Massive National Study Finds Many Prekindergarten Teachers Underpaid; Others Lacking Required Credentials

  • May 03, 2005

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Seven out of ten teachers in state-funded prekindergarten programs earn salaries in the low-income category and one in six works a second job to make ends meet, according to a just-released report from the National Prekindergarten Study. The study is the first ever to explore how effectively the mandates of state prekindergarten programs are implemented at the classroom level. Among the findings: It is not uncommon for prekindergarten teachers to lack the basic educational credentials required by their state. One in four prekindergarten teachers does not have a bachelor's degree.

During the last two decades, the number of states funding prekindergarten programs has more than doubled and many state programs have grown exponentially. "Along with that growth have come disparities between state policy and what is actually happening in the classroom, says the reports lead author," Walter S. Gilliam of Yale University. "When we look past state policy mandates and into the classrooms, we often see a picture of underpaid, under-qualified teachers."

W. Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, which co-funded the study said Gilliam's findings amount to a "bait and switch." "Research shows beyond question that the quality must be there for preschool programs to deliver on the promise of preparing children for kindergarten. When states put prekindergarten policies on the books to assure quality, but look the other way upon implementation, its little wonder many children still enter kindergarten behind their peers," said Barnett. "It's time to deliver on the promises states make to kids and treat prekindergarten with the same respect we accord the rest of our educational system."

Ruby Takanishi, president of the Foundation for Child Development, a funder of the study, expanded on Barnett's point. "The U.S. needs a new beginning for universal education that begins in prekindergarten and continues to the third grade. Creating this new first level of public education requires that all teachers, including prekindergarten teachers, meet the same educational qualifications and appropriate certification as K-3 teachers, and therefore, the same compensation. Despite the dedication of many prekindergarten teachers, this report shows we have a long way to go."

The report, titled "Who's Teaching Our Youngest Students?," addresses findings related only to teachers. Other reports will be released as other data from the National Kindergarten Study are analyzed by Gilliam and his research associate Crista M. Marschesseault of the Edward Zigler Center for Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. A total of 3,898 prekindergarten teachers were surveyed from all of the nations 52 statewide prekindergarten systems in 40 states. (Ten states do not fund prekindergarten.) The study has an overall margin of error less than 2 percent. The study questioned teachers on all aspects of prekindergarten: access, characteristics of children served, classroom setting, class size, curricula and comprehensive services.

In creating the first national portrait of the average prekindergarten teacher in state programs, the researchers found: Over all, she is female, predominantly white, and generally works in a public school. Broken down by the four regions of the U.S., she looks like this:

  • Ms. Northeast is 38 years old, has been teaching prekindergarteners for 5 years (3 of them at the same site) and works 35 hours per week. She earns $31,262 per year.   
  • Ms. Midwest is 40 years old, has been teaching prekindergarteners for 8 years (5 of them at the same site) and works 35 hours per week. She earns $28,618 per year.   
  • Ms. South is 40 years old, has been teaching prekindergarteners for 5 years (4 of them at the same site) and works 38 hours per week. She earns $28,618 per year.   
  • Ms. West is 43 years old, has been teaching prekindergarteners for 10 years (5 of them at the same site) and works 36 hours per week. She earns $24,166 per year.

Other key findings of the new study were:

Twenty-seven percent of the teachers lacked a bachelors degree. The Western U.S. had fewer bachelor degrees per classroom than any other part of the country. Nationally, 13 percent of teachers reported having no more than a high school diploma or GED; 14 percent, an associates degree; 49 percent a bachelors degree and 24 percent a masters degree or higher. Twenty-two percent held a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential.

In West Virginia, Maryland, New York, and South Carolina , the majority of teachers held masters degrees. In Alaska and Florida, the majority of teachers had no more than a high school diploma or GED as their highest educational degree.

Compensation varied significantly. The highest median hourly wages were reported by teachers in Maryland ($29.07), Pennsylvania ($28.19), Michigan ($27.62), and New York ($25.32) all states where a large proportion of programs are in public schools. The lowest median hourly wages were reported by teachers in Florida ($10.07), New Mexico ($10.96), Hawaii ($12.66), and Massachusetts ($12.95).

Fourteen percent of teachers reported an annual salary below the federal poverty threshold, and 71 percent earned a salary less than 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold, a measure widely regarded as the line below which families are considered low-income. In 11 of the nations 52 statewide prekindergarten systems, more than one-third of the teachers earned a salary below the federal poverty threshold, the worst being Alaska (59 percent below the poverty level), Florida (46 percent), Washington (44 percent) and Delaware (42 percent).

Nineteen percent of teachers worked an extra job for pay.

Nationally, 59 percent of paid assistant teachers had no more than a high school diploma or GED as their highest educational credential. Seventeen percent had a CDA and 24 percent had an associates degree or higher. Only Tennessee, Washington, Alabama and Arkansas required assistant teachers to hold a CDA, yet about half of the assistant teachers in those states failed to meet the requirement.

Massive National Study Finds Many Prekindergarten Teachers Underpaid; Others Lacking Required Credentials