early childhood workforce, researchers including Dr. Iruka frames her work by clearly naming when inequity is embedded into the system. “We know Black children and Native children are more likely to be suspended. Black and Latino children are likely to be segregated into low-quality programs,” Dr. Iruka says. “Black teachers who work with infants and toddlers or they teach in the home are paid less than those who teach older kids. So, we can’t address the larger issue of workforce without addressing these larger entrenched issues.”

Like taking a child to a playground or to a neighborhood swimming pool, parents and caregivers want and need adults to be present. “In the same way, when you don’t have somebody who is at least the facilitator of knowledge in the early childhood classroom, it does not operate,” Dr. Iruka says. “For so long we have underpaid a group of people because we saw them as babysitters. We basically pay them below minimum wage but ask them to work building our kids’ brains for 40, 50, 60 hours a week. At the same time, we pay them pretty much pennies on the dollar.”

A Closer Look at Compensation

Increasing compensation is a central factor in attracting and retaining childcare professionals. “We say early childhood education is important, but our money does not indicate that,” Dr. Iruka says. “We underpay so much and have never actually fully paid for the full cost of what we think is high-quality care, which is a teacher who is well trained, who knows how to really support the learning and development of young children. For children in those years, their brain is developing, and their emotions and language are also developing.”

Dr. Iruka says the pandemic and current inflation is causing some childcare professionals to decide they “cannot risk their health to be underpaid, under-rewarded, under-valued.” She says those who were in the workforce are potentially finding other more meaningful and more well-paid positions that also offer simple things like benefits, paid leave and retirement.

Because of the lack of investment both nationally and locally, a lot of educators on the front lines are finding other avenues to earn incomes that offer typical hours and benefits. “If you can’t open classrooms or programs, people can’t go to work, and we’re talking about a majority female workforce. We know women have been harmed in both pandemic and beyond,” Dr. Iruka says, noting the cascading effect when a woman wants to go back to work but there is no childcare open or accessible. “People don’t have a childcare or urgent education department they can depend on. None of us would want to leave their child in a potentially unsafe and unregulated space, or even where there’s not enough adults and programs legally their license can open without the right adult child ratio.” Some programs may have space to enroll more children but are not able to retain staff members. When they can no longer afford to retain employees and operate, eventually those programs will close. We’ll continue to see some of this sort of impact downstream.

Looking Ahead with Hope

Amid real challenges, there are several reasons to bear hope about the national childcare workforce conversation. There is a growing recognition for the importance of supporting the early education workforce. As a next step, Dr. Iruka says we can align funding with our values, because the way we fund our country doesn’t currently align with our childcare goals. “I see hope in how that is shifting to make a foundation for children to thrive to be their best in various state-level and local communities.”

Colleagues are doing interesting work to collaborate and push the field ahead around support for the early childhood workforce, including Lea Austin, who directs the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at Berkeley and scholar Chrishana Lloyd from Child Trends.

In the end, what gives her hope are families. “Because our children depend on us to not give up hope. Children want childhood to be joyful,” Dr. Iruka says. “Parents want our kids to be inquisitive. We want them to be able to thrive. We must continue to lean on the fact that children are asking for adults to be adults. We are here to protect our children, to promote their best selves and to preserve the best of who they are. And it is our job to offer protection, promotion and preservation to help them thrive. That’s what gives me hope — that there is a growing amount of attention to the national conversation about the early years.”

Bezos Family Foundation is proud to support early childhood research including the Child Trends landscape report on the link between race and early childhood workforce stability.