Pay gap driving Head Start teachers out of the classroom

Pay gap driving Head Start teachers out of the classroom

(Mass.) More Head Start teachers hold bachelor’s degrees than a decade ago but are still paid far less than similarly credentialed educators–one reason the program continues to be plagued by retention issues, according to a new report.

A paper published last week by Bellwether Education Partners shows that, in a handful of states, Head Start teachers with a bachelor’s degree could potentially double their salary if they become kindergarten teachers instead.

According to authors of the study, such a significant jump demonstrates why lawmakers must consider the big picture in employment options for early childhood teachers when developing new policies.

“We find that while the bachelor’s degree mandate succeeded in raising the credentials of Head Start teachers, it did not alleviate—and in fact may have exacerbated—other challenges related to recruiting, retaining, and compensating a high-quality Head Start workforce,” authors of the report wrote. “If the goal is to truly raise the quality of Head Start teaching, compensation has to be increased to be commensurate with credentials.”

A state-by-state analysis of Head Start programs released last year by the National Institute for Early Education Research found inconsistencies in funding, enrollment and quality despite many lawmakers’ announced goals of improving and expanding early education.

In a separate fact sheet released last year, the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services said the average preschool teacher makes $28,570 while the average kindergarten teacher makes $51,640. A fact that John King Jr., former U.S. Education Secretary, said pointed to an undervaluing of early childhood educators across the country.

Researchers at Bellwether found that in states with large disparities in compensation between Head Start teachers and public elementary school teachers, including Connecticut, Delaware and New York, turnover rates are much higher than average. In 28 states, the turnover rate is more than 20 percent.

The pay gap is just as pronounced between Head Start teachers across state lines, researchers found. In 29 states, a Head Start teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes less than $31,000 a year. In five states, a Head Start teacher with the same credentials makes less than $25,000. In Washington D.C., however, the average Head Start teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes $77,766 a year.

In an effort to improve the quality of the program, under the reauthorization of Head Start in 2007, 50 percent of Head Start teachers in each state were required to hold a bachelor’s degree by 2013. Today, 74 percent of the nearly 44,700 Head Start teachers have a bachelor’s or advanced degree in early childhood or a related field, researchers found.

Authors recommend federal lawmakers continue to support professional development, teacher training efforts and to push for more highly credentialed educators, but note those improvements should not overshadow addressing the current pay gap.

“In most appropriation cycles since 2007, Congress and the administrations have chosen either not to increase Head Start funding, or to prioritize other goals, such as Early Head Start expansion and longer days,” authors of the report concluded. “Future administration budgets and appropriations bills should prioritize funding for compensation at least as much as for other goals.”