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Exploring the Early Childhood Workforce Shortage - Part 1

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Butler Institute for Families

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Getting Connected: The early care and education sector is experiencing a nationwide workforce crisis. There aren’t enough qualified teachers to meet the needs of children and families, and teacher compensation plays a prominent role. This episode of B-Connected focuses on the early childhood workforce, their challenges and the crucial role they play in the development and well-being of young children. The conversation explores the wide variety of roles and professions, the complexity of the early childhood education system and the various pathways to becoming an early childhood educator.



Dr. Diana Schaack – Assistant Professor, School of Education and Human Development, University of Colorado, Denver

Dr. Meg Franko – Director of Early Childhood Initiatives, Butler Institute for Families, University of Denver

Hosted by: Christa Doty, Butler Institute for Families, University of Denver

Produced by: Amy Hansen, Butler Institute for Families, University of Denver



Article: Bassok, D., Markowitz, A. J., Bellows, L., & Sadowski, K. (2021). New evidence on teacher turnover in early childhood. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 43(1), 172-180.


Christa Doty:

Welcome to B-Connected, a Butler Institute podcast series. My name is Christa Doty, and I am your host for today's episode. Our conversation today will focus on the early childhood workforce. According to the Center for American Progress in 2022, child care workers are near the bottom of all occupations when ranked by pay. The early child care and education sectors experienced a nationwide workforce crisis.

There aren't enough qualified teachers to meet the needs of children and families, and teacher compensation plays a prominent role. The University of Virginia found in 2021 that more than one third of teachers leave their program from one year to the next, and most quit the profession entirely. These turnover rates are highest among teachers working with infants and toddlers.

So, today we're going to be talking about the early childhood workforce. Who are they? How are they faring? And how can research inform early childhood programs and policies? My guests today are Dr. Diana Schaack, who is an assistant professor in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado, Denver. Her expertise is on policies and strategies that promote early childhood teacher development.

We're also going to be talking to Dr. Meg Franko, who is director of Early Childhood Initiatives at the Butler Institute at the University of Denver. Her work is focused on evaluating policies and programs that build strong and sustainable early childhood systems. So, welcome, and let's get started.

Well, thank you, Meg and Diana, for being here for this conversation.

I want to just start out broadly, and Meg, can you tell us who the childhood workforce is? Who are we talking about? And also, maybe what roles and jobs make up the early childhood workforce?

Meg Franko:

Sure. The early childhood workforce, if you're talking broadly, there are a wide variety of potential roles and professions that are included in that. I think the ones that people are going to think of most top of mind will be like preschool teachers and child care caregivers and center directors. In addition to that, within the broader field, we have folks like home visitors who go out to people's homes, early childhood mental health consultants. We have coaches who go into early education settings and caregiving settings and provide support to the direct teachers and caregivers there. And parent educators might all be included in the broader field of early childhood.

Christa Doty:

Wow. So, it's really wide and like, there's a breadth and depth to this. So, Diana, within early childhood education in particular, what kind of professional roles make up the field? So, we've got the broad, but then when we think about the professional roles, what types of things?

Diana Schaack:

Within early care and education, we often think about different service sectors. Those are the settings in which early childhood education, I also refer to it as ECE, that ECE is delivered.

One of the service sectors is family child care, and there are family child care providers. They provide care for pay within the context of their own home environment for children, usually birth through age five, and oftentimes school agers join before and after school and during school breaks in the summer. And at times have assistants who also work in the large family child care homes.

Within the context of center-based settings, you have schools like public-school-based programs. Often they deliver public pre-K programs. So, you have teachers often licensed, not always, but often licensed and paraeducator roles within that. And then in center-based settings that are community based, you will have lead teachers, co-teachers, assistant teachers, teacher aides, a position that we call floaters, which float around, or like substitute teachers that are hired.

We have directors, assistant directors, curriculum coordinators. There's a wide variety of different professional roles that are within those settings. And Head Start is a type of ECE program that can be delivered in community-based settings or public-school-based settings and standalone Early Head Start programs. It's a wide variety of both roles and programs and settings.

Christa Doty:

Wow, that's pretty complex.

Meg, do you have anything to add to that?

Meg Franko:

I would just echo the complexity of the system overall. It's not like when people think of the K-12 education system where there's some consistency and common infrastructure. It's a lot more diversity of programs, settings, roles, and educational backgrounds that feed into all of that.

Christa Doty:

Then how does somebody become an early childhood educator or director? Diana?

