Building a professional early childhood workforce requires a “compensation-first” approach

Co-owner Jacqueline Fordham, 59, center, plays with Corron O., 1, and 11-month-old Brandon H., at Cribs2College Academy child care center in Detroit on April 5, 2023.Preschool Mental Health3 1

Teachers who work in child care settings in the United States earn $11.65 per hour on average—less than half of what their peers working in schools earn, and below a living wage in most U.S. counties. Accordingly, even prior to the pandemic, child care teachers left the profession at considerably higher rates than K-12 teachers. In Louisiana, for example, nearly half of child care teachers working one year were gone the next.

While the pandemic impacted teachers at all levels, the child care sector was hit harder than K-12. Many child care teachers left for higher-paying jobs, and staffing challenges led many centers to turn families away. These difficulties have heightened awareness of the poor working conditions early educators face and spurred calls to professionalize the ECE workforce and treat them more like K-12 teachers. 

Professionalization efforts in early childhood education (ECE) often focus on increasing training and education requirements for early educators. For instance, a 2015 National Academies report called for increased entry requirements, including a bachelor’s degree for lead teachers, as a strategy for “transforming” the early childhood workforce. Programs such as T.E.A.C.H. and WAGE$ provide scholarships and wage increases to incentivize child care teachers to pursue more education. And, by the end of 2023, the District of Columbia will require all child care teachers to hold an associate degree.  

The benefits or costs of these types of large-scale professionalization efforts in ECE are not yet clear. And we know little about the implications of such policies for a workforce that already faces a great deal of instability. However, research on ECE professionalization offers some lessons. 


Our research—done in partnership with the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE)— highlights the practical difficulties inherent to ECE professionalizing efforts. In 2014, LDOE launched the Early Childhood Ancillary Certificate (ECAC) credential as a way to ensure that all child care lead teachers have a solid foundation for supporting children’s development and providing responsive teacher-child interactions. The ECAC is free to early educators—they pay nothing in tuition costs. It is also heavily incentivized: once they get the credential, educators become eligible for annual, refundable tax credits up to $3,600. These financial supports address the high costs of postsecondary education and provide an incentive to complete the credential. 

Despite this planful approach, ECAC completion rates have been very low 

To learn why, we tracked all teachers (N=1,010) who started working towards an ECAC between 2016 and 2018. We followed their progress through a multi-step process: applying for a scholarship; completing a first semester of ECAC coursework; completing all remaining coursework and program requirements; completing all Child Development Associate requirements (a nationally recognized certificate that is required for the ECAC); and submitting final paperwork to earn an ECAC.  

Figure 1 shows that just two thirds of candidates who applied for a scholarship (all eligible applicants are given a scholarship; it is noncompetitive) make it through the first semester of coursework. Fewer than half completed all program requirements. And less than one third of the teachers who started working towards an ECAC ultimately earned one.  


To better understand these low rates of completion, we collected data from ECAC program leaders, child care site leaders, and teachers themselves. Two key findings emerged: 

First, working towards the ECAC outside of paid work hours, something that could take up to eight hours per week across the two semesters of coursework, proved difficult. Half of the teachers and one third of the site leaders reported that it was challenging for teachers to earn the ECAC. Attending classes and completing assignments while working full time and managing family life was hard.  

Second, many teachers who failed to complete the ECAC left child care altogether. When asked the main reason teachers drop out of ECAC programs, 61% of ECAC program leaders reported that these teachers were no longer working in publicly funded child care. Child care leaders noted that current levels of teacher compensation prevent teachers from staying in the field. One leader wrote: “[Teachers] will go to McDonald’s because [they] can make $11 an hour but are now working for $8 an hour.”  

Our findings offer a cautionary tale for ECE professionalization efforts. They show that even when professionalization efforts include scholarships that cover the direct costs of training and offer meaningful financial incentives, completion rates can still be very low. During the period we examined, less than one third of child care teachers who started working towards the ECAC finished it. Many teachers left the field altogether.  


We suggest two policy solutions to achieve greater returns on these ECE professionalization efforts:  

  1. Embed professional learning in the paid work day—and compensate teachers for hours spent on training. Professionalization efforts are unlikely to succeed if they depend on unpaid labor by low-wage workers. While ECAC tuition was free, the cost with respect to time proved daunting. Covering the cost of child care and transportation would make pursuing a credential more manageable. However, even with these types of supports, the credential requires a considerable investment of unpaid time. Embedding the professional learning during the work day would likely increase completion rates. States and districts might also consider paying teachers for the additional time required. Louisiana’s ECAC provides a sizable financial incentive through the tax credit, but the payment comes at the end of a long process. Finding ways to frontload the financial supports could help.
  1. Increase pay for early educators. Outrageously low teacher pay continues to be the main source of challenges for the ECE workforce, and it has downstream implications for investments in professional learning. Adding additional educational requirements—at a time when turnover rates are high and child care centers are turning away families due to lack of staff—is likely to exacerbate an already challenging situation. Efforts to improve compensation are necessary not just as a reward for increased education but to ensure basic adequate working conditions and to stabilize the workforce. Wages need to be high enough for teachers to stay long enough to merit investments in their professional development. 

Some states are using novel approaches to increase compensation for ECE teachers and support quality. New Mexico, Virginia, and Washington D.C., for instance, have introduced new subsidy reimbursement rates that aim to provide centers with adequate funding to better compensate their teachers and, in turn, provide high-quality early learning experiences for children. These types of efforts, as well as D.C.’s Pay Equity Fund (PEF), which substantially increases child care teacher pay, offer important opportunities to learn about the impact of compensation increases on care stability and quality. 

Such efforts fundamentally put educator compensation first and in doing so address both the current reality of working in child care in the United States and our longstanding underinvestment. Professionalization efforts that do not prioritize teachers’ real and immediate needs may make an already challenging situation worse and, consequently, be unlikely to succeed.