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Examining teacher turnover in early care and education

Turnover disrupts child-teacher relationships, which are crucial to children’s developmental outcomes

April 29, 2022


Rob Grunewald Economist, Community Development and Engagement (former)
Ryan Nunn Assistant Vice President, Community Development and Engagement
Vanessa Palmer Data Director, Center for Indian Country Development
Examining teacher turnover in early care and education, key image
kali9/Getty Images

Article Highlights

  • High teacher turnover can negatively affect children
  • Higher turnover is associated with lower child care wages and centers that serve low-income families
  • Teacher turnover should be a consideration in policy and program design
Examining teacher turnover in early care and education

High-quality early care and education (ECE) programs can produce high returns for children from low-income households and for society as a whole. And it’s also clear from research that the quality of child-teacher interactions and relationships is the most important factor in supporting positive child development outcomes. But what supports or threatens that relationship quality? Here, we focus on teacher turnover, which can disrupt the child-teacher relationship.

We find that turnover is higher in centers with lower wages and that it varies by center type. We also find that—within the category of centers that most consistently provide full-day care to young children—turnover is higher at centers that serve children whose families receive child care subsidies. These findings have implications for child care policy and program design.

Defining early care and education center types

Early care and education (ECE) centers comprise a variety of government-, nonprofit-, and for-profit-operated programs. The 2019 National Survey of Early Care and Education divides ECE centers into four types:

  • School-sponsored centers are those in which a public school district has administrative oversight or reporting requirements or funds the center. These centers operate pre-K or Head Start programs.
  • Head Start centers are not school-sponsored but receive Head Start funding from the federal or state government (mostly for children ages three to four years; a smaller share of younger children attend Early Head Start).
  • Public pre-K centers primarily serve preschool-age children, are not school-sponsored, and do not receive Head Start funding.
  • All other centers represent almost half of centers in the analysis and consist of child care centers that serve children ages zero to five years, are not school-sponsored, and do not receive Head Start or public pre-K funding.

Teacher turnover matters for child development

While switching jobs can be a positive career step for workers—as well as an engine of productivity for the economy, as workers and firms find better matches (see, e.g., Shambaugh, Nunn, and Liu 2018)—it can have unfortunate side effects in the context of early childhood development. According to the research literature, children benefit from stable attachment to caregivers (Folbre 2012), and a break in the child-teacher relationship due to teacher turnover can disrupt the benefits of positive child-teacher interactions, which include early language and literacy skills, social development, and inhibitory control (Hamre et al. 2014).

Correlational evidence links higher teacher turnover to poorer-quality child-teacher relationships (Phillips, Austin, and Whitebook 2016). In addition, a recent study of Head Start participants found that kids who experienced higher teacher turnover during the school year had smaller gains in vocabulary and literacy and higher levels of parent-reported behavior problems than peers who had more continuity with their caregivers (Markowitz 2019).1

Turnover is higher in centers with lower wages

To determine where teacher turnover is most likely to occur, we examined teacher turnover rates at ECE centers, by program type and by whether a center receives public reimbursement payments, using microdata from the 2019 National Survey of Early Childhood Education (NSECE). We found that staff turnover is higher in centers with lower wages. (See Figure 1.) Among centers with average wages below $10 per hour, 23.1 percent of staff working with children ages zero to five years leave over the course of a year. By contrast, centers with average wages at or above $25 per hour have average turnover of 7.5 percent.2

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Turnover varies across types of centers

Next, we examine staff turnover rates and teacher wages by four center types: school-sponsored, Head Start, public pre-K-funded, and all other centers. (See the sidebar for center type definitions.) These types are substantively different in ways that likely matter for teacher experiences, making it important to consider them separately. For example, school-sponsored centers are more likely to offer health and retirement benefits than other center types (Johnson, Martin, and Schochet 2020).

Among centers with available data on both turnover and wages, which excludes some centers for which information is only available on one or the other variable, we found the highest turnover rate (21.1 percent) for “all other” centers; school-sponsored centers have the lowest (7.7 percent). (See Figure 2.) Looking across center types, turnover rates are negatively associated with average hourly wages, just as they were at the center level. “All other” centers also have the lowest average wage ($13.19 per hour) and school-sponsored centers have the highest ($20.99 per hour). We did not attempt to estimate the causal impact of wages on turnover—a challenge some researchers have addressed in randomized experiments (see Bassok et al. 2021).

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A majority of school-sponsored centers serve only preschool-age children. Head Start and pre-K-funded centers mostly serve preschool-age children, and centers in the “all other” category more often serve a mix of children ages zero to five years. Within the “all other” centers group—the centers that most consistently provide full-day care to young children—we compared centers that serve children whose families have child care subsidies with centers that do not serve children whose families have subsidies. Centers that serve students with subsidies are likely to differ from those that do not on a host of dimensions—such as geographic location and the socioeconomic status of families served—in addition to teacher compensation. In particular, families supported by child care subsidies are more likely to be low-income.