Diana Schaack:

We have created a very complicated system where there's actually another job role called the Career Navigator, because it is, in fact, very complicated. It probably shouldn't be as complicated as it is. What we have to draw on what Meg had just mentioned, is a system that has evolved based on funding. I just taught a class on early childhood programs and policies.

Some of my students’ eyes were wide as I tried to describe the service sectors and the flow of money. We don't have an early childhood education system in the United States that is fully funded. So, unlike kindergarten through 12th grade, where children's education is provided as part of taxes, that does not exist for all young children. We have some programs that start at the federal level and flow directly to programs.

Head Start, for example. We have other systems that have emerged through a need for child care. So, we have systems that are based in Department of Human Services, for example, that are both care and education. I want to be very clear about that. But they're not within the context often of Head Start or public-school-based systems. And we have this newly emerging, and by new, several decades, of pre-K program classrooms, which are largely in the K-12 system, and all of them have different money, different governance structures, different goals for kids and teachers.

And what has evolved is a different teacher preparatory system. For some programs, you can become an early childhood teacher by taking some state training. Let's just be very clear. Every state does it differently. My frame right now is Colorado because I live here. I often work in other states. But if we take Colorado, for example, there are ways to work in community-based programs as a teacher by taking a set of state-developed or sanctioned trainings, or you can enter into that system doing a set of community college courses.

At this point, there are two courses that you would need to take to be able to lead a classroom in community-based settings. That doesn’t mean that's what every program requires. It just means in terms of the minimum licensing requirements. If you were to go into some public-school-based programs, you would need to have a B.A. with teacher licensure.

That's not with every district. It just depends on the state, depends on the district. There's multiple pathways to be able to get into becoming an early childhood teacher.

Christa Doty:

I want to back up and ask a question. Meg, maybe you can start the answer. Why is this topic important? Talking about early childhood educators and workforce.

Meg Franko:

I think it's always been important because these are the folks who take care of our youngest citizens and who are their earliest teachers, people who help them get ready for the rest of their lives.

There's a wide body of research that talks about the first five years and even the first three years and how important those are in terms of brain development. So, just from a child development perspective, it's incredibly important. It's also important in terms of how our society functions, frankly, of people's ability to go to work, to go to school, for adults to be able to support their families.

And it's become even more critical in the last few years or at least it's been highlighted a lot more how important early childhood educators are for our children. I think we saw this a lot during COVID. It became really apparent to people that this was truly an essential service. At the same time, and I'm sure we'll talk more about this through our conversation, we don't have enough qualified early care and early educators. We're in a position where we're really struggling to get people to enter and stay in the field. Diana, do you have some thoughts on that as well?

Diana Schaack:

I'm going to mess up this quote, so I'm going to put that out here right now. This is not the exact quote, but the child developmentalist by the name of Winnicott used to say something to the lines of there's no such thing as a baby.

And what he meant by that was there's no such thing as a baby outside of their caregiving relationships. The two go together. And children's development unfolds within the context of their caregiving relationships, especially in early childhood. And what we also know is that the well-being of the adults who care for and educate young children, and by that I mean their emotional well-being, their financial well-being, their professional knowledge and skills. Those are all critical to supporting young children's development, particularly in group care settings, where it takes a lot of energy and a lot of depth of understanding of young children to be able to do the job well and to support the development of young children that are happening during this very sensitive period of development. We cannot think about children without thinking about their caregivers.

Christa Doty:

It's not just the individual. It's important for all of us in society, is what I'm hearing. Diana, your research is around this early childhood workforce. What are you trying to answer in your questions about the early childhood workforce? What is your focus?

Diana Schaack:

I have a couple focuses in my work. The first is to really think about how the workforce  is doing and what enables them to develop a long and fulfilling career in the field.

What drives them out of the field? Oftentimes I hear we have a workforce crisis. I challenge that completely. I don't think we have a workforce crisis. If we have a workforce crisis, then the intervention goes into the workforce level. What we have is a lack of funding in early childhood education that creates a lack of jobs in which early educators can build a long and fulfilling career in the field, and then they end up leaving their jobs.

And if we reframe it that way, then it becomes about larger systemic issues. I think about that. I think about organizational issues and challenges that the workforce experiences and how they can build their careers. I think about what drives people from their jobs as well as I do think about early childhood teacher preparation in some of my research.

Christa Doty:

So, what are you finding out in your research?

Diana Schaack:

I’m finding out that this is a very dedicated workforce that even in spite of the challenges in their jobs, are dedicated to the health and well-being of young children.

