Across the country, the population of children is growing more diverse. There are more children from different countries who speak numerous languages. And as they enter preschool settings, they need culturally diverse early educators.
A recent report — “Immigrant and Refugee Workers in the Early Childhood Field: Taking a Closer Look” — looks at the early childhood education and care (ECEC) workforce and how it could better meet children’s needs.
Released by MPI, the Migration Policy Institute, the report says:
“Just as the number and share of children of immigrants have grown substantially in recent decades across the nation, the foreign-born share of ECEC workers has also risen. Today, immigrants account for nearly one-fifth of the overall ECEC workforce. However, these immigrant workers—and the linguistic and cultural diversity that they bring to the field—are highly over-represented in lower-skilled and lower-paying sectors of the profession such as family-based child-care.”
“With one in four of the nation’s 23 million children under age 6 born to immigrant parents—a number that rises to nearly one in three of Massachusetts’ 127,000 young children—the need to build a culturally and linguistically competent workforce in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) field is urgent,” according to a press release from MPI and MIRA, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
“Our report demonstrates that immigrant workers, who constitute a growing share of the early childhood workforce and are the source of most of its linguistic and cultural competence capacity, are in a vulnerable position,” Margie McHugh, director of MPI’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy and an author of the report, said in the press release. “They are stuck at the lowest ends of the pay and skills spectrum, face significant barriers to advancement and lack access to English-language, adult education, and course content training programs.”
The need for workforce development is substantial in Massachusetts, where, according to a state fact sheet, 30 percent of all children under age 5 are the children of immigrants.
The top languages spoken in young children’s homes are:
English only: 64 percent
Spanish: 16 percent
Portuguese: 5 percent
Creole (including French and Haitian Creole): 2 percent
Chinese (including Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese: 2 percent
As members of the workforce grapple with poverty, limited English proficiency, and lack of education, program quality can be hurt. The report notes:
“Immigrant workers populate both sides of the spectrum of educational attainment. They are nearly as likely as native-born workers to have a bachelor’s degree or higher (21 percent compared with 26 percent of natives), but also five times more likely to have less than a high school diploma (25 percent compared with only 5 percent of natives). More than half (55 percent) of immigrant ECEC workers have a high school diploma or less. Even those immigrant workers with the same level of education as their native-born peers are less likely to be employed in leadership position.”
Low wages remain a persistent problem.
“Our analysis shows that ECEC wages are extremely low, at only one-third of the average income of U.S. workers overall. Full-time, year-round workers in the early childhood field earn just above the federal poverty line. Moreover, the ECEC field offers an extremely low premium on educational attainment, creating a lack of incentive to increase qualifications and no clear pathway to career advancement. Whereas full-time U.S. workers overall are likely to see a $35,000 wage increase for earning a bachelor’s degree, an average full-time ECEC worker can expect an increase of only $7,200.
“Not surprisingly, we find that 75 percent of the total ECEC workforce earns less than $22,000 a year (which approximates the federal poverty level for a family of four), and 17 percent live in poverty.”
Policy Pathways: From Education to Redefining Quality
The report makes a number of policy recommendations to improve outcomes for the workforce that will lead to better experiences for children.
For example, now that both state and federal policies “call for higher professional standards and stricter education requirements for ECEC workers, it is important to examine issues of access to training and higher education, particularly for linguistically and culturally diverse workers, in order to ensure that they are not unintentionally disenfranchised by attempts to professionalize the workforce.”
The report also calls for training programs that help immigrants who have limited education and English skills, so that they can both enter and advance in the early childhood workforce.
“For instance, integrated basic education and training models such as those pioneered in Washington state help students move more quickly through basic education coursework, while at the same time earning college credit toward degrees aligned with living wage and career pathway jobs. Career-focused community college cohort models have also been successful in helping ECEC workers already in the field complete a bachelor’s degree; these programs target a group of students with similar needs and characteristics who complete a course of study together while benefiting from tailored support.”
The report offers a range of other policy proposals:
• “As states increase their efforts to raise overall ECEC program and workforce quality through the creation of Quality Rating Improvement Systems (QRIS), state Pre-K standards, and early learning guidelines, a comprehensive definition of ‘high quality’ will need to reflect program elements important for the success of children from diverse backgrounds.”
• “At the state level, including compensation levels as an indicator in QRIS systems and acknowledging the explicit link between wages and quality could provide necessary incentives for programs to increase investments in their staff.”
Ultimately, however, it will take a dedicated funding source to boost wages.
• “Comprehensive statewide data are needed to make plain the educational and training needs of the ECEC workforce and its progress in meeting current and future certification requirements.”
• “State systems should also collect information regarding languages spoken, English language proficiency, and race and ethnicity of ECEC workers. Armed with this information, the most-pressing recruitment, training, and retention issues of ECEC workers can be identified at the state level. While many states now have computerized registries tracking the education, training, and employment histories of individual ECEC workers, participation in such registries is voluntary, resulting in an incomplete picture of the overall workforce. Furthermore, these registries rarely attempt to capture those working in home and other informal settings, thereby leaving out a significant proportion of immigrant workers.”
As Eva Millona, executive director of the MIRA Coalition says in the press release, “The findings of this report show that young children in Massachusetts and nationally would benefit from policies and practices that can address the needs and tap into the talents of immigrant early childhood workers. This includes education and training programs that allow these critical members of the early childhood workforce to gain the advanced credentials they need to succeed in an increasingly professionalized field. Such steps will be key to building an ECEC workforce with the linguistic and cultural skills needed to effectively serve the increasingly diverse population of children in the commonwealth and the country as a whole.”