Within “all other”-type centers for which turnover, wage, and subsidy-status information is available, we found that teacher turnover rates are higher for centers that serve children with subsidies (25.3 percent) compared with centers that do not (15.8 percent). Wages again prove to be a factor: teacher wages are lower in centers that serve children with subsidies ($11.52 per hour) than centers that do not ($15.13 per hour).

We applied a variety of analytical methods to disentangle the roles of center type and center wage. As noted above, the results cannot be interpreted as the impact of changes in compensation, but they may still be illuminating. We found that both average wages and center type continue to have statistically and economically significant associations with teacher turnover when considered simultaneously.

Patterns are consistent with prior research on turnover and compensation

Importantly, our results align with those of researchers using the 2012 wave of NSECE data, which showed a negative association between turnover and teacher wages (Caven et al. 2021; Johnson, Martin, and Schochet 2020). Other research also shows that teacher wages are associated positively with program quality and negatively with turnover rates (Whitebook, Phillips, and Howes 2014).

Perhaps the most convincing evidence comes from an experiment that offered $1,500 in bonus payments to teachers over an eight-month period. Turnover fell from 41 percent to 18 percent among assistant teachers and from 20 percent to 14 percent among lead teachers working in child care centers (Bassok et al. 2021). While bonus payments reduced turnover rates, the rates remained quite high compared to the turnover rate of only 4 percent among school-based teachers.

How can policymakers and practitioners reduce teacher turnover?

Our analysis shows that teacher turnover is a particular issue for ECE centers that serve lower-income families and that higher turnover is generally associated with lower teacher compensation. In combination with other evidence suggesting that children from low-income households are negatively affected by turnover, this presents a challenge for the ECE sector and for policymakers.

As policymakers consider their options for boosting the quality and availability of ECE for low- and moderate-income families, teacher turnover is an important consideration.

Raising wages for the lowest-paid early childhood teachers is the most straightforward response to the problem.3 For example, the District of Columbia recently announced it would send $10,000–$14,000 checks to child care workers. Communicating to parents the quality benefits of low turnover could increase their willingness to pay the necessary higher tuition. However, paying more may only be feasible for higher-income families and may already be taken into account by those families as they make decisions about child care providers.4 For many low-income families, tuition is often paid (in whole or in part) by government subsidies. For these families, increases in subsidy-reimbursement rates would likely be required to achieve higher teacher pay and lower turnover.

The design—and not just the reimbursement amount—of child care subsidies could itself be an issue. For example, eligibility for a child care subsidy can be lost if a parent loses employment, which leads to revenue uncertainty for child care providers. Furthermore, if subsidies do not fully adjust to tightening labor markets, teachers could depart centers that serve students with subsidies.

As policymakers consider their options for boosting the quality and availability of ECE for low- and moderate-income families, teacher turnover is an important consideration. Wages, benefits, working conditions, and subsidies for child care programs should be designed with turnover—and its effects on children—in mind.


1 These findings were unchanged when the author took account of differences across Head Start programs as well as different levels of baseline preparedness children displayed before entering Head Start.

2 The NSECE consists of four interrelated, nationally representative surveys. Our analysis uses data from the survey of centers as well as the survey of the workforce at those centers. Our measure of turnover is an NSECE-provided measure for assessing the level of staff attrition based on responses to related questions about the center, usually provided by its director. Our wage measure is a center-level average of its associated worker-level wages. Both turnover and wage measures are restricted to staff serving children who are ages zero to five years and not yet in kindergarten.

3 Across-the-board compensation increases for child care centers would likely lower turnover, but targeted increases in compensation at the lowest-paid centers could be expected to have a larger effect (per dollar spent) on the turnover disparities across centers.

4 For example, work by Herbst (2018) on child care spending data from 1990 through 2011 showed that “the increase in child care expenditures has been driven by economically advantaged families.” Over that period, the highest-earning families increased child care spending by about 50 percent, while the lowest-earning families increased spending by about 10 percent.

Ryan Nunn
Assistant Vice President, Community Development and Engagement
Ryan Nunn is an assistant vice president in the Minneapolis Fed’s Community Development and Engagement Department. Leading the Bank’s applied research function, Ryan works to improve outcomes for low- and moderate-income communities with the help of better evidence and analysis.
Vanessa Palmer
Data Director, Center for Indian Country Development

Vanessa Palmer is the data director for the Minneapolis Fed’s Center for Indian Country Development (CICD), where she leads efforts to collect, harmonize, and sustainably manage research-ready data in support of economic self-determination in Indian Country. In addition, she uses statistical tools and data visualization to support CICD’s applied research work.