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Understanding teacher turnover in early childhood education

July 29, 2021
by Meg Caven, Senior Research Associate, REL Northeast & Islands at EDC

Before my first child was even born, my wife and I visited nearly every childcare center within a five-mile radius. The choices were overwhelming. Centers had different philosophies, schedules, and spaces—and we didn’t have the first idea how to choose between them, or even what to ask of the directors who showed us around during our visits.

“Ask about staff retention,” one friend offered. “Find out how long their teachers have been there.” It seems obvious now, but at the time it had never occurred to me to consider teacher retention as a sign of center quality. It turns out my friend was right. Because stronger relationships and higher quality interactions with caregivers influence early childhood development, teacher retention is linked to better outcomes for children.

REL Northeast & Islands recently published a study designed to better understand factors associated with turnover in the early childhood educator workforce. The study was initiated by our Early Childhood Workforce Development Research Alliance—a group of state leaders who oversee early childhood workforce initiatives such as certification, training, and ongoing professional development. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, states faced major challenges in retaining a qualified and high-quality early childhood workforce, and these alliance members needed to know how educator turnover rates might vary across center and program types. With the results of the study in hand, they hope to inform their agencies’ policies to improve educator retention and guide the allocation of resources to support the educator workforce.

Turnover rates vary significantly by center—but why?

Using data from the 2012 National Survey of Early Care and Education, the study found turnover rates vary considerably depending on the early childhood setting. While nearly half of the early childhood centers had turnover rates below 5 percent, others had rates as high as 25–30 percent.

Why is turnover so high in some centers and so low in others? And what center characteristics (such as nonwage benefits, age group served, funding structure, and staff composition) are associated with center turnover rates? The study examined these questions; here is what we learned.

Wages are the strongest predictor of staff turnover in early childhood education centers.

Early childhood education centers that paid higher wages to their educators had lower turnover rates than centers that paid lower wages. The lowest-paying 25 percent of centers paid an average hourly wage of $8.17 and had an average turnover rate of 19 percent in 2012. The remaining 75 percent of centers paid an average of $16.73 per hour and had an average turnover rate of 12 percent. Surprisingly, nonwage benefits like health, retirement, and paid time off for professional development were unrelated to turnover in most centers.

Turnover rates were highest in private-pay centers serving children birth through age 5.

Educator turnover rates were higher in centers where some or all families paid tuition (referred to as “private-pay centers”) compared to those where no families paid. Turnover rates were also higher in centers serving children birth through age 5 than in centers serving children ages 3 to 5. When combined, the funding structure and age group served by the center were even more predictive of turnover (see page 9 of the report and bar graph below). In private-pay centers serving children ages 0 to 5, which make up 60 percent of centers in the sample, turnover rates averaged 16 percent, while rates were at or below 9 percent in all other types of centers. Private-pay centers serving children birth through age 5 were different from other types of centers: they paid lower wages and staffed fewer educators with a bachelor’s degree, but even when these differences were accounted for, their turnover rates were significantly higher than all other center types.

The early childhood sector needs financial reform and actionable strategies.

If higher wages are the strongest predictor of educator retention, one clear strategy for improving workforce stability is to increase wages for early childhood educators. But early childhood education centers, especially those in the private market, are squeezed by the sector’s financial model and have been hard hit by the pandemic. Most private-pay centers rely on tuition payments to cover costs, including wages paid to staff. Yet most families—many of whom have suffered job losses—can’t afford to pay more for childcare. The average cost of full-time childcare has climbed to $16,000 a year.

In order to increase wages and thereby improve the stability of the educator workforce, the early childhood education sector requires substantial government investment. The American Rescue Plan provided $39 billion to stabilize the early childhood education sector and instituted temporary changes to the tax code to dramatically expand support to families paying for care. The proposed American Families Plan acknowledges that the early educator workforce is universally underpaid and proposes a new $15 minimum wage. Some are eager to see this level of investment, or even higher levels, sustained through subsequent funding cycles.

Meanwhile, center directors need strategies they can implement now to retain high-quality educators. The financial, organizational, and relational costs of educator turnover are high. Some center directors aim to improve educator retention by building a strong workplace culture grounded in professional learning and mutual respect, while others leverage partnerships with online universities to offer employees free access to degree coursework.

REL Northeast & Islands recently hosted a webinar that engaged a panel of practitioners in a discussion of challenges and strategies related to improving educator retention in early childhood education centers. The panel included the director of the center that my two children have attended—the director who, on my first visit to the center five years ago, told me that many of her teachers had worked at the center for more than 10 years. The panelists participated in a lively discussion around the problem of educator turnover in ECE and real-world solutions, and discussed the political and economic imperatives for funding and policy reform.

To learn more about factors that influence early childhood education workforce turnover, download the study, watch our recent webinar, and view the infographic that summarizes the study findings.

Meg Caven, PhD., a sociologist and education researcher at Education Development Center, examines the intersection of education, social policy, and social inequality. She is the co-author of a recent article in The Hill focused on ECE teacher turnover and compensation. An earlier version of this article was published on the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands blog.

Submitted by Joanna Meyer on July 29, 2021