Fact Sheet: Troubling Pay Gap for Early Childhood Teachers

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Fact Sheet: Troubling Pay Gap for Early Childhood Teachers

Preschool is a critical means of expanding educational equity and opportunity by giving every child a strong start. Studies show that attending high-quality early education can result in children building a solid foundation for achieving the academic, health, and social outcomes that are of benefit to individual families and to the country as a whole.


Children who attend these programs are more likely to do well in school, find good jobs, and succeed in their careers than those who don’t. And research has shown that taxpayers receive a high average return on investments in high-quality early childhood education, with savings in areas like improved educational outcomes, increased labor productivity, and a reduction in crime. 


Yet, preschool teachers are paid less than mail order clerks, tree trimmers and pest control workers. Child care workers make less than hairdressers and janitors. In fact, most early childhood educators earn so little that they qualify for public benefits, including for the very programs they teach targeting low-income families.[i]


“Undervaluing nation’s early childhood educators flies in the face of what we know about brain development and the optimal time for learning. Educating children before kindergarten requires significant knowledge, expertise, and skill — especially in light of the critical importance of the early years for children’s growth, development, and future academic and life success,” said U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. “This report is a call to action for all of us.”




The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services released a report today that shines a spotlight on the gap in pay for early education teachers—97 percent of whom are women—and the impact that inequity has on schools’ ability to attract and retain experienced, high-quality staff with higher levels of education. The report is released in conjunction with the United State of Women Summit, convened by the White House Council on Women and Girls, to celebrate the great achievements by and for women, and to organize around solutions that address the many issues where inequalities and injustices remain for women and girls. The Summit will emphasize issues of educational opportunity, economic empowerment, health and wellness, violence against women, leadership and civic engagement, and entrepreneurship and innovation.


The national median annual wage for preschool teachers is $28,570, 55 percent of wages earned by kindergarten teachers ($51,640) and 52 percent of elementary school teachers ($54,890). It is worth noting that the pay for preschool teachers working in elementary school settings may be higher, but it is difficult to differentiate because the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not separate out the salaries by type of preschool.


The report found that while education and training requirements have increased for early education teachers, workforce pay has not. In fact, early learning caregivers and teachers with a Bachelor’s degree earn nearly half the average earnings of individuals with a Bachelor’s degree overall. In all states, median annual earnings for the child care workforce would qualify a worker with a family of three for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, which equals an income less than $26,124 annually.


Across early learning settings—including child care, Head Start, publicly-funded preschool in community and school-based settings—teachers with the same level of education have markedly different earnings. For example, the report shows that for an individual with a Bachelor’s degree, there is a $6.70 per hour difference in median wages between employment in a public school sponsored program compared to a community-based program. That translates to a difference of $13,936 per year.


“The quality of any early care and learning setting is directly related to the quality of the staff, their education and training and understanding of child development and the ability to translate that understanding through effective practice,” said Linda Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development, Administration for Children and Families. “Wage parity across settings is critical to attracting and retaining a high-quality workforce, essential for a high-quality program.”


Higher Expectations for Early Educators


The 2015 Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council (NRC) report, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation, calls for a Bachelor’s degree, with specialized knowledge and competencies, for all lead teachers working with children birth through age eight.[ii] The IOM determined that the science of child development and early learning indicates that the work of all lead educators for young children of all ages requires the same high level of sophisticated knowledge and competencies. When early childhood educators are held to lower educational expectations and preparation than elementary school teachers, there is a perception that educating children before kindergarten requires less expertise than educating early elementary students. This helps justify the disparity in both the educational requirements and salaries for early learning teachers. Low salaries fail to incentivize teachers to earn Bachelor’s degrees. Educators without Bachelor’s degrees have difficulty gaining higher compensation. An early childhood workforce without the necessary competencies compromises the quality of learning experiences for young children and their subsequent outcomes.


