Urgent Need to Reward and Retain Pre-Kindergarten Teachers

Aug 23, 2019

New Michigan State University research finds an urgent need to take a series of steps to recruit and retain the state’s pre-K teachers passionate about a profession that’s crucial to the success of 4-year-old learners.

At the same time that increasing numbers of 4-year-olds are entering Michigan’s pre-Kindergarten classrooms, their teachers are thinking about departing for lack of pay and appreciation, MSU researchers said.

During the 2017-18 school year, 34 percent of Michigan’s 4-year-olds enrolled in the Great Start Readiness Program for at-risk pupils, said Bethany Wilinski, assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Teacher Education.

The steadily growing play-based programs have been offered since 1985, said Wilinski, lead author of the paper “Supporting Great Start Readiness Program Teachers in Michigan.”

The paper was supported through an IPPSR Michigan Applied Public Policy Research grant and offered a series of quick and longer term policy changes to keep pre-K teachers in the classrooms.

Wilinski and co-authors Alyssa Morley, Ph.D., a research associate in MSU’s Department of Teacher Education, and Jessica Marie Landgraf, a Ph.D. student in educational policy, interviewed 30 pre-K teachers, plus administrators and kindergarten teachers, in two Michigan intermediate school districts. The districts drew 4-year-olds from a mix of rural, urban and suburban communities.

“When we talk about public pre-K teachers, we’re talking about a pretty marginalized group of individuals,” Wilinski said on IPPSR’s State of the State podcast.

Even when their qualifications were identical to those teaching kindergarten or elementary school classes, the pre-K teachers could be paid much less, Wilinski said.

On average, Michigan pre-K teachers are paid $20,000 less than elementary school counterparts and the research found dramatic variations in pay across districts, Wilinski said. Pre-K teachers might be compensated similarly to teachers in the same building, be paid on a different scale or be paid hourly without benefits or paid time off.

“These teachers are really struggling,” she said.

Pre-K teachers often felt isolated – with limited contact with colleagues – and left out of a district’s budget and policy discussions, Wilinski said. They may be looked down upon for working with young children, or for a play-based curriculum less bound by tests and rigorous academic results, she added.

“Most of the teachers we interviewed expressed a desire for greater recognition of the value and importance of early childhood education,” Wilinski said prior to the recorded podcast. “Teachers wished that building colleagues, the school district, and society, in general would recognize the importance of the work they were doing.”

The researchers found that 47 percent of those questioned were thinking of leaving their profession or unsure about continuing to teach because of compensation.

The report called for compensation parity for public school teachers in the Great Start Readiness program, combined with opportunities for advancement and heightened awareness about the importance of early childhood education.

The researchers also recommended added training for school administrators, increased interaction between Great Start and kindergarten teachers and support for play-based learning curriculum that guides pre-K activities.

“There is some evidence that teachers are more likely to continue in the profession when they feel supported, are fairly compensated, and have positive working relationships,” the report concluded.

IPPSR is a unit in MSU’s College of Social Science producing public policy research, political leadership training and survey research. In addition to the State of the State Podcast, IPPSR is home to the State of the State Survey, Public Policy Forums, the Michigan Political Leadership Program, Office for Survey Research, and Correlates of State Policy.

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