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[USA] High Turnover among Early Childhood Educators in the United States


The purpose of this paper is to overview existing literature about early childhood teacher turnover in the United States. A key to providing quality programs is retention of child care staff. However, the average annual turnover rate for child care staff is 30% in the United States. Consequently, there have been a large number of studies conducted to wrestle with issues of turnover. Most of the studies have agreed that insufficient compensation was reason for high turnover. However, environmental and personal characteristics, such as lack of support from administrators and coworkers, and motivation, should not be overlooked as reasons of teacher's decision to leave the job. Some suggestions for future research were addressed.

Child Care Workforce, Turnover, Child Care Quality, Compensation, Early Childhood Education & Care, ECEC
Japanese Chinese

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Child Care Quality and Outcome for Young Children

Extensive studies have been conducted to examine the link between child care quality and outcome for young children in the United States. Most researchers have agreed that higher quality care and education result in positive children's outcomes (e.g., Dunn, 1993). For example, a summary of  longitudinal studies and meta analysis of research on early childhood education outcomes showed that high-quality child care can help children achieve higher cognitive ability and sociability, which in turn prepares them for kindergarten and school (Public Policy Forum, 2007). Furthermore, some of the major longitudinal studies of early childhood education programs, the High/Scope Perry Preschool program and the Abecedarian program, suggested that high-quality child care resulted in long-term positive outcomes, such as reduced grade retention and special education programs, increased high school graduation, and a higher rate of a college attendance (Barnett & Masse, 2007; Reynolds, Temple, Robertson, & Mann, 2002). Such findings have made a significant impact on policy making in terms of benefits and costs of investments in preschool education in the United States (Barnett & Masse, 2007).

Program Quality and Turnover for Early Childhood Teachers

Among the research examining the quality of early childhood programs, rate of job turnover for child care staff seems to be a strong indicator of program quality (Cassidy, Lower, Kintner-Duffy, Hegde, & Shim, 2011; Mims, Scott-little, Lower, Cassidy, & Hestenes, 2008). Raikes (1993), for example, explained that frequent turnover among early childhood teachers prevented children from developing a secure attachment with teachers. In addition, teachers' high turnover negatively affected children's social, emotional, and language development (Korjenevitch & Dunifon, 2010). Not only the relationship between teachers and children, but the relationship between teachers and parents also suffered from high turnover (Cassidy et al., 2011).

It is well documented that the turnover rate for the early childhood workforce is very high in the United States. The average annual turnover rate is more than 30% for all teaching staff (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2004). This rate is pretty much consistent with a recent report by the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA), showing a turnover rate of between 25 and 40 percent (NACCRRA, n.d.).  This high rate is alarming considering its' apparent impact on the well-being of young children. 

Reasons for Turnover

1. Low compensation and lack of benefits

There has been extensive research conducted to uncover the reasons for this high turnover rate for child care teachers in the United States. The wages of child care staff, which is often described poverty level, appears to be the most salient factor of their decision to leave work.

Early childhood educators are among the most poorly paid professionals in the United States.  According to U.S. Department of Labor (2011), the median wages for child care workers and preschool teachers are between $7.90 and $9.53 per hour. This salary is lower than for parking lot attendants, cooks or cashiers, and much lower than kindergarten or elementary school teachers (Barnett, 2003; U.S. Department of Labor, 2011).  Cassidy et al. (2011) reported that child care teachers earn slightly more than one-third of the salary of a public school kindergarten teacher, although they often share similar educational backgrounds.

Previous research also suggested early childhood staff's compensation levels play a critical role in determining their decisions to leave the professions (e.g., Hale-Jinks, Knopf, & Kemple, 2006; Stremmel, 1991). For example, a pilot study of 78 teachers who worked in a child care center in Texas indicated that the teachers' thoughts of leaving their current job were predicted by their perception of fair pay (Russell, Williams, & Gleason-Gomez, 2010). This association between compensation and turnover was found to be stronger for teachers who were highly trained compared to teachers who were less trained (Whitebook & Sakai, 2003). Child care directors were also more likely to leave their positions if they earned lower wages (Whitebook & Sakai).

