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.
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.