Two small children play with toys that connect to each other.
Back to Educated Reporter

Why You Should Scrutinize Early Childhood Educator Pathways

Early childhood education has a severe worker shortage. Here’s how to cover pathways into the profession.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley for EDUimages (Preschoolers play.)

Back to Educated Reporter

It’s no secret that the United States is contending with a major child care crisis. 

There aren’t enough affordable, high-quality early childhood education and care options, with the vast majority of parents of children under age 5 reporting that it’s a serious problem in their area. More than half of Americans live in child care deserts.

Workforce issues are at the heart of this crisis. Quality early childhood education (ECE) necessitates a quality workforce – so much of the learning that happens in those early years depends on responsive and nurturing interactions between children and the adults around them. 

Yet the median child care worker in the U.S. makes less than $14 per hour, often without benefits. More than half of the country’s child care workers participate in a public assistance program, according to the Center for American Progress. Turnover is high, with fewer and fewer people pursuing careers in ECE, deciding the sacrifices aren’t worth it no matter how much they love children. Compounding matters: Early care and learning settings typically require low adult-child ratios, so providers – such as those who run in-home daycares – often have little choice but to reduce or cease operations. 

Between 2005 and 2017, according to one federal analysis, the number of family child care providers – which serve a significant percentage of children under 5 – fell by 48%. Since then, many have managed – momentarily – to stay afloat thanks to an infusion of pandemic-era relief funds. But that money is expiring incrementally in 2023 and 2024; experts say this fiscal cliff will be devastating for the industry.

As a result, the child care crisis – which for a blip in the COVID days felt like it was finally garnering the urgency it deserves in policy and the news media – could reach catastrophic levels. More providers will be forced to shutter. More early educators will leave the profession for jobs at Target or TGI Fridays. More parents will see their communities turn into child care deserts. 

This is where we as education journalists come in. ECE workforce issues are ripe for more coverage, and one facet that deserves more reporting in particular is the pipeline into that profession. From South Dakota to New Mexico, states are developing or reinforcing pathway programs as a key solution to the industry’s workforce challenges. Some policymakers are proposing higher standards for the profession as a lever that can elevate its employees – and their pay. High schools across the country are training students in the basics of child development with the goal of easing them into ECE careers soon after graduating. 

Here are some things to keep in mind when covering these topics. 

Understanding Early Care and Raising Awareness About the Bigger Economic Picture

Most children – roughly two in three – have both parents in the workforce. 

Early childhood education isn’t just a critical learning experience for kids in their most formative developmental years; it’s also a key cog in the nation’s economic wheel. Without care, parents can’t work. 

According to one recent report by ReadyNation, a coalition of business groups, insufficient care for children under age 3 costs the country $122 billion each year in lost earnings, productivity and revenue. And that just pertains to lacking care for babies and toddlers; options for preschoolers and prekindergartners are also relatively scarce, which further deprives the U.S. of would-be economic gains. 

“Child care is the workforce behind the workforce,” said Michelle Kang, CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Yet the U.S. doesn’t treat the work they do as a public good, and their wages reflect that lack of investment. “I’ve heard educators say like, ‘For a moment, society called me an essential worker, and I felt seen, and I felt valued and respected,’” Kang said. “That has faded away as time has gone.” 

This chronic undervaluing is largely attributable to the profession’s status as a pink-collar job – one comprised predominantly of women, and especially when it comes to ECE, those of color. These jobs were historically held by enslaved women, a vicious cycle of a legacy that perpetuated stigmas that the profession consists of little more than babysitting, requiring no formal training or education. 

Reporters ought to familiarize themselves with and dig into this context, showing the economic importance of child care and the dissonance between that and the profession’s low pay and respect. 

“This historic underinvestment in the child care system that has been ever-present intersects with long-standing gender and racial inequities,” said Rachel Wilensky, an expert with The Center for Law and Social Policy. “Understanding and grappling with that history is a really important place to start” for reporters – “thinking about who we’re recruiting into these jobs and whether we’re just sustaining these systems of oppression.”

When interviewed for this story, experts stressed the importance of keeping reporting centered on the sector’s low compensation. 

Thinking Critically About Early Childhood Education Initiatives and ‘Big Ideas’

It’s our responsibility as reporters to show what ECE work entails and why it matters, as well as to scrutinize proposed solutions. 

ECE workforce issues have been a priority of President Joe Biden’s administration, which in early 2023 launched the National Early Care and Education Workforce Center. The center, described as the first of its kind in the country, is conducting research and providing technical assistance on efforts to recruit and retain more early care and education professionals. National reporters might find this initiative worth following. 

Bolstering the ECE pipeline is also a popular talking point at the state and local levels, so reporters can look into proposals pitched in their locales and monitor the outcomes of those initiatives. 

Observers say these targeted solutions are necessary experimentation in an industry where public investments have historically been scarce. 

However, experts say it’s important to remember that the ECE landscape is by definition diverse. There are different kinds of centers and settings and pedagogical philosophies and, most relevant in this case, pathways into the field. Many go through Child Development Associate programs and some start as early as high school. Some providers decided to work in child care simply because they themselves were parents in need of services. Some are career switchers, having decided to enter the industry late in life out of their love for little humans. 

Tobi Adejumo – a Boston-based scholar with University of California, Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment whose research focuses on people of color and immigrants who work in ECE – advised journalists to “critically examine” programs that are aimed at elevating the profession but may have unintended consequences. These programs include increasingly popular requirements that universal prekindergarten teachers have bachelor’s degrees. 

“It’s not simple – not simple at all,” Adejumo said. “This requires delicate coverage.”

“We want a highly qualified workforce – we all strive for that,” she continued. “But we have to be careful – you can’t just say, ‘Oh, here you go – go take these classes; go get these credentials’ … without considering they may have multiple jobs, families. You can’t just tell them to go get their degrees and not give them enough support.”

According to Julie Kashen, a scholar with The Century Foundation, a master’s in early education is one of the lowest paid graduate degrees. 

Similar scrutiny is critical when evaluating, for instance, apprenticeships and similar programs aimed at shepherding teenagers into child care careers with the promise of less time in a college-degree program. 

As Nonie Lesaux, a Harvard education professor put it, “I can’t support that until (ECE) is treated as a real profession, from a moral and ethical standpoint.” It’s not like schools, she pointed out, “set up internships to work at a cash register at McDonald’s.”

While pipeline programs are a welcome trend, their outcomes – and whether they stack up with what was promised – is worthy of local and national investigations. 

Early Childhood Education Reporting Strategies

Questions to ask:

  • Why is there a child care worker shortage in my area or the region I’m covering? Why is there one nationwide, and how do the pain points compare and contrast?
  • Are early educators and caregivers in my area being paid a fair wage? If not, are there plans or proposals to ensure reasonable salaries?
  • What is being done to elevate the profession so that it gets the respect and investment it deserves? What are – and aren’t – cities and states doing to enhance the profile of ECE workers?
  • How much do everyday readers know about the role of ECE workers in kids’ educational outcomes and society’s economic health, and where are there gaps in understanding? Does your coverage capture the relationship between the economy and child care?
  • What’s being done to retain workers once they’re hired? For example: What kind of professional learning and development are they being provided? What opportunities do they have throughout their professional trajectories for career growth and support? What wraparound services are available for them, so they can live comfortably while doing this work? (Those wraparound services can range from health and education benefits to child care for workers themselves.)
  • Who is making and informing and influencing these policies? Who’s at the table when decisions are made? Were existing providers consulted? What about families?
  • Where are students who participate in ECE training programs ending up? Are they earning sufficient salaries?

Who to talk to:

  • Policymakers – ECE is a popular issue area on both the left and right. But there’s lots of debate about what early childhood education and care should look like, who should pay for it and what should be required of the educators and caregivers. Talk to your local pro-ECE policymakers and ask why their particular proposed approach or model is the best path forward. Hold them accountable for making good on promises. Given its relatively bipartisan appeal, many politicians promise on the campaign trail to expand ECE access, including through workforce development plans. Follow the money and track outcomes. Document obstacles encountered along the way.
  • Researchers and other experts – a number of universities and think tanks have research teams focused on the ECE workforce. The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California, Berkeley is a great resource. So is the Council for Professional Recognition.
  • Business leaders and employers – the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, regularly releases research on ECE, especially as it relates to the economy. Among its research are state-specific reports.
  • Most importantly, talk to folks on the ground. Talk to current child care workers and providers as well as prospective ones. Talk to center directors and support staff. Talk to parents and other caregivers. Endeavor to interview a variety of providers, not just those with center-based care. 

Helpful tools:

  • The Workforce Development Hub: This new resource from the National Head Start Association aims to solve workforce issues and develop a national workforce pipeline for Head Start and Early Head Start programs.
  • The Zaentz Navigator: A brand-new tool developed by Harvard’s education college that allows practitioners, experts and reporters to compare and contrast different ECE-related policies or proposals. Because of the diversity within ECE, it can be especially hard for reporters to gather data. This tool aims to help with that problem, said Harvard’s Lesaux, who developed it. For example, you can select “cities” as the level of government and “investing in educator pay, benefits, and professional learning” as the variables to learn about different local initiatives to bolster the pipeline.
  • Reporters interested in learning more about the historical roots of today’s ECE workforce challenges will find the ECHOES project valuable. ECHOES, which stands for Early Childhood History Organizing Ethos and Strategy, is an interactive feature developed by UC Berkeley’s CSCCE that includes a timeline, stories, papers and multimedia clips.
  • NAEYC, Child Care Aware and other national organizations can help with sourcing. So can their local affiliates.