Attracting and Retaining the Best and the Brightest Early Childhood Educators

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By: J. Glenn Hopkins, President/CEO

Following announcement of the departure of a Teacher at our Preschool Academy, I received a number of emails from parents of our academy Young Scholars, concerned about what they perceived as higher than usual turnover among our educators. "We both know the child care industry is a mess," one parent wrote. "High turnover, no real set national standards for quality."

This and the several other emails I received from parents prompted me to share with you what we are doing at Hopkins House to help fix the high educator turnover "mess" in the child care industry.
High Turnover is Not Limited to the Child Care Industry.
High educator turnover is a major problem throughout the education sector, of which child care education is a significant part. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) reports that almost a third of all new teachers leave the classroom after just three years, and close to 50 percent leave after five years. Over a quarter million teachers in the U.S. stop teaching every year.

High Turnover in Early Childhood is Very High in the U.S. and has been for Years.
A 1989 study by the Child Care Employee Project found that turnover at child care centers rose from 15 percent a year in 1977 to 41 percent in 1988 – tripling in just a decade. During that same period, the number of child care centers reporting no turnover among their educators fell from 40 percent to 7 percent.
In 2004, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reported the average annual turnover rate for early childhood educators to be more than 30 percent, and a 2012 report by the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA), showing a turnover rate between 25 and 40 percent, indicates that not much has changed in the last 25 years.
This high rate of turnover in the education sector, and the child care field in particular, is understandably alarming for parents, especially given the direct impact on the education outcomes of our children.
High turnover is also costly for an industry burdened by exceptional price-point sensitivity. Lost work during vacancies, recruitment, and retraining all contribute to the already high and rising cost of child care in the U.S.

There are many reasons for this high turnover among early childhood educators, including and not limited to poor working conditions, low wages, minimal advancement opportunities, and burnout.

We Are Addressing the Problem and Attracting and Retaining the Best and Brightest Educators.
With the goal to improve and maintain performance outcomes for the Young Scholars enrolled in our preschool academy, Hopkins House has devoted considerable resources to a long-term strategy to attract and retain highly qualified and experienced early childhood educators at our preschool academy. We have been implementing this strategy in earnest for the past five years. Key parts of this strategy include higher pay for higher education, retention bonuses, robust training, and a supportive work environment.

At Hopkins House, not everyone in the classroom is a "teacher", just as everyone that works at a hospital is not a doctor. Titles used in our preschool academy are earned, and based on educational attainment, classroom experience, and achievement of specific performance standards; and, they are ranked according to very clear classroom responsibility.
The title of "Teacher", for example, is a title and rank at Hopkins House very distinct from the other classroom positions: 
  • Teachers wear a blue smock with "Teacher" emblazoned on the chest. This is the highest ranking professional in the classroom. To achieve this rank at Hopkins House requires at least a four-year college degree, plus several years of professional child care experience. The Teacher has ultimate responsibility for developing lesson plans, leading classroom activities and achieving specific child development outcomes.
  • Assistant Teachers wear a maroon smock with "Assistant Teacher" emblazoned on the chest. This is the second highest ranking professional in the classroom. To achieve this rank requires at least a two-year college degree, plus years of professional child care experience.
  • Instructional Assistants wear a green smock with "Instructional Assistant" emblazoned on the chest. This is the third ranking professional in the classroom. To achieve this rank requires at least a high school diploma, plus a child care professional credential (i.e. CDA).
  • Education Aides wear a gray smock with the title "Education Aide" emblazoned on the chest. This is an entry level position at Hopkins House, requiring a high school diploma. Education Aides are required to earn a CDA professional credential during the first year of their employment in order to remain employed in our preschool academy.
All our educators are regularly encouraged and supported in their progress up the Hopkins House Career Ladder and expected to meet rigorous education standards, including a minimum of 16 hours of continuing education yearly. They can earn professional child care credentials and credits toward a college degree at Northern Virginia Community College, at little to no cost, through our Early Childhood Learning Institute (ECLI). We even provide child care while they are in class.

When the educator achieves the requisite professional standard, s/he becomes eligible for promotion to a new title and higher rank and pay in the preschool academy, along with a new colored smock, as vacancies occur.  

Hopkins House also pays significantly better than the industry average. The base salary at Hopkins House for a Teacher is $37,500 – nearly twice the $19,510 median salary for child care workers in the U.S. reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Atop this base salary, Teachers also receive $3,600 in annual contributions to their health premiums, plus length of service bonuses, generous paid sick and vacation leave, and retirement benefits.

This level of compensation is matched by no other private child care provider in the region, including for-profit centers.

