Why Are Our Most Important Teachers Paid the Least? {#iBelieve}

Many preschool teachers live on the edge of financial ruin. Would improving their training — and their pay — improve outcomes for their students?

One snowy February morning at the Arbors Kids preschool branch in downtown Springfield, Mass., 38-year-old Kejo Kelly crouched low over a large, faded carpet and locked eyes with a blond-haired boy of 3. It was circle time, and Kelly was trying to get each of her 13 tiny students to articulate a feeling.

“Good morning, good morning, and how do you do?” she sang softly to the little boy. “Jamal’s silly! Amir’s happy! And how about you?” Kelly’s classroom was known for what one visiting specialist called its “singsonginess.” The good-morning bit was standard fare, but Kelly also sang her own impromptu ditties throughout the day. She’d found that a good melody could cajole even her most obstinate students into completing dreaded tasks: There was a song about washing hands, and one about cleaning up messes, and another about how shouting and running were for outside only.

Most children squealed with delight when their turn came to name a feeling: They offered up happys and sillys with abandon. Even the more bashful ones, who had to be prompted, were visibly thrilled by Kelly’s attention, which seemed to beat out a limited toy-dinosaur collection as the class’s chief attraction. But not the blond-haired boy. During the opening exercise, in which each child got a turn to dance in the center of the circle to a song of his choosing, he neither picked a song nor danced to the one Kelly offered. Instead, he flung himself at her feet and writhed like a fish out of water, then went completely still in a belligerent game of possum.

Now, at least, Kelly had made eye contact.

“How are you today?” she asked, holding both of his hands in hers as she spoke. “Are you happy? Angry? Sad? Or silly?”

If any of her students — or “little friends,” as she called them — had sung her song back to her just then, Kelly would have answered that she was stressed. Three teachers had called out from work that morning, including the assistant teacher assigned to Kelly’s room. Massachusetts state law prohibits the child-to-teacher ratio in full-day preschool classrooms from exceeding 10 to 1, so normally, Kelly had 13 students and one co-teacher. But staff shortages were a common occurrence at Springfield Arbors, where teachers earned $10 an hour on average and staff turnover was high. In practice, there was a lot of juggling: On any given day, students and teachers shuffled from one room to another, combining some classes and breaking others up in an effort to keep each room within the permissible ratio. That day, Kelly would absorb six additional students and one co-teacher from another classroom.

The community Kelly taught in was low-income by all the standard metrics. Many of her students came from single-parent households — some from teenage mothers, at least one from foster care — and nearly all of them qualified for state-funded child care vouchers. Programs like Springfield Arbors that accepted such vouchers received about $35 a day for each child, enough to cover basics like food and art supplies but not enough to pay for on-site behavioral specialists or occupational therapists. The school did make referrals. By Massachusetts law, all 3- and 4-year-olds are eligible to receive special-needs services at the local public school; there is even a free shuttle to shepherd them back and forth. But the waiting list for those services can be long, and in the winter of 2016, few parents at the school bothered to put their children’s names on it.

So Kelly kept her own fractured vigil — taking note of which students couldn’t control their emotions, or sit still for the life of them, or engage with others in a meaningful way — and giving those students whatever extra attention could be spared. She sometimes imagined the classroom as a bubble, inside which her students were temporarily spared from the hazards of everyday life. Her job, as she saw it, was to hold that bubble open for the ones who couldn’t always hold it open themselves.

“Come on, my friend,” she said now to the little blond boy. “Talk to me.”

The idea that we can deliberately influence the cognitive and social development of very young children is a fairly new one. In the early 20th century, some doctors considered intellectual stimulation so detrimental to infants that they routinely advised young mothers to avoid it. At the beginning of the 1960s, the prevailing wisdom was only slightly less dire. Trying to stimulate a very young mind wasn’t considered dangerous so much as pointless, because 0-to-4-year-olds were “concrete thinkers,” incapable of theorizing or abstraction.

But such thinking began to shift with two seminal preschool experiments: the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, which began in 1962 in Ypsilanti, Mich., and the Carolina Abecedarian Project, which began in 1972 in and around Chapel Hill, N.C. Perry provided free half-day classes and weekly home visits to 58 black children living in a high-poverty district near Detroit. Abecedarian provided 57 children of a similar cohort with full weekday care for their first five years of life, including not only preschool but also health care and social services. Both programs employed highly trained teachers and kept student-to-teacher ratios low. The Perry study also used a curriculum rooted in “active participatory learning,” in which cognitive and social skills are developed through educational games that the children themselves initiate and direct.