I’m finding it’s also a very stressful job. And early childhood education, it's a complex job, and it requires a complex set of knowledge and skills. People conjure up different images of what early childhood teachers do. People think about it as babysitting, and we hear that a lot. Or daycare. But it's much more complex than that. And early childhood teachers now are called upon to meet very diverse needs of children, children with special health and learning needs, children who are emerging bilingual learners, children who have experienced trauma.

They're asked to plan curriculum across learning domains and to develop positive and supportive relationships with children. They are tasked with meeting with home visitors and working with consultants to develop IEPs to be individual support plans for children. They are conducting assessments and planning curriculum for learning. It's a very complex job, and it often does not come with the job resources to support the demands of the job. And by job resources, think about fair pay. It's not even adequate right now. So, pay, having breaks and planning times, having enough other teachers in the programs because of the low pay and the challenges with working conditions. Oftentimes, teachers don't have retirement benefits, health care benefits that enable people to stay in a field or in their job. There's a lot of turnover. And when you are working in a classroom where it's often communal in terms of co-teachers to care for the needs of their young children, you need multiple teachers, and there's a constant turnover.

It is a very challenging work environment to be able to do that. Not having planning time. Having people in and out. Sometimes not even having the resources for materials and professional learning experiences. These are all challenges that the field is facing right now. Quite frankly, the pay and the job resources are not aligned to the demands of the job.

Christa Doty:

Have you found any information in your research about what does help people stay in the field? Anyone who has stayed for a long period of time, even among some of these challenges. Have you had any conversations around that?

Diana Schaack:

There are a couple of things. One is dedication to the communities, to serving the children and families and the communities.

But we can't rest on that. Because people are committed, that doesn't mean we can't support them. They need more support. Commitment and passion is part of the equation, but it can't be the only part. People stay in the jobs when they have very supportive coworkers and instructional leaders. We've also found that one of the attractions to the job, too, is when programs are able to provide free or reduced rate child care for teachers’ children and then, as teachers’ children transition into elementary school, working on schedules that can comport to their children's schedules.

So that interaction between teachers’ professional lives and their family lives, and it has to work together for teachers. That helps keep people in the field. And pay, pay, pay. I'm going to say it like 10 more times. Pay, better pay.

Meg Franko:

Yeah, and just to emphasize that pay piece, it's so low that many folks in the workforce qualify for public support programs like Medicaid and SNAP food assistance programs.

It's so low that people are literally doing this on poverty wages, but the expectations are quite, quite high. The pay is not to be understated.

Diana Schaack:

My research is showing, even in spite of wonderful collegial relationships and feeling very fulfilled in the job itself, the detrimental effects of low pay on turnover, they overshadow all those other wonderful things because if you can't pay your bills, it is hard to justify staying in that job.

Christa Doty:

Yeah, so it sounds like we need to expand the conversation beyond the individual and into systems. And I know, Meg, you've done a lot of work with states and local agencies on understanding the status of their early childhood workforce. Can you give us some examples of what you've done to help expand this conversation?

Meg Franko:

My work has focused a lot on the systems level, some of the things that are happening at the policy level more than at the individual level, and I've actually done quite a bit of this work in collaboration with Diana. And often folks will come to us, state-level governments or foundations who are putting together programs, to really try to understand and communicate what some of these needs are that we're discussing here.

So, for instance, a few years ago, we did an economic analysis of the child care system in Colorado and what the impact is on the state economy. The same time Diana did a kind of parallel study looking at the workforce. We also have done work that looks at needs assessments for states. We've done work in Michigan. We've done work locally in some of the counties here in Colorado, because policymakers want to understand what is happening so that they can try to make better decisions around how to invest limited dollars in the early care and education system.

It's not that they don't know that there are issues there. People struggle with where to invest those limited funds. That's part of what we do, and I think we found similar kinds of things that Diana is talking about. Compensation always, always, always comes up. I may sound a little like I'm continuing to go at this again and again, but honestly, there's just not enough money in the system to fix the problem.

And so often, solutions are trying to look for a band-aid that they can use to either prop up part of the training or the workforce. You know, concrete things that people can work on. The bottom line really is that as a society and starting all the way at the federal level and going down, a lot more investment needs to go into the early care and education system if we want to have a sustainable workforce where we can count on our very youngest children having consistent caregivers who are well trained and qualified.

Christa Doty:

So, if those policymakers are listening or the policymakers were here right now, what would you want them to know? What would your advice be? Diana?