“A teacher’s salary level reflects how the work is valued by society. To maximize the potential of our young children and the educators and programs that serve them, we must do more to support and lift up preschool teachers,” said Libby Doggett, the Education Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Policy and Early Learning. “I have met many teachers in states like New Jersey and North Carolina who were provided the incentives and supports to get a college degree in early learning. The improvements they made in their instructional methods, classroom management and more told the story.  As a nation, we must do better to honor early childhood educators as professionals.”



In most states, median preschool teacher earnings across the various early childhood settings (e.g., public and private schools, child care centers, and charitable organizations) are significantly lower in comparison to the median earnings of special education teachers, kindergarten teachers and other elementary school teachers.[iii]


Annual Median Salary of Early Learning and Elementary School Teachers, 2015


Child Care Workers Annual Median Wage

Head Start Teachers

Preschool Teachers

Preschool Special Education Teachers

Kindergarten Teachers

Elementary School Teachers

National Median:































































District of Columbia



















































































































































New Hampshire







New Jersey







New Mexico







New York







North Carolina







North Dakota



































Puerto Rico







Rhode Island







South Carolina







South Dakota

















































West Virginia






















Source: All data except for Head Start data are from the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2015. Head Start data are from Head Start PIR Data (2015) and U.S. Census Bureau ACS 1 Year Estimates.


According to the Standard Occupational Classification codes (http://www.bls.gov/soc/home.htm):

Childcare Workers attend to children at schools, businesses, private households, and childcare institutions. Perform a variety of tasks, such as dressing, feeding, bathing, and overseeing play. Excludes "Preschool Teachers, Except Special Education" (25-2011) and "Teacher Assistants" (25-9041).

Preschool Teachers, Except Special Education instruct preschool-aged children in activities designed to promote social, physical, and intellectual growth needed for primary school in preschool, day care center, or other child development facility. Substitute teachers are included in "Teachers and Instructors, All Other" (25-3099). May be required to hold State certification. Excludes "Childcare Workers" (39-9011) and "Special Education Teachers" (25-2050).

Preschool Special Education Teachers teach preschool school subjects to educationally and physically handicapped students. Includes teachers who specialize and work with audibly and visually handicapped students and those who teach basic academic and life processes skills to the mentally impaired. Substitute teachers are included in "Teachers and Instructors, All Other" (25-3099).

The report also found:

·      The states with the lowest disparity between wages for preschool and kindergarten teachers are Louisiana (84 percent) and Oklahoma (83 percent). Preschool teachers in Puerto Rico earned more ($22,010) than kindergarten teachers ($18,420).


·      Preschool teachers earned less than 50 percent of the annual wages earned by kindergarten teachers in 13 states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Wyoming).

·      In 6 states (Arizona, Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin), preschool teacher annual wages were less than the 2015 poverty threshold ($24,036)[4] for a family of four.


·      In 2015, the median annual wage for Head Start teachers ($28,995) was 56 percent of wages earned by kindergarten teachers ($51,640) and 53 percent of elementary school teachers ($54,890).


·      The states with the lowest disparity between wages for Head Start and kindergarten teachers are Arizona (80 percent) and Hawaii (77 percent). Head Start teachers in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico earned more than kindergarten teachers ($68,100 compared with $52,010 in DC and $22,650 compared with $18,420 in PR).


·      Head Start teachers earned less than 50 percent of the annual wages earned by kindergarten teachers in 15 states (Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming).


  • In 9 states (Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Utah), Head Start teacher annual wages were less than the 2015 poverty threshold ($24,036)[v] for a family of four.


  • In 2015, the median annual wage for child care workers ($20,320) was 39 percent of wages earned by kindergarten teachers ($51,640).


  • The states with the lowest disparity between wages for child care workers and kindergarten teachers are Colorado (52 percent), Arizona (50 percent), and South Dakota (50 percent). Child care workers in Puerto Rico earned 96 percent of kindergarten teachers.


  • Child care workers in Rhode Island (28 percent) and Connecticut (32 percent) earned less than one-third of the annual wages earned by kindergarten teachers.

