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Kindergarten Teacher Pay: Let's Change the Calculus for the Stewards of the Next Generation

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If great teachers are worth $400,000 a year, as Eric A. Hanushek suggests in The Higher Economic Value of Higher Teacher Quality, then how much should we pay those who set our youngest students on a successful life path?

In August, David Leonhardt's front-page New York Times article, "The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers," knocked everyone out of their mid-summer stupor. "Fairly explosive" was how he described the recent -- then, unpublished -- findings, by Harvard economist, Raj Chetty, and colleagues, which may help to put another nail in the coffin of the fade-out argument for the benefits of early childhood education.

The bottom line of How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings released last month: If we look beyond test scores and consider a broader set of measures -- including future earnings -- the long-term outcomes for children justify considerably greater investment in the early childhood workforce.

Compensation, without a doubt, is an explosive issue in the early care and education field. Levels of qualifications and training for practitioners vary enormously across states, dramatic wage gaps exist between community- and school-based early childhood programs, and the desire to help children and families too often obscures the herculean challenges of a workforce for whom wages are chronically low and benefits are limited, if non-existent. The annual median salary for kindergarten teachers is $50,380. Their colleagues who work with younger children fare worse.

Out of the nearly 800 occupations annually surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 18 report lower average wages than child care workers, who make less than bellhops, tree trimmers and animal trainers. In 2009, the median annual wages for child care workers and preschool teachers -- an unfortunate distinction that perpetuates inequities among practitioners whose roles and responsibilities are often identical -- were, respectively, $20,940 and $27,450. Turnover is, unsurprisingly, rampant in the field, with estimates ranging from 25 to 40 percent annually.

The quality of children's early development and education, which occurs in the context of consistent and nurturing relationships with well-trained adults, is compromised by this instability. Chetty and his colleagues, Danny Yagan, Nathaniel Hilger, Diane Schanzenbach, John Friedman, and Emmanuel Saez, are building on the work of an earlier generation of economists. Among them: Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, who has taken inspiration from earlier studies, including the Carolina Abecedarian Project and the High Scope Perry Preschool Project, and who persuasively makes the case for the short- and long-term economic benefits of investing in high-quality early childhood services. This line of research holds promise, as it continues to reframe the conversation about ECE, converting what have traditionally been conceived of as welfare expenditures into investments.

Support for the early care and education workforce, however, should extend beyond kindergarten -- to preschool and infant-toddler practitioners. A robust body of research confirms that cognitively stimulating, emotionally supportive, consistent early experiences -- from birth on up -- establish a strong foundation for healthy development, school readiness, academic success, more productive lives and, ultimately, a strong, vibrant society. Valuing, training and appropriately compensating those who provide these experiences must be a policy priority.

Bankers who securitized subprime mortgages -- paid for by law-abiding taxpayers -- are laughing all the way to the banks with their big bonuses. Isn't it time to start changing the calculus for early childhood teachers? They're the ones charged with producing the innovative, critical thinkers of the future -- including the bankers who nearly mortgaged it!

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