Diana Schaack:

I'm going to quote a mentor of mine who is a scholar and activist in this area, Marcy Whitebook, and she says that the adult’s work environment is a children's learning environment. And again, this is the same concept. You can't think of children without thinking of the adults. And so, if policymakers want to support programs that are really well positioned to advancing children's learning, helping to prepare them for school, helping to ensure that they're healthy and thriving, they have to consider the work environments of the adults.

They have to. And that includes having things like planning time and having things like equitable pay with K-12 education. You can't keep developing programs without thinking of the people who are delivering them in the context in which they are delivering them.

Christa Doty:

Meg, What would you want to share with a policymaker?

Meg Franko:

Well, in addition to fundamentally changing the way that we think about the early care and education system, because I do think that in the past, and even currently, we expect people to do this work because of their deep love of young children and their commitment to the field. I am heartened that in the last several years, there's been a lot more focus on funding the early care and education system, and a lot of that had to do with COVID, but some of it was happening even before that. I have memories of jumping up and down and yelling joyfully at the television and policymakers talking about what they want to do in terms of child care and early education. You didn't used to hear that as a topic at all, so I do think we've made progress. I think the next steps are really putting our money where that rhetoric is, right? Really figuring out a way to fund what we say is important to us. I think there are other things as well that can happen along the way because I know that's a big long-term ask.

We were talking about how complicated the career pathways are, developing a much clearer pathway for entering the field. We make it very hard for people to understand how to get in and move up and having more clear career ladders that actually can support a livelihood. And I think there are other things that policymakers can do just to make things more affordable for early care and education teachers.

We were just doing some work in a mountain community here, many resort-type communities. They were really struggling with housing, and that then interplays with the ability to get early childhood professionals because the housing costs are too high. I think communities, local governments, have an opportunity to do things like support rent and preferable mortgage rates for folks who go into this kind of field. Loan forgiveness kinds of things for early educators who are taking community college or getting their B.A. and that sort of thing.

And Diana, you may have some other ideas of similar kinds of strategies that folks are using as policy levers to try to make a difference right now.

Diana Schaack:

One of the interesting things that happened during COVID was some really sizable investments, stabilizing ECE. And some of those investments also went into early childhood workforce development and retention. And so, I think we have a lot to learn about that.

One of the challenges individual ECE programs face, they often have to emergency hire and then they become the training ground for early educators. And so, not only are they providing the early care and education services to children and families, they are emergency hiring people and then they are trying to figure out how to train them and get them ready to be in the classroom with children.

And oftentimes people get overwhelmed at the job, and then they end up leaving. And what I think that we really need to do a better job with in terms of policy is building a pipeline, both of people who are already in the field and advancing them, as well as thinking earlier into recruiting the high schoolers into college into the jobs so that they're not having to go to college while they're working.

That's just a very stressful pathway to take. And so, supporting much more scholarship and these pipeline programs I think is really, really important. But what that also includes is knocking down barriers to higher education, because there are many people who have been marginalized, including our BIPOC early educators from higher education. And so, we have to think about multiple systems at play here.

I think often about some of the work that's happening in Colorado right now that is very exciting to me. With partnerships with the state and higher education colleges and universities across the state, we're really trying to make much more responsive early teacher preparation programs, very well-supported online programs or bringing A.A. degrees to rural B.A. campuses to expand access that way. Creating easier pathways into degree programs that honor people's prior experiences as teachers.

Because often community-based teachers are in their jobs before they pursue college coursework and honoring those and credit for trainings. Job-embedded B.A. degrees. CU Denver, we're bringing degrees to people's places of work and embedding coursework within the context of people's jobs. All of those things are really, really important. And what we saw during COVID was massive. Bigger investments in teacher preparation, teacher development, teacher education than we've seen. And people responded by taking coursework, and it's been a really amazing thing to be a part of.

And, at the same time, they're also working in jobs that still aren't paying them enough because we don't have that money yet. And so, we have to work on both sides of this. There's a lot going on, but there's really good potential initiatives and policies that we could advance after really thinking about how we invested during COVID.

Christa Doty:

Well, thank you so much for this in-depth conversation. You've helped me have a better appreciation for my nieces’ ECE teachers.

I'm going to give them a huge hug and deep thanks, and then I'm going to call people in the legislature.

Thank you so much to Diana and Meg for this important conversation. This episode is the first in a two-part series that will include a follow-up conversation with Dr. Lisa Roy, Executive Director of Colorado's new Department of Early Childhood.