Child Care Staff: Salaries, Stability, and Kids’ Behavior

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Aggressive behavior of children in child care made front page headlines last month, but an equally important - and possibly related - study of child care workers has not gotten media attention at all. It should.

The study of child care staffing from 1994 to 2000 in 75 child care centers in northern California is a reminder of a nationwide problem facing child care workers across the country - the pay is low and the workers don't stay long.

The study is particularly important and alarming because the child care centers in the study were seeking accreditation from the National Association of the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and therefore probably represent some of the best centers in their area.

Interviews with staff and directors and observations at 43 of the centers found: 

More than three out of every four of the teachers on staff in 1996 were no longer on the job in 2000.

Only 18 percent of those on staff in 1994 were still working at the same center in 2000.

The average annual turnover rates were 30 percent; the rate ranged from zero in 25 percent of the centers to 100 percent in six of the 75 centers.

Why do staff leave? Almost all the child care teachers who left their jobs suggested that improving wages and benefits would encourage more workers to stay in the field. Centers that paid more were more likely to keep their teacher staff. 

But the reality for child care in general is to decrease, not increase, salaries.  Wages decreased 6 percent for teachers from 1994 to 2000, when adjusting for inflation. The salaries of assistants decreased 2 percent. The small number of teaching staff who stayed between 1996 and 2000 were treated slightly better; they experienced a 2 percent increase in salary after adjusting for inflation. During a similar five-year period, California public school teachers experienced a 9 percent salary increase.

The salaries were very low to start with. On average, child care teachers earned $13.52 an hour, which is the equivalent of $24,600 for full-time work for 12 months. School teachers earned almost twice as much for a 10-month work year.

Despite the low salaries, two-thirds of the child care teachers who left their jobs would recommend a career in their profession, as would 69 percent of those who were observed in 2000.

The new teaching staff were significantly less educated than those they replaced: Approximately half of those who left had completed a bachelor's degree, compared to only one-third of the new teachers. The report used this statistic to show that child care quality is at risk, but fails to mention that these inferior credentials also could explain the decrease in wages reported between 1994 and 2000.


The careers of center directors are somewhat more stable, but 40 percent of the directors in 1996 were no longer at the centers in 2000. More worrisome, two-thirds of those centers had two or more directors after losing the 1996 director. And although they received higher salaries than the teachers, the center directors earned an average of $37,571, which is less than the $38,000 recommended starting salary for 10 months for elementary school teachers in California.

What happens to those who leave these child care centers? Only half the teachers who left their positions were working in child care, and those who left child care were making an average of $4 an hour more (upwards of $8,000 more per year). Only 39 percent of center directors left their centers to take director or assistant director jobs at other centers. 

Teaching staff are influenced by salaries, but they are also more likely to stay if their colleagues are well-trained and remain on the job. The most highly educated teachers who remained in their jobs earned more than $3 more per hour than those who left, resulting in $6,000 a year in higher salaries.

It seems reasonable to assume that centers that retain teachers and directors will benefit from that stability, but is there evidence that this is true? At centers that lost their directors, teachers were rated as harsher toward the children. This brings us back to the studies that got all the media attention: research showing that two-year old children who spend more hours/week in daycare are more aggressive.

Could it be that harsher teachers result in more aggressive children? That seems reasonable, and perhaps the only way to create the incentive to improve the salaries of child care staff is to study the link between those salaries and the behavior of the children in their care. Common sense has apparently not had much impact on improving salaries, so perhaps research evidence could help.

In the meantime, child care workers can take heart from some of the less publicized findings of the new child care study conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). In addition to the previously reported findings regarding aggression, the results showed that children in childcare did as well in terms of cognitive or language development as did those who were cared for by their parents exclusively. 

Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., is executive director of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families, based in Washington, D.C. Contact: