Mass. must do more to boost early education workforce

Low pay driving shortage of educators for youngest children

WHEN IT COMES TO education bonafides, Massachusetts has a lot to brag about. Horace Mann, the reformer who popularized the idea of free, universal education grew up in Franklin and served as the state’s first secretary of education from 1837 to 1848. The Bay State frequently tops popular lists by US News & World Report and USA Today of those with the best public schools. And Massachusetts is home to high profile institutions like Harvard and MIT as well as schools like Mass Maritime, a state college that ranked 21 out of 727 in Money magazine’s list of the country’s best colleges based on graduation rates, student debt, and future earnings and UMass Boston, a public urban research university that has been included in the first tier of US News & World Report’s ranking of national universities for three years in a row.

But a system of education sits atop three legs. In addition to K-12 and higher ed, there’s early care and education for children from birth to age five. If we were grading Massachusetts in this category, we’d say there was lots of room for improvement.

The recently published Massachusetts Early Care and Education Workforce Study finds that despite high demand, some early education programs are not operating at full capacity due to a shortage of qualified educators and center directors. The report echoed news from last year’s State of Preschool Report by the National Institute for Early Education Research, which showed that enrollment of 3- and 4-year-olds in early education programs in Massachusetts had decreased 7.5 percent from the previous year.

Some of the likely reasons for the skilled labor shortage are outlined in the early education workforce study, which also reflect national data: Compensation for early educators doesn’t match their professional credentials, nearly 30 percent of the workforce receives at least two forms of public assistance to meet basic needs like housing, and there are few professional development opportunities to hone the skills needed to meet emerging needs in the classroom.

Despite these obstacles, the Massachusetts Early Care and Education Workforce Study also shows that the state’s early educators are deeply committed to the work. They are driven to keep up with the science of the field and bring it into the classroom. They’re motivated by the importance of their work as well as the joy they receive in caring for and educating young children.

It is encouraging to note that even before the release of the workforce study—which is based on interviews with more than 70 early education and care experts, including teachers, family child care providers, and center directors—decision makers were already paying attention to the problem.

A group of business leaders convened by House Speaker Robert DeLeo released “The Business Imperative for Early Education” in February 2017. The report concluded that the best way to strengthen the field of early care and education “rests on developing, professionalizing and retaining the early education and care workforce.” Three months later, the state Senate issued “Kids First: A Blueprint for Investing in our Future,” which concluded that Massachusetts needs better public policies to support educators who care for children from birth to age five.

This year, Massachusetts will follow up the workforce study with a survey of early educators to learn more about the challenges they face regarding compensation and benefits, professional development, and emerging needs in the classroom. With that information, we can develop the plan envisioned by State House leaders to meet the needs of early educators so they, in turn, can better meet the needs of our young children.

The continued success of our K-12 and higher education systems depend on getting this right. Children who receive good care from birth to age five are less likely to need special education services in the K-12 setting, less prone to juvenile delinquency, and are more likely to graduate high school. The benefits of quality early care and education also have the greatest impact on children from families with low incomes, where additional stresses from poverty, including homelessness and hunger, can interfere with learning.

To get children ready for kindergarten, college, and future success, we need a quality system of early care and education. That’s simply not possible if we don’t invest in the workforce.

Meet the Author

Anne Douglass

Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts Boston
Anne Douglass, PhD, is an associate professor of early care and education at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the founding executive director of the Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation. She is a co-author of the Massachusetts Early Care and Education Workforce Study.