Connecticut’s largest-in-the-nation achievement gap starts long before children enroll in kindergarten.
One in three children in Connecticut is growing up in a family that can’t meet basic expenses. These children experience substantially more early childhood trauma, hunger, and maternal depression. By age three, they have heard 30 million fewer words and have vocabularies just half the size of their higher income peers.
High-quality early learning programs can help to buffer those negative experiences and close the vocabulary gap, which is a major contributor to the achievement gap. However, the research is very clear; it is only high-quality early learning programs that make a difference. The primary measures of quality are the education level of teachers and quality of the interactions between teachers and children.
Recognizing this, the Federal Head Start Program, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and many states, including Connecticut, have set the goal of bachelor-degreed teachers in every classroom.
By July 1, Connecticut will require half of the teachers in state subsidized preschool and early learning programs to have a bachelor’s degree. The other half must have associate’s degrees. By 2020, all classrooms are to have bachelor-degreed teachers.
Connecticut will miss the July 1 deadline and most likely the 2020 deadline. This is because there are not enough students graduating with early childhood degrees to fill the need. So you might ask, if there is clearly a need, why aren’t more students earning degrees in early childhood?
The answer is simple. The wages are too low.
Teachers with bachelor’s degrees working in community-based early learning programs typically earn between $27,000 and $30,000 a year. This is what paraprofessionals with an associate’s degree earn in a public school working 10 months out of the year. For comparison sake, public school teachers with just a bachelor’s degree start at $43,500 in Connecticut. For assistant teachers in early learning programs, the pay is even worse, with many relying on programs like SNAP, HUSKY and fuel assistance to help make ends meet.
Connecticut recognized the potential of early learning programs to help close the achievement gap way back in 1997 when we created the school readiness preschool program. We recognized the importance of well trained teachers in 2005 when we set the goal of bachelor’s degree in every subsidized early learning classroom.
Now it is time for the state to increase the rate it reimburses early learning programs so that they can pay enough to attract and retain teachers who meet the degree requirements of the law. The futures of over 15,700 children in state-subsidized early learning programs depend on it.
The work to close the achievement gap is far too important for us to continue to expect the people doing the work to subsidize it through lousy wages.
Merrill Gay is executive director of the CT Early Childhood Alliance.