And, it doesn’t stop there: Last year, the Hopkins House trustees introduced a teacher contract. This contract, modeled after those at public and private secondary schools, is awarded to our top performing Teachers and raises their base salary plus benefits to well over $43,600 – in return for their commitment to remain in the classroom for at least two years.
The trustees also assigned specific responsibility to the Chief Operating Officer at Hopkins House for leading this strategy and reporting back to them regularly on our progress.
This Strategy is Beginning to Show Very Positive Results.
We are beginning to see very positive returns on this important investment. Over the past five years, an average of only one Teacher per year has voluntarily left Hopkins House. This translates to a retention rate of better than 90%; higher than the 83.7% rate for private elementary schools and comparable to the 91.3% for public elementary schools as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics; and, substantially higher than the 70% educator retention rate for the child care industry as a whole. 

To be sure, while we are making progress retaining our Teachers, the retention rate for the lower ranking classroom educators is not where we would like it to be. While the reasons are many, two key ones are most often cited in exit interviews:
  • Money – Hopkins House requires our educators to continuously work toward a college degree. However, once they earn that degree, many of our educators find that they have more and better paying employment opportunities outside the child care field.
  • Advancement – With few Teachers leaving Hopkins House, there are few opportunities for lower staff to advance to higher positions and pay.  Additionally, other child care centers have lower educational requirements for their educators and higher turnover and, therefore, more advancement opportunities.
Other reasons are also cited, including the organizational culture ("Hopkins House is a very demanding place to work"), characteristics of the job ("I don't mind the work as much as I hate having to go to school in order to keep my job"), and unrealistic expectations ("Working in a preschool like this is harder than I thought it would be").

During the summer, when the school year draws to a close, is when educator turnover at Hopkins House peaks. This is the time when Education Aides and Instructional Assistants that have not met our rigorous education standards are "invited" to leave the preschool academy. This is also when our Assistant Teachers are most often poached by daycare centers and preschools that don't require a four-year college degree or only a child care professional credential. Because our preschool academy operates year-round, without a "natural" break during the summer, these changes are most noticeable to parents.

We are Encouraged by the Progress we have Made to-date.
Despite a level of churning that goes on among our Education Aides and Instructional Assistants, we are encouraged by the progress we have made over the past several years attracting and retaining highly trained and experienced Teachers and Assistant Teachers at the Hopkins House Preschool Academy. In a survey of our staff conducted during the first year we began implementing this strategy, 83% of respondents said that they wanted to work at Hopkins House for as long as they can. Seventy-two percent said this is because Hopkins House has a good reputation that reflects well on them as professionals, 17% said because they like the employee benefits, and 10% said because of the pay we offer.

We are encouraged by these responses but we still have a ways to go. In our view, although highest in the region, our preschool educators are still underpaid. With a college degree and years of classroom experience, they can teach in public school, earn $10,000 more than our highest paid Teachers, and have summers off. Some of our best Teachers have left Hopkins House to work in public school. 
Clearly, our work is not yet finished.
Government and Private Industry Must Help.
While the generosity of our donors makes this work possible at Hopkins House, additional sources of funding must be found for all providers if we are to have any hope of attracting and retaining the best and brightest in the early childhood education field in the U.S.  
Paying highly qualified early childhood educators what they're worth raises costs substantially. Child care tuition already takes a huge bite out of the family budget. Private industry and government must help through charitable support, grants and subsidies, and other funding.
The Hopkins House trustees and I are actively working to educate the public, elected officials, policymakers, and business leaders about the need for financial help to support improved compensation for early childhood professionals without overburdening parents beyond their financial means. 
Fixing this problem is in the best interest of government and private industry because the country's future and the wellbeing of its economy depends heavily on an educated populace and a highly skilled workforce.
Also, and most importantly, our children absolutely deserve to be taught by the very best and the very brightest educators available.

We Value Your Thoughts.
We very much appreciate the comments of the concerned parents that prompted this report to you. We share their angst whenever we lose an educator at Hopkins House, because such departures remind us how very difficult and important it is to attract and retain top-notch educators for our Preschool Academy Young Scholars.

Please take a moment to share your thoughts on this subject, we would love to hear from you.

COMMENTS (1 Comments)

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Jacqueline Walker, Trustee
Thank you for this very thorough and informative explanation. I am appreciative of the goals, standards and rewards and incentives Hopkins House has established to attract and retain the very best Educators for our children. Continue the good work! I am support the efforts to have Hopkins House be among the best places for our children get their fresh start!
7:54 AM May 22nd | Report abuse