Digging Deeper: Early Childhood Educators are Woefully Underpaid

August 21st, 2017

Category: Digging Deeper

More young Delawareans and their families are accessing high-quality early learning today than ever before, thanks to some key investments, collaboration, and leadership over the past several years. Today, more than 1,200 programs participate in the Star rating system. Eighty-three percent of low-income children—that’s more than 15,000 kids—are participating in highly rated Stars programs, up from five percent in 2011.

And while we know that educators are the most important in-school factors to student achievement, in Delaware and other places, we often don’t extend the same focus on professional support and development to early learning providers that we do to K-12 educators.

Early childhood professionals aren’t well paid—especially compared to K-12 educators.

This is according to a report released by the Delaware Department of Education on Delaware’s Early Childhood Teachers and Administrators. In fact, across the state, 75 percent of early learning professionals are paid an hourly wage. (The remaining 25 percent are paid an annual salary.)

The average early childhood worker makes just over $32,000 per year. However, this average is skewed by higher paid administrators and program directors. Typically, early childhood teachers earn even less than this figure, from hourly pay with no benefits.

In 2014-15, a full-time K-12 teacher made just over $59,000 annually—twice as much, according to the Department of Education—and received benefits, as well as  a shorter work day, planning time, professional development, and vacation, benefits most early childhood workers do not receive.

“I don’t think the average person knows that the person taking care of your child Monday through Friday in an early learning center makes less money than the person who served you your coffee at Starbucks,” says Michelle Shaivitz, executive director of The Delaware Association for the Education of Young Children (DEAEYC). “We need to know who’s in our classrooms teaching our children, and we need to know how we can help them succeed. Because if we’re not supporting them, we’re not supporting early learning at all.”


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Only four out of 10 early learning professionals across the state have a bachelor’s degree or higher across the state. This is in contrast to K-12 teachers, who are (for the most part) required to hold a bachelor’s in their field, and where the pay schedule serves as incentive to increase their level of educational attainment. In fact, 61 percent have a graduate degree (2014-15).

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But does educational attainment and pay affect early learning program quality? According to a report by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, it depends on the training program and of course the teachers themselves. The report recommended that all early childhood teachers (those teaching infants through kindergarten) hold a bachelor’s in early childhood.

Many researchers agree that professionals with a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in early childhood education and development are important to creating a high quality early learning program. However, some also note that not just any type of training will do. Programs that focus on developing supportive teacher-child relationships, direct teaching practicums, or interactions with children are better than programs that don’t.

According to a study by the Pew Center of the State, a well-trained teacher can have a positive effect on a young child’s learning experience and can improve teacher-child interactions, social and emotional growth, and cognitive skills.

Low pay can undermine quality as well. According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education, low pay means higher turnover and difficulty in attracting experienced staff with higher levels of education.

It also means that early learning professionals are more likely to be living in poverty. In fact, across all states the median yearly earnings of a worker with a family of three would make them eligible for public benefits, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called Food Stamps) benefits.


Early childhood professionals with bachelor’s degrees from high-quality programs can contribute mightily to a better learning experience for children. Some of the most important brain development of a child happens in these early years, and investments in early learning yield a very big return. Isn’t time we turn our attention to investing in early childhood professionals too?

Rodel Foundation of Delaware


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