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Paying Early-Childhood Educators Fairly

Pay for those caring for children is directly linked to the ages of their charges, according to a new study from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment ("Where Child-Care Workers and Early Educators Earn the Most and Least," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 12).  For example, the median national wage for workers caring for infants was $9.77 an hour last year.  Preschool teachers' median pay was $13.74, while kindergarten teachers earned $24.83 an hour.

In light of the importance of the first few years in a child's life, the disparities are disturbing. It's hard enough to attract the best college graduates to education today.  The differences in pay demonstrate that the earliest education is considered little more than glorified babysitting. That's an insult no matter how it is justified.  If anything, teachers of the youngest children deserve more pay than teachers of teens because of the lifelong imprint they leave.

Yet the U.S. has the dubious distinction of investing less in the first five years of toddlers than any other nation ("What do we invest in the country's youngest? Little to nothing," The Hechinger Report, Jul. 12).  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2012 we ranked 35th among developed economies in pre-primary or primary school enrollment for three- to five-year olds. 

Although more than a dozen major cities are trying to reverse this record, opposition comes from the disappointing experience we've had with Head Start.  On Christmas Eve 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services released a 346-page final report about Head Start.  It concluded that the initial benefits faded by the end of 3rd grade.  In short, the $200 billion or so spent over 47 years did not produce lasting benefits.

The disappointing results of Head Start were largely due to the lack of qualifications of teachers.  It takes education and training specifically geared to young children to make such programs effective.  Merely being a parent does not qualify anyone for the field. That's why it's time to get serious about certifying adults who want to work with the youngest children. But it's important to bear in mind that successful pilot programs tend to have low external validity, meaning they often don't apply well to other persons, settings and times ("No Easy Lessons in Assessing Preschool Payoff," The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 8, 2013). 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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