October 18, 2021

Turnover and Burnout in Early Childhood Education Settings

Supporting the Professionals Who Care For Young Children


By: Sophie Hurewitz, Child Policy Research Certificate student ’22

On September 30, 2021, the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy welcomed Daphna Bassok, associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, as a guest speaker in the Center's Early Childhood Initiative Series. The series aims to bring together scholars to address challenges related to early childhood and convene experts interested in bringing cutting-edge science to bear on policies affecting young children.

Bassok currently leads the multi-year evaluation of Virginia's $10 million federal preschool development grant, which aims to expand access to stable, affordable, and quality early childhood education (ECE). As a part of this evaluation, Bassok and her team are conducting the first randomized controlled trial measuring the impacts of financial support for early childhood educators on rates of teacher turnover. This work "has taken on a lot of urgency and significance during the pandemic," explained Bassok, where "childcare settings have been hit really, really hard by the pandemic… and issues of workforce have become incredibly salient."

        Sophie Hurewitz

Bassok reminded the audience that, although ECE workforce challenges have gained attention in our current pandemic reality, these challenges are not new. "The challenges of being an early [childhood] educator were salient way before the pandemic hit," she emphasized, highlighting that there are "massive disparities between the work conditions that early [childhood] educators face, relative to teachers working in the K-12 system."

"Why have we built a system in which educators working with three and four year-olds [and] those working with infants and toddlers receive such different kind[s] of work conditions?" Bassok questioned.

The work conditions that she refers to are the long hours, low pay (many ECE teachers earn less than $10 per hour), and limited benefits typically associated with the ECE field. Such work conditions, she added, lead to many early childhood educators living in poverty, struggling with depression, and facing food insecurity. Work conditions only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, as childcare and early childhood education centers remained open, limited the number of children they could serve, and placed early childhood educators at higher risk of COVID-19 infection.

Circumstances like these lead to high rates of burnout and turnover among early childhood educators. These realities, particularly teacher turnover during the school year, create instability and uncertainty for young children and their families and undermine investments in and commitments to quality improvement efforts, mentorship programs, and policy initiatives, Bassok said. Very young children are "extremely reliant on close connections with the adults in their lives," Bassok added, emphasizing the reality that "improving quality in early childhood education has a first-order step of reducing instability."

Bassok's research, which focused on providers based in Louisiana, utilized a unique quality rating and improvement system to better track teacher development and turnover. This longitudinal study, the first of its kind in tracking lead teachers in publicly funded early childhood education settings, involved in-classroom observations of more than 5,000 teachers at more than 1,600 sites between the fall of 2016 and the fall of 2019. Analyses reveal exceptionally high ECE turnover rates when compared to K-12 teacher turnover rates: two-thirds of the teachers in this statewide cohort left their ECE programs between the fall of 2016 and the fall of 2019.

"Almost all teachers who leave an early childhood education site in Louisiana are leaving publicly funded early childhood programs altogether, rather than transferring from one site to another," Bassok added.

While ECE turnover rates are high across the sector, turnover rates are dramatically higher among childcare providers as compared to public school pre-K teachers.

What factors may be contributing to such stark differences in turnover within the ECE field? Bassok suggests that both the large wage gaps between assistant teachers and lead teachers and wage gaps across ECE sectors may be a significant factor. These findings inspired one of Bassok's other studies, which is evaluating the effects of financial incentives on teacher retention in Virginia.

"We need to find ways to get teachers higher compensation," Bassok said. "There are a lot of challenges around higher compensation for early educators," she added, "because of the costs for the sites and the inability to charge families more than we currently do."

Such nationwide challenges prompted federal level discussion of alternative funding mechanisms, such as stipends and other incentives, but there is limited research on whether such alternative funding mechanisms have any impact on the ECE workforce.

This is where the $10 million Virginia preschool grant comes into play: over the one-year period, $4 million was to be allocated directly to early childhood educators as supplemental "incentive" payments to reduce their personal financial stress, promote staff wellness, strengthen teacher-child interactions, and increase job satisfaction and stability. Bassok and her team collected data from a diverse sample of more than 1,000 early childhood educators in Virginia, and the results revealed that participating in the incentive program increased retention probability by nearly 11 percent, driven substantially by the impacts on childcare centers. How did teachers use the incentive money? Bassok described how the top three uses of incentive money were for personal or family needs such as housing, food, or bills; paying off debts; and purchasing materials for their classrooms.

There are several policy implications of this work, especially now that COVID has exacerbated longstanding ECE workforce challenges. First, Bassok highlighted the immediate policy implications of childcare programs struggling with staffing shortages. Second, COVID relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan and the Build Back Better Act could work to support ECE programs across the nation. Lastly, this work has inspired researchers, teachers, community stakeholders and legislators to consider how best to leverage funding in order to create an equitable ECE system, support the workforce, and foster quality learning opportunities in safe environments.

In my own experience as a Duke Child Policy Research Certificate student, I have spent this past semester in Professor Katie Rosanbalm's course in which students are paired with ECE organizations in the Durham community. My group, paired with Marsha Basloe and her team at the Child Care Services Association, has been tasked with brainstorming ways to implement an ECE apprenticeship program here in North Carolina. As Dr. Bassok emphasized in her presentation, "compensation strategies are a critical pathway to ECE access and quality improvement efforts" and one of the first steps to creating and maintaining a stable, qualified, and diverse ECE workforce. Strategies to do so include professionalizing the field by increasing wages, offering benefits such as health insurance, creating a clearer job trajectory, and improving connections between community organizations through interdisciplinary collaboration. Dr. Bassok's work will provide important insights that we can deploy to support the early childhood education workforce of North Carolina and elsewhere.

Sophie Hurewitz is a senior at Duke University majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Global Health and a certificate in Child Policy Research. She plans to become a developmental-behavioral pediatrician to combine her interests in health and education policy with clinical medicine and child and adolescent development.