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Programs Work to Improve Compensation and Retention

Research strongly suggests that the quality of child care is tied to wages, education, and retention of teachers. Teachers with higher levels of education tend to be paid more, and higher-paid teachers tend to remain in the same job for a longer period of time. In addition, the education level of teachers has been linked to quality of care. However, in most child care settings, there is wide variation in the qualifications of teachers.

According to data from a recent national study, in 1997:

  • 50% of teachers had a Bachelor's degree or higher,
  • 15% had an Associate's degree,
  • 27% had some college or vocational training, and
  • 9% had a high school degree or less.

The proportion of early childhood teachers with a college degree varies largely depending on the child care setting. While 87% of teachers who work in public schools had at least a Bachelor's degree, only 40% of Head Start teachers and 55% of teachers in programs run by non-profits had a Bachelor's degree.

Almost all early childhood teachers reported some training in early childhood education. However, specific training in early childhood education does not seem to make the greatest difference in the quality of care children receive. In a recent study, researchers at Indiana University explored the link between educational attainment and teacher's beliefs about early childhood education. They found when teachers had a higher education level, regardless of the major area of study, they were more likely to support developmentally appropriate practice. The researchers did find, however, that teachers with coursework specific to working with young children were more likely to support child-initiated learning such as allowing children to select some of their own activities, valuing active exploration in children's learning, and respecting students' individual differences when planning curricula.

Based on these findings, researchers have suggested that while it is important to provide specific training courses to professional care providers, it may be more important to recruit highly-educated individuals to the field. The ability to recruit highly-qualified teachers is strongly tied to the ability to compensate them adequately, however.

The Institute for Women's Policy recently examined local, state, and federal programs that provide financial incentives to increase child care staff education and retention.

All the programs studied included a component that financially rewarded participants for increasing their education and remaining at their jobs, but the specific strategies used varied from program to program.

Strategies to improve workforce education and retention included: increasing starting salaries, establishing minimum education and training requirements for workers, linking professional development activities to bonuses or pay increases, and providing access to credits towards a college degree. The researchers found that each of these approaches were related to increases in workers' income, retention, and education level. In addition, the increases in compensation did not have to be very large to have an impact on teacher retention. The researchers speculate that workers who participate in these programs already exhibit a stronger desire to stay in the field, so even small increases in pay encouraged them to stay at their jobs. In some cases, the initiatives were also linked to increases in quality of the applicant pool and increased feelings of professionalism among participating workers.

The programs that helped workers attain further education also indirectly benefited neighboring colleges and universities, which were able to expand their early education programs. And higher wages might have improved the lives of workers and their families. While few policymakers are likely to prioritize improving worker well-being, the researchers found that many program administrators are interested in achieving these ends — whether or not the improved wages are related to improved care.

In order to maximize the effectiveness of compensation programs, the researchers identified challenges and made suggestions. Evaluations revealed that some programs needed to review their funding structure to ensure continuing service. Some initiatives also needed to improve their outreach to the child care community, particularly to family child care providers, rural child care providers, and providers that do not speak English. Programs were not reaching as many participants as they could because these populations are often unaware of compensation programs. The researchers also noted the importance of working with community colleges that offer courses in early childhood education to ensure that they consider the hours of child care workers when planning related class schedules.

"Demographic Characteristics of Early Childhood Teachers and Structural Elements of Early Care and Education in the United States," G. Saluja, D. M. Early and R. M. Clifford, Early Childhood Research and Practice, Spring 2002.

For more information:

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"Education Matters in the Nurturing of the Beliefs of Preschool Caregivers and Teachers," M. B. McMullen and K. Alat, Early Childhood Research and Practice, Fall 2002.

For more information:

Look online at

Building a Stronger Child Care Workforce: A Review of Studies of the Effectiveness of Public Compensation Initiatives, J. Park-Jadotte, S. C. Golin and B. Gault, Institute for Women's Policy Research, 2002.

For more information:
Contact: Institute for Women's Policy Research, 1707 L Street NW, Suite 750, Washington, DC 20036, call (202) 785-5100, or look online at

Facts in Action, January/February 2003

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