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How can we reduce turnover among early childhood educators? Pay them more, a study finds

Early education providers across the state and country are struggling to find and keep teachers. That has always been the case, but the current labor market and pandemic disruptions have worsened the problem.

And the turnover in teachers is causing some providers to make sacrifices in quality.

“Even fast food (restaurants) are doing sign-on bonuses,” said Cindy Owens, director of New Testament Child Development Center in Monroe. “It’s really affected our field. One reason: We’re in the same pay scale as McDonald’s.”

Owens declined her own pay last month and plans to increase class sizes so she can pay teachers as much as possible.

“I’ve done everything I can to make it the best place to work, and I can’t keep them.”

Research on turnover among early childhood teachers from Louisiana and Virginia provides some context on the magnitude of the problem, but also a potential solution: Put more money in teachers’ pockets.

In Louisiana, a longitudinal study of early childhood teachers found turnover rates of 33% over a year and 67% over three years. The study in Virginia found that pay incentives totaling $1,500, spread over eight months, reduced turnover in early childhood classrooms by 11 percentage points, and cut the rate in half in child care settings.

The research was done before the pandemic, but it’s “hugely connected to current conditions and, I think, has huge implications for how we proceed,” lead researcher Daphna Bassok, associate professor of education and policy at the University of Virginia, said in a webinar last week hosted by Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy.

In Louisiana, half of child care teachers are gone in a year

Bassok’s team collected data from 1,600 early childhood sites in Louisiana on more than 5,000 teachers from the fall of 2016 to the fall of 2019, including child care, pre-K, and Head Start programs. The project was the first longitudinal study of early childhood teachers across an entire state.

Over the course of a year, a third of early childhood teachers had left. By 2019, two-thirds of teachers were no longer in an early childhood classroom in Louisiana.

“These are very striking turnover rates,” Bassok said. For comparison, average K-12 turnover rates are between 10% and 20% in a year, she said.

The overall rates from Louisiana mask huge variations in different settings. Turnover is far worse in child care settings: Almost half, or 45%, of teachers had left after a year, and three-quarters had left by the end of the study in 2019. On the other hand, in public pre-K settings, where teachers often are paid twice as much, about a quarter of teachers had left at the end of the first year, and half had left after three years.

“These (findings) have negative implications for kids, but they also have implications for our investments in providing high-quality early education in general and make it very difficult to offer families reliable care,” Bassok said. “And again, all of this is pre-pandemic… It’s only sort of gotten worse in the more recent period. So that led us to a lot of questions around like, OK, we know it’s bad, and how do we start addressing it?”

In Virginia, a small pay increase made a big difference

Through a federal Preschool Development Grant, Bassok was able to start to answer that question in Virginia. In one large urban county, the research team randomized early childhood sites, giving teachers in one group $1,500 in three payments over eight months. The control group continued to receive normal wages.

Teachers received $500 payments if they were still at their center after three months, after another three months, and at the end of the eight-month period. Turnover was reduced by 11 percentage points overall: Fourteen percent of the teachers receiving the incentives left, while a quarter of the teachers who didn’t receive the payments left.

As in the Louisiana data, multiple kinds of settings were included in the research — Head Start, pre-K, child care, and home-based settings. Yet again, there was wide variation across settings.

The financial incentives did not make a difference for the school-based pre-K teachers. But for child care teachers, turnover was cut in half. In the control group, 30% of teachers had left after eight months. In the group receiving the payments, 15% of teachers left.

The financial incentives made the biggest difference for assistant teachers, whose rate of departure fell by 24 percentage points.

The majority of teachers said in surveys that they spent the money for such basic necessities as bills, food, and housing. The second most common response was paying off debt.

The $1,500 payments translate to about a 75-cent wage increase. In North Carolina, the 2019 median wage for child care workers was $10.62 an hour, compared with $12.83 for preschool teachers and $27.89 for kindergarten teachers, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.

In Monroe, Owens said, a small difference could go a long way. Her teachers often rely on government assistance programs for food and housing.

“I think a lot of people who make the laws and the standards don’t realize what level folks are living,” Owens said.

In North Carolina, wage supplements reach 58 counties

Owens said she wishes her county, Union County, was participating in WAGE$, a wage supplement program run by the Child Care Services Association (CCSA) that reaches early education professionals in 58 North Carolina counties. The program is funded by Smart Start partnerships and the Division of Child Development and Early Education.

The program has never had the resources to conduct the kind of study Bassok’s team ran in Virginia, said Marsha Basloe, CCSA’s president. But there is reason to believe the program is having a similar impact. Within the sites receiving supplements last year, the turnover rate was 12%.

Early childhood advocates, including Basloe, were hoping for funds to expand the WAGE$ program to all 100 counties in the state budget, which is still under negotiation. The House’s version of the budget included $35 million for the program out of $503 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) relief funds “with the intent that, upon full implementation, access to the program shall be statewide and available in every county.”

The Senate’s budget proposal did not include the program in its ARP allocation, while Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan included $36 million for the program and a little over $9 million to raise compensation for pre-K teachers working in private child care settings.

“I’m hoping that will happen,” Owens said. “That will help my teachers; it’s such an encouragement… You get it twice a year and they can either make a car payment or, you know, pay a bill that they’ve been needing to pay.”

Basloe said she often hears about providers using the program as a recruiting tool. Though she said serious public investment will be needed to solve long-term workforce issues, the supplements help in the meantime.

“It’s what’s keeping some people in the field,” Basloe said.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.