“Why Are Our Most Important Teachers Paid the Least?”

By Zaina Cahill

Response by Zaina Cahill of Children’s Village 

“The children were ravenous for their teacher. And for each moment that she focused exclusively on the little blond boy, she risked losing the rest of her class to an irrevocable anarchy.”

The children in Kejo Kelly’s Massachusetts preschool classroom are much like the children in preschool classrooms around the country. The children in an early childhood classroom demand constant attention for the entirety of the school day - including attention to what they are attending to, opportunities for “teachable moments”, and, of course, the never-ending string of problem solving and/ or safety situations that present themselves in the early childhood environment on a daily basis, as discussed in the January 2018 New York Times Magazine article “Why Are Our Most Important Teachers Paid the Least?” by Jeneen Interlandi. Furthermore, while these demands are, of course, also laid on teachers of older children, they are put on the early childhood educator for a full day of care, often 8-10 hours, as compared to the 6-7 hours of the elementary school classroom. To make matters more challenging, teachers in this environment are making an average wage of $10/ hour, and less than $30,000/ year.

Why is it that research abounds supporting the importance of Early Childhood Education on brain development and overall lifetime success (see studies related to incarceration, teenage pregnancy, high school and higher education completion rates, rates of poverty, and so forth), and yet the educators entrusted with cultivating our youngest minds are forced to live in poverty?

Currently, in the state of Pennsylvania, where I reside, early childhood programs are reimbursed at an average base rate of less than $25/ day for a full day of care for a preschool-aged child. For a preschool child who is often in child care for a full day (approximately 10 hours), this means that schools are being given $2.50/ hour. While it is true that tiered reimbursement structures based on quality preschool programming increase these rates somewhat- at the highest quality level in Pennsylvania, Keystone Star 4, schools can be reimbursed an additional $9.20/ day- this means that, at most, a childcare center offering a full day of care for a 3-5-year-old child can only be reimbursed an average of approximately $36/ day, or $3.60/ hour. At the childcare center where I work in the city of Philadelphia, early childhood programs are reimbursed at a base rate of $32.65/ day for a preschool child, or $3.26/ hour for each child. As a Keystone Star 4 center we are eligible for that additional $9.20/ day- meaning that, at most, we are receiving only $4.18/ hour for each preschool-aged child in our care through childcare subsidy in the state of Pennsylvania.  Parents would not be able to hire even the least-experienced babysitter for such a low hourly rate.

As a result of the minimal funding offered to early childhood programs, childcare centers are forced to subsidize the cost of care for children with other underfunded government programs, grants, and donations- funding systems that cannot always be relied upon completely. This model of broken funding comes together to create underfunded early childhood centers who struggle to stay afloat as they shell out revenue received to cover the cost of facilities and supplies first, leaving a less-than-ideal amount of money remaining to cover the cost of staff benefits and salaries. See the Research for Action report on child care funding for more information.

With these facts in place, it is sad to say that Kejo Kelly’s situation, as discussed by Interlandi, is the standard across this field. Teachers are often undereducated and without the structural, financial, or support (both personally and professionally) resources to move forward with higher degrees. With the standards of living that they can afford, they are often highly stressed outside of work to pay bills and provide safety and comfort for themselves and their families. While, ideally, outside lives are not brought into the workplace, it is only a matter of time before the body’s stress-responses take over. As Interlandi stated, “Kelly prided herself on setting those worries aside when she was at work. But with each fresh calamity, she felt the walls of her own bubble closing in.”

Armed with facts, a strong understanding of child development and developmentally appropriate teaching practices, and experience as a classroom teacher, an early childhood program administrator, and as higher education adjunct faculty, I know that I am still at a loss for how to answer the question of professionalizing the early childhood field. Current plans discuss requiring higher education degrees for teachers in this field- a suggestion that I agree with in theory, but struggle within practice as I have met and worked with incredible educators who lack college credit in teacher preparation and yet are the most engaged with their students throughout the school day and do not have the support- financially, time-wise, or otherwise- to move their credentials forward in this way. As an administrator in a center participating in an early childhood apprenticeship program, as discussed by Interlandi, I see the promise of hands-on teacher preparation, but it is still too soon to tell if it is the solution. Finally, I do know, that as a basis for professionalizing the field, our teachers must be given higher wages, but can’t say exactly where that funding will come from, as the gap between current funding for early childhood and the amount needed for quality care is so large.

However, I do know that the first step is making our country - citizens and policymakers alike- aware of what the field of early childhood education means, what impacts it can have on our country’s education rates and infrastructure, and what it will take to fund it adequately.


Zaina Cahill is the Early Childhood Director at Children’s Village, a large culturally and linguistically diverse childcare center in Center City, Philadelphia. In addition, Zaina is an adjunct professor in the Early Childhood Master’s Program at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA. A graduate of New York University (B.S. in ECE and Special Education) and Walden University (M.S.Ed. in Elementary Reading and Literacy), Zaina has been in the field for 13 years, working in a variety of capacities from substitute to lead teacher and on into administration. Zaina holds a Level 2 teaching certification in the state of Pennsylvania, is a member of NAEYC’s Membership Engagement Committee and the Becker’s Advisory Council. In addition to her contributions to the Becker’s Blog, she has also contributed to the NAEYC blog and its print publication, Teaching Young Children.

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