The National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) reports in the State of Preschool 2015: Preschool Yearbook that the majority of states do not have policies supporting compensation parity for the pre-k workforce. In the states that do have these policies, they largely only apply to lead teachers working in public school settings. [vi]


Across the 42 states and the District of Columbia now operating state preschool programs, NIEER found only four states require salary parity for all lead teachers across all settings: Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Another eight states require salary parity for all lead teachers working in preschool programs located in public schools: Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Texas. In New Jersey, two of the programs have salary parity for all settings and one has parity just in public schools. Iowa has salary parity for preschool teachers working in public schools in one of its two state preschool programs.[vii]


Investing in Early Learners


President Obama’s Preschool for All proposal - a $75 billion investment over 10 years – aims to accelerate the work of states to expand and raise the quality of preschool for 4 year-olds through a new federal-state partnership. This money would be used to improve outcomes for children by expanding the number and availability of high-quality, inclusive preschool programs for children from low to moderate income families. Key among the requirements is that preschool teachers would be paid a comparable salary to their K-12 counterparts.


In addition, Congress approved $750 million to support competitive grants to states to develop or expand high-quality preschool through the President’s Preschool Development Grants program. The grants support 230 high-need communities that are providing more than 100,000 additional children with access to high-quality preschool. In expanding early learning opportunities, states were required to meet research-based standards of quality, such as a bachelor’s degree for teachers and salaries that are comparable to those for K-12.


President Obama also put forth a landmark child care proposal that would invest $82 billion over 10 years in the child care subsidy system to enhance its quality and expand access to all eligible working families with children under age four. These increased investments will not only ensure that more low-income children are in higher-quality child care settings, they will also enable child care providers to hire, train, and retain high-quality child care workers and improve wages.


All children benefit from high-quality early education experiences, but children from low-income families benefit the most. In addition, children with disabilities and dual language learners do better in kindergarten when they’ve attended a high-quality preschool.[viii] Children who attend high-quality preschool are less likely to use special education services or be retained in their grade, are more likely to graduate from high school, go on to college, and be employed than those who have not attended high-quality preschool programs.[ix] Salary parity for early learning staff is a key component of high-quality preschool programs that prepare children for success in school and beyond.


Join our list serv at www.ed.gov/earl-learning

[i] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2015. http://www.bls.gov/oes/#tables; Occupation classifications at the Bureau of Labor Statistics are under review, however currently, BLS does not differentiate preschool teacher salary by setting (i.e., preschool median and average wages are reported, but the data reflects all preschool teachers combined regardless of setting).

[ii] Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. “Transforming the workforce for children birth through age 8: A unifying foundation. “ Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[iii] Ibid.

[4] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), Federal Poverty Guidelines (2015). https://aspe.hhs.gov/2015-poverty-guidelines

[v] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), Federal Poverty Guidelines (2015). https://aspe.hhs.gov/2015-poverty-guidelines

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] The National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER), 2016. http://nieer.org/

Endnotes for text box: The Science about Early Brain Development

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Characteristics of Families – 2015 (April 2016). http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/famee.pdf

Working in Early Care and Education in North Carolina: 2015 Workforce Study. Child Care Services Association, Raleigh, NC. http://www.childcareservices.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/2015-Workforce-Report-FNL.pdf

Working in Child Care in Indiana. 2014 Child Care Workforce Study. Indiana Association for the Education of Young Children. http://secure.iaeyc.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/2014-Indiana-Child-Care-Workforce-Study-FINAL.pdf

30 million word gap, Hart, B., & T.R. Risley. 2003. “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.” American Educator 27 (1): 4–9.

Fernald, A., V.A. Marchman, & A. Weisleder. 2013. “SES Differences in Language Processing Skill and Vocabulary Are Evident at 18 Months.” Developmental Science 16 (2): 234–48.

Brain development, In Brief: The science of early childhood development, Harvard Center on the Developing Child


The Linguistic Genius of Babies, October 2010. Patricia Kuhl, Ph.D., Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, University of Washington.


Language and Literacy: Why Third Grade Reading Starts at Birth. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D. Temple University. http://earlysuccess.org/sites/default/files/Hirsh-Pasek%20Language%20and%20Literacy.pdf

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Center for Public Education. (2008). The Research on Pre-K. Alexandria, VA