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Back to School: Compensation Doesn’t Add Up for Head Start Teachers

August 22, 2023

Three-year-old Anna proudly carries her pint-sized backpack all around the house, with important things like her favorite stuffed toy inside. Every morning she asks her mom if today is the day she gets to go to preschool, just like her big brother did. She is enrolled in a local Head Start program, where she will be welcomed this September as part of a community of young learners. What feels like play to Anna—creating imagined cities with blocks, painting and mixing colors, listening to story time—are actually elements of a thoughtful curriculum that lays the foundation for reading and writing, math, social-emotional skills, and more to prepare her for success in kindergarten. Her teacher will create a safe, healthy, supportive environment where each child is valued for who they are.

But what if there is no teacher?

Since the pandemic, Head Start programs have struggled to hire enough teachers and assistant teachers to open all the classrooms they previously had available. Low compensation for a complex job is one of the key—although not only—factors that puts Head Start in competition with other, better-paying employers. Despite their dedication to Head Start’s mission and the personal satisfaction that brings, Head Start teachers have their own bills to pay. For too many, they have to look elsewhere—even outside of education—to earn a living wage.

With good reason, there has been a lot of attention paid to the child care workforce crisis, and the need to raise educators’ compensation in a sustainable way. Head Start is no exception.

Anat Weisenfreund is the Director of Head Start and Early Learning Programs at Community Action Pioneer Valley in Northampton, Mass. She knows the struggle of this workforce crisis all too well; some of her program’s classrooms have been closed for the last two years due to the teacher shortage. Despite providing staff with many forms of support and additional financial incentives (a hiring bonus, a quarterly retention bonus), some positions remained vacant. That is, until the program made the difficult but necessary decision to use savings from their reduced scope of service—or under-enrollment—to raise teacher pay rates. With a newly established rate of $30/hour for teachers with a bachelor's degree (on par with the local public pre-k teacher salaries), they have received more job applicants in the last three weeks than in the last three years. The program is working with their federal partners at the Office of Head Start to request that this plan be made permanent.

By law, a teacher in Head Start must have at least an associate degree in early childhood education or related field, and 50 percent nationally must have a bachelor’s degree. To the credit of the Head Start workforce, 72 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2021. Despite their specialized professional knowledge and the intensity of the job, the average annual salary of a Head Start teacher, nationally, was just below $38,000, according to the NIEER State of Head Start Yearbook 2022. That’s just 150% of the federal poverty level for a household of three.

Anna’s “back to school” excitement needs to be matched by funding that will give her prospective teachers and other Head Start staff the fair compensation they deserve. In turn, a well-funded workforce generates stability and provides the opportunity for children like Anna—and their families—to thrive.

Relevant Resources:

Yes We Can! – Strategies for Raising Compensation for the Child Care Workforce

Rhode Island PDG-5 Workforce Needs Assessment

Descriptive and Analytical Career Pathways Project – see Appendix: Healthcare, Early Care and Education, Information Technology, and Production/Manufacturing Career Trajectories and Occupational Transition Findings (Expanded Analyses by Occupational Cluster, January 2022)

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