The lack of employer-paid job benefits is also identified as a significant factor of leaving child care profession (Holochwost, DeMott, Buell, Yannetta, & Amsden, 2009). Benefits include health insurance, retirement pensions, or paid educational opportunities (Hale-Jinks et al., 2006). Previous studies  showed that only a half to a third of teaching staff and administrators have health care benefits  (Whitebook & Sakai, 2003). Holochwost et al. (2009) further explained that lack of benefits such as health, disability, and pension, can be more of a determining factor to leave the job than salary for people who are working in low wage fields.

2. Work environment and personal characteristics

Contrary to previous studies that suggested an association between turnover and compensation, in some studies compensation did not predict early childhood teacher's intention to stay (Torquati, Raikes, & Huddleston-Casas, 2007). Other factors contributing to early childhood teachers' decisions to leave the profession were related to work environment and personal characteristics.

Work environment
Inadequate administrative support is often identified as a factor contributing to teacher turnover (Russell et al., 2010; Whitebook & Sakai, 2003). Specifically, Russell et al. found that teachers' intension to leave their current job was predicted by their perception of their director as less supportive or unskilled as an administrator (e.g., dependability, consistency, and skill of scheduling and enforcing rules).  Teachers' general satisfaction with coworkers (i.e., "My co-workers care about me"), the perceived value of their work (i.e., "My work makes an important difference in the lives of the children in my care"), and pay/promotion opportunities (i.e., "Opportunities for me to advance are limited.") were also important environmental factors associated with retention (Gable & Hunting, 2001, p. 279).

Personal characteristics
In regard to personal characteristics, teacher's age and marital status were found to be associated with turnover (Holochwost et al., 2009; Whitebook & Sakai,2003). Older teachers were more likely to stay in the job than younger teachers, while married teachers were more likely to stay in the job than single teachers. In addition, family circumstances such as staying home to care for family members often contributed to early childhood teachers' decisions to leave the job (Stremmel, 1991). This is because the large majority of early childhood teachers are women in the United States (Saluja, Early, & Clifford, 2002).

Experience is also a key factor of retention. Past studies suggested that early childhood teachers who had more experience working in the field were more likely to stay in the field (Holochwost et al., 2009; Whitebook & Sakai, 2003). Motivation for child care work, such as their perception of the work as a career, profession, or a personal calling, also served as an important predictor of intention to stay (Torquati et al., 2007). Early childhood teachers' view of their job as emotionally and ideologically rewarding sometimes contribute to their decision to stay in spite of the socially low status of the child care profession (Murray, 2000).


The current study overviewed existing literature on issues of turnover among early childhood teachers in the United States. Although high turnover is commonly found in low-wage industries, it is problematic for work involving the well-being of young children. As found in previous studies, the rate of job turnover for child care staff appears to be a strong indicator of the quality of early childhood programs. Most of the studies seem to agree that insufficient compensation was the reason for high turnover. However, environmental and personal characteristics, such as lack of support from administrator and coworkers and motivation, should not be overlooked as the reasons of teacher decisions to leave their jobs.

To address this issue, there are some intervention programs, such as the Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (T.E.A.C.H.), which provide scholarships to child care workers to complete course work in early childhood education and to increase their compensation. However, the effectiveness of such program still remains controversial. Although receiving education helps the rate of teacher retention, a longitudinal study of T.E.A.C.H. by Miller and Bogatova (2009) found that only 15% of the scholarship recipients were still in the program at the end of the 5th year.

High turnover among child care teachers in the United States is indeed a complex issue. However, the problem of high turnover for early childhood staff is also commonly recognized among other industrial countries such as Australia and Japan (Fenech, 2002; Japan Ministry of Health, Labour & Welfare, 2012). In the future, it might be beneficial to gather more information related to retention and turnover in the field of early childhood education in comparison to various countries. Such efforts to examine turnover in a wide range of political, socioeconomic, and cultural contexts may shed new light on the direction for future research, practice, and policy making that addresses turnover among early childhood teachers.


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Noriko_Porter.jpg Noriko Porter
Noriko Porter is an Instructor in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University. Before immigrating to the United States, she worked as an Associate Professor at Hokuriku Gakuin Jr. College in Japan. She received a Ph.D. from the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Missouri, Columbia in 2008. Her research interests are cross-cultural parenting, autism, and early childhood education. In 2012 she received the Nihon Hoiku Gakkai Kurahashi-Kenkyu Shoreishou (The research excellence award by the Japan Society of Research on Early Childhood Care and Education) for a manuscript based on early intervention programs for her son who is a child with autism. She and her husband currently reside in The Woodlands, TX. with their two teenage children.