The short-term results of these interventions were mixed. Some of the preschoolers, for example, were more aggressive at the end of the programs than they had been at the start, even if this difference disappeared by second grade. Decades later, however, when researchers went back, they found a surprise. At age 21, the Abecedarian children were half as likely to have been teenage parents and 2.5 times more likely to have enrolled in college than the control group, who did not attend preschool. At 40, the Perry children had higher median incomes than their control-group peers; they were less likely to be on welfare and less likely to have been arrested. Those results were not uniform. For example, while Perry seemed to reduce arrests and increase high-school graduation rates, Abecedarian had no impact on either. But the findings still caused a stir among social scientists and educators: Both programs appeared to have affected the children in ways that could still be seen in adulthood.

In the decades since those results were published, the biological and social sciences have radically altered our understanding of early-childhood development. We now know that infants and toddlers have the capacity for complex thought. According to a recent report from the Institute of Medicine, they can understand other people’s intentions, reason about cause and effect and intuit the more basic aspects of addition and subtraction. We also know that the earliest years are a period of intense and rapid neural development — M.R.I. studies suggest that 80 percent of all neural connections form by age 3 — and that a child’s ability to capitalize on these years is directly related to her environment. Social scientists have shown that, owing to a shortage of books and toddler-friendly conversation, children from families on welfare understand roughly one-third the number of words that their middle-class peers do by the start of kindergarten.

Scientists and educators have begun to build on this new understanding, creating pedagogy and designing curriculums around the needs of our earliest learners. But one crucial question remains unanswered: What actually works? What are the defining features of an excellent preschool education? “There is no empirically based definition of ‘high-quality preschool,’ ” says Mark Lipsey, a social scientist at Vanderbilt University. “We throw the phrase around a lot, but we don’t actually know what it means.”

Part of the problem is that the benefits of a preschool education tend to manifest unevenly. Developmental gains made by the start of kindergarten can be enough to close racial achievement gaps, but those gains often evaporate by third or fourth grade, a phenomenon that education researchers call the fade-out effect. And so far, the longer-term rebounds found in Perry and Abecedarian — in which children who attend good preschools fare better in adulthood than their peers who attend no such program — have been difficult to parse or replicate. In 2017, a group of prominent early-education researchers published a consensus statement declaring that preschool classrooms were a “black box” and that much more research was needed before anyone could say with certainty which ingredients were essential to improving long-term developmental trajectories.

Amid that uncertainty, though, at least two things seem clear: Children in low-income and minority neighborhoods stand to gain (or lose) the most from whatever preschool system we ultimately establish. And the one-on-one exchanges between students and teachers — what developmental psychologists call “process quality” — may well be the key to success or failure. In other words, if preschool classrooms really are crackling with the kind of raw power that can change the course of a life, that power most likely resides in the ability of teachers like Kelly to connect with students like the little blond boy.

But if teachers are crucial to high-quality preschool, they are also its most neglected component. Even as investment in early-childhood education soars, teachers like Kelly continue to earn as little as $28,500 a year on average, a valuation that puts them on par with file clerks and switchboard operators, but well below K-12 teachers, who, according to the most recent national survey, earn roughly $53,100 a year. According to a recent briefing from the Economic Policy Institute, a majority of preschool teachers are low-income women of color with no more than a high-school diploma. Only 15 percent of them receive employer-sponsored health insurance, and depending on which state they are in, nearly half belong to families that rely on public assistance. “Teaching preschoolers is every bit as complicated and important as teaching any of the K-12 grades, if not more so,” says Marcy Whitebook, a director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. “But we still treat preschool teachers like babysitters. We want them to ameliorate poverty even as they live in it themselves.”

The solution to this paradox seems obvious: Hold preschool teachers to the same standards as their K-12 counterparts, and pay them a salary commensurate with that training. But that proposition is rife with intractable questions. Who will pay the higher salaries? How will current teachers rise to meet the new credential requirements? And if they can’t or won’t, who will take their place? At the heart of those questions is this one: What, exactly, makes a good preschool teacher?

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