Accelify Blog

Skill Levels Remain Issue in Pre-K Staffing

June 15, 2016

By: Christina Samuels


One of the hottest topics in early-childhood education is the “word gap”—the division in pre-literacy skills between children who are immersed in rich language from their earliest days and children who do not get that experience.

High-quality child care and preschool are supposed to help close that gap. But those programs often may be relying on a workforce that has a literacy gap of its own.

“We spend hundreds of millions on professional development without testing the language competency” of early-childhood employees, said Elizabeth Gilbert, who was the director of an early-educator-workforce program that ran for five years. Resources should go to supporting literacy skills not only in children, but also in the adults who care for them, she said.

Gilbert’s concerns are part of a national conversation about what child-care workers and preschool teachers should be expected to know and be able to do. Policymakers and those who represent child-care workers are trying to develop appropriate measures for those workers—along with incentives and rewards for being highly skilled.

When Gilbert wrote about the issue in a Washington Post opinion piece last year, she struck a nerve with numerous readers, including Libby Doggett, the U.S. Department of Education’s early-learning chief. Doggett said on Facebook that it “shines a light on a problem no one wants to acknowledge: the low skills of many who care for our youngest children.”

These women—the early-childhood workforce is almost entirely female—work hard, said Gilbert, the director of the Early Childhood Educator Project at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. She found that many would like to improve their academic skills, often because a credential or college credit could mean up to an extra $1 an hour in state reimbursement for child-care services.

But “so many early-childhood educators who are trying to educate millions of children are our least- educated professionals,” Gilbert said.

Searching for Data

There have been limited studies on the topic—most research has focused on the interactions between children and their parents or the preschools they attend, leaving out the role of child-care providers. But a 2003 paper found an association between child-care providers’ literacy and the quality of the language interactions they had with the young children in their care.

The paper in 2003 came from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, based at the University of California, Berkeley. Researchers gave literacy tests to a sample of 98 child-care workers in Alameda County, Calif. Nearly a third of those providers scored at the “limited proficiency” range on a test of English literacy. (The researchers also noted that about a third of the sample did not speak English as their first language, though they all used English in their work.)

The study found that workers with higher levels of literacy “spent more time in reading and pre-reading activities, provided children with a wider selection of age-appropriate books, and engaged in more give-and-take communication with the children.”

It concluded, “In light of the tremendous learning that occurs during the preschool years and the nation’s commitment to ensuring that all children enter school ready to learn, it is time to acknowledge and address the highly variable English-literacy skills of those upon whose shoulders the successful attainment of this goal depends.”

To address the issue of provider qualifications, some state-run programs and federal programs, such as Head Start, are focusing on academic credentials.

When Congress reauthorized Head Start in 2007 it said that by 2013, at least half of Head Start preschool employees must have a bachelor’s degree or higher in early-childhood education, or have a degree in a related field with experience. As of 2015, the program had surpassed the requirement, with 73 percent meeting the educational bar.

But for child-care workers who take care of children younger than preschool age—a prime age for learning, researchers agree—qualifications are often much lower. A high school diploma or a GED suffices for licensing in many states. Another popular certificate is the child development associate certificate, which requires 120 hours of course work as well as child-care experience.

Yet obtaining more academic credentials often means a very modest increase in pay.The 2013 report “Worthy Work, Still Unlivable Wages,” which also came from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, found that nationally, child-care workers are paid a bit over $10 an hour—on par with workers who dish out fast-food burgers or take care of pets.

Teachers with bachelor’s degrees or higher in school-sponsored prekindergartens earned an average of about $21 an hour when the report was written; preschool teachers with bachelor’s degrees in other child-care settings earned about $14 an hour, and bachelor’s degree holders who work with infants and toddlers earned about $11 an hour.

Value of Credentials

More credentials, in the form of college degrees, are not the answer, said Conor P. Williams, a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program. Williams acknowledges that he stands out from others in the field—including some of his colleagues at the Washington-based think tank—in this stance. He said states and policy makers should move to a licensing credential that relies more on teachers demonstrating the skills that researchers know are valuable to young children.

“We should at least be insisting on inputs that are proxies for teacher interactions,” Williams said. “And then take all the money that you were going to invest in helping people getting [bachelor’s degrees,] and give that to them in take-home pay.”

The National Association for the Education of Young Children recently launched an initiative called Power to the Profession, which is attempting to move the discussion away from licensing agencies and back to the providers themselves. The association wants to develop a standardized set of competencies for early-childhood providers, similar to what one might see with speech and language therapists. All qualified child-care providers would have a “floor” of qualifications, and be paid for demonstrating those skills.

“Our goal is that there is not only agreement but that we work with states to enact model legislation”—including wage parity, said Rhian Evans Allvin, the executive director of NAEYC.

Under current systems, more training comes with its own costs to providers, both in tuition and in time. And credentials can’t measure love and nurturing, said Rae-Ann Rogers, who works with home-based day-care providers in western Massachusetts for an organization called the Valley Opportunity Council. The providers she works with care for children who are homeless, in foster care, or come from very low-income families.

“They care about what’s happening to these kids,” she said.

Measure of Encouragement

But some providers have found that the small boost in pay—and potentially in respect—is enough encouragement to make the effort to return to school.

From 2010 until 2015, when grant funding ran out, Gilbert oversaw Learn at Work, a program aimed at boosting the academic skills for child-care providers. Based at a western Massachusetts community college, the providers, all of whom offered licensed care for children in their homes, took classes that introduced them to college coursework, improved their math and English skills, and prepared them for further higher education.

Lora Reyes, a child-care provider for 12 years who lives in Westfield, Mass., took advantage of the opportunity. Reyes is a subcontractor with the Valley Opportunity Council, which refers parents to child-care providers; handles child-care payments, conducts inspections, and offers professional development.

Through the council, Reyes heard about the Learn at Work program. A high school graduate, “I had always planned on going back to college. But I just didn’t have the time, didn’t have the money, so when the program came up I jumped at the chance,” she said. Reyes is now 19 credits into a 60-credit associate degree program in psychology.

“For me personally, my math skills were horrible. My writing skills were great,” said Reyes, who started caring for children in her home when her daughter, now 14, was a toddler. But she believes the extra credential will also help parents understand and respect all that she does for their children. She’s required to have a curriculum and to provide food and emotional support. And she has to offer all of that for children from toddler-age up through elementary school.

Parents “think of us as babysitters,” Reyes said. “I want to be thought of as a professional.”