THE BLOG
11/20/2014 04:39 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Early Childhood Educators Deserve a Living Wage

"I vividly remember my Head Start days...and my very caring teacher Mrs. Mary Cooper, with whom I remain in contact 40 years later," Military Police Brigade Commander Colonel Alex Conyers recently wrote. Most adults who started in Head Start still remember their teachers fondly. And why would they not, since this positive early relationship could well have been a significant ingredient that developed their love of learning, putting them on a trajectory to finishing school, going on to college, and to a life more stable than the zip code of their birth may have predicted.

And so every day, Head Start and Early Head Start teachers across the country shape the future -- not only of the million children in their care -- but of our collective future as a country. Yet, this week a report was released showing our early childhood teachers are often paid less than dog walkers or fast food workers. Not to disparage dog walkers, but what does this say about our country? The report, "Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages: The Early Childhood Workforce 25 Years after the National Child Care Staffing Study," by Marcy Whitebook, Deborah Phillips, and Carollee Howes, highlights how wages for early childhood staff have barely risen over the last two decades, even as they have risen to the challenge of increased education requirements and ever more demanding jobs.

The connections drawn in "Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages" are alarming. When staff are underpaid, they face increased stress: nationally, 46 percent of early childhood workers rely on public subsidies like food stamps and welfare. Among those who have children themselves, 57 percent worry about having enough food to feed their families. These stresses directly affect teachers' ability to care for at-risk children in nurturing, attentive ways -- and just at the most vulnerable time in their development.

We further know that such stress is the reality of far too many Head Start staff. A survey of Pennsylvania Head Start staff carried out by Dr. Bob Whitaker and others at Temple University found that staff faced numerous economic stressors with significant health and mental health consequences. While follow-up work has suggested that mindfulness may mitigate some of these effects, the economic stressors remain a harsh reality, one we must address as a country.

Head Start programs are unique in the early childhood community in their focus on developing parents as teachers, partners, and leaders - and, where appropriate, as early childhood staff. Today, one in four Head Start staff is a parent of a Head Start graduate, for a total of over 56,000 teachers, home visitors, managers, and directors from every racial, ethnic, and linguistic background found in the United States. The journeys they take to Head Start include refugee and immigrant experiences, homelessness, and poverty in many forms. Precisely because of those experiences, they are able to establish respectful connections with incoming families who have their own struggles and to empower them to set and meet their own goals while modeling by their own example that success is possible. And yet, as a nation, we perpetuate poverty for our teachers' families by continuing to pay wages that don't recognize their gains in education and which, adjusted for inflation, have actually decreased over the last decade.

Today 70 percent of Head Start teachers hold BA or advanced degrees. They are committing their lives to supporting children in their most delicate early years, and the generation they help to raise will be our doctors, lawyers, military and civic leaders in the decades to come. It is in the nation's best interest that we commit ourselves to appropriate wages for our teachers, both for the worthy work that they do and for the values we communicate to them and, thereby, to the children and families they serve.