The revolving door of child-care staffing

Stability and continuity are priceless gems for everyone in any setting - for families at home, for employees at work, for students at school. But a lack of stability and continuity may have the most profound effect on those who need it most: the very youngest children.

Just ask Marcy Whitebook, a longtime child-care researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. For six years, from 1994 to 2000, she tracked the staffing in 75 relatively high-quality child-care centers in California. What she found was so distressing that she now uses phrases like "alarmingly unstable" and "profoundly unstable" to describe the child-care workforce.

Her report, issued by the Center for the Child Care Workforce in Washington, shows that 75 percent of teachers employed in child-care centers in 1996, and 40 percent of directors, were no longer on the job in 2000.

"The people who care for children are paid terrible wages and receive very little respect for the work they do," Ms. Whitebook says in a telephone interview, explaining turnover rates that run about 30 percent a year.

When teachers and administrators leave their jobs, half also leave the field. Their replacements arrive with less education and less training.

Nationally, child-care workers average just $7.42 an hour and trained preschool teachers $9.43. By contrast, kindergarten teachers earn $24.51. When animal trainers, who average $12.39 an hour, earn more than those who care for young children, the difference says something about our values and priorities.

Ten days before Whitebook issued her report, another major study found that children who spend long hours in child care are three times as likely to show aggressive behavior in kindergarten as their classmates who are cared for primarily by their mothers.

Whitebook suggests a connection between the two studies. Constant turnover of teachers and administrators, she says, contributes to behavioral problems. "If you can get turnover stabilized, then you don't see children with the same kinds of language and social problems that you do in centers that don't stabilize turnover."

If, year after year, nearly one-third of teachers at any public high school were to quit, parents would be pounding on the doors of the school board, demanding change. Likewise, if, year after year, 30 percent of employees in mainstream companies - General Motors or IBM, say - walked out the door, shareholders would want answers.

But when those directly affected by high turnover are infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, unable to articulate their need for continuity, a passive acceptance reigns. It's easy to settle for helpless hand-wringing and a "there's nothing we can do" attitude.

But there is. In California, a measure called Proposition 10 is using money from a tobacco tax to fund early childhood services. Other programs in Illinois and Washington State seek to help those working in child-care centers.

Improving child-care ranks is only part of the solution. As Whitebook points out, flexible work schedules and parental leave would help to reduce the need for care.

However fervently many people might wish that parents could return to the ideal of caring for their own young children, the reality is that many parents must work and will continue to need high-quality centers and teachers.

As Whitebook says: "The question is, how do we make our child-care system better, rather than how do we make parents feel terrible that they have their children in child care?" Putting an end to the revolving door of teachers and directors counts as an essential first step.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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