Our Insights

Back to School

Who is caring for your young children?

Valora Washington is the founder and president of the CAYL Institute in Boston (cayl.org), and CEO of the CDA Council for Professional Recognition. She’s the author of hundreds of articles and several books about early education, including a new one: The New Early Childhood Professional.

It’s back to school time! Those words usually invoke thoughts of children who attend kindergarten through 12th grade—but it also applies to many of the 11 million children enrolled in child care or preschool every day.

As families drop off their children for these important early learning experiences, many are unaware that only about 30 percent of children nationwide are enrolled in a high quality program. Well qualified staff is at the top of the list of the specific research-based factors that ensure safe, nurturing, and stimulating environments for young children.

Still, too many people think that working with young children is a job that almost anyone can do. Teaching numbers and letters, or reading storybooks—what could be easier than that?

The truth is that the adults who provide the care and education for young children bear a great responsibility for their health, growth, development, and learning. This is an important, complex, and dynamic job that requires specialized knowledge and skill to be effective. Decades of research have demonstrated the critical importance of the early years on later success in school and life.

Frequently lacking the formality of school systems and policies, programs caring for young children in the United States typically are part of a fragmented hodgepodge of services and expectations. During the important ages when children would benefit most from consistency and stability, too many children experience a discontinuous patchwork of programs and settings (such as family child care homes, centers, preschools, and elementary schools). And, despite the passion or dedication of the people who educate and care for young children, these staff collectively lack the cohesion, shared standards, competencies, or resources required to be the proficient workforce that our children need and deserve. Sub-par early learning experiences are one of many reasons why as many as 40 percent of children start school with a “readiness gap.”

While some would agree that esteem for teachers at all levels is declining, lack of respect for the early educator is particularly striking. Furthermore, the relationship between an early educator’s compensation and educational attainment is weak. While other levels of education have more extensive public financing, families pay, on average, 60 percent of the cost of child care. This is a big bite out of the family budget– about 8 percent on average and up to 40 percent of the budget for low-income families.

Given the high cost, many families who leave their precious children in child care or preschool are completely unaware that the compensation of early educators is one of the lowest in our nation. Because there has been little compensation progress over the past 25 years, many early educators live with economic insecurity and concern over having money for food, transportation, health care, and housing. Do most families know that child care workers earn little more than $10 per hour? That preschool teachers earn about $15 an hour? And do families know that, generally speaking, for programs not affiliated with public schools, there are no formal workforce standards such as appropriate planning time, and dependable schedule, and increased compensation based on education and training?

As we all prepare for the fall ritual of back to school, we call for greater public understanding of the value of early education and the vital role of the people who do that work. Our children’s success is definitely tied to the qualifications, compensation, and working conditions of the early educator.

There are multiple paths forward, but regardless of the path, increased public support and respect for the early educator is essential. The field needs defined and universal practice standards and a focus on competencies, like those identified in the Child Development Associate credential. Early educators ourselves must exercise a stronger voice in speaking on behalf of this profession and the children we serve, using strategies such as those we suggest in my new book, The New Early Childhood Professional (with Brenda Gadson and Kathryn Amel).

It’s back to school–for all children including infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. What do you know about the hands and minds that are caring for your young children?


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, conducts and disseminates independent research and analysis to inform early childhood education policy.