“She treats those kids like they’re her own.” In the past 10 years that I’ve spent talking to parents about dozens of teachers at three different preschools, as well as the pros and cons of different nannies and part-time babysitters, that statement has emerged as the highest compliment. But it wasn’t until I read a recent New York Times magazine cover story that I started to think about it more seriously.
“Why Are Our Most Important Teachers Paid the Least?” the headline asks, before chronicling how some teachers are barely earning minimum wage, how many of them don’t have health insurance, and how half of them come from families that are on public assistance. One reason for this disparity is that when we send our two-year-olds to a few hours of preschool or even a whole day of child care, we do not think of the adults who care for them as “teachers,” exactly. We are looking instead for our children to experience nurturing and kindness and fun in the hands of—let’s face it—a substitute parent. Sure, it would be nice if they came home potty-trained, having learned a few songs, and how to be nicer to other children as well. But frankly most women—whether they work or not—are looking for someone who will treat their children as they would their own.
Can you train someone to do that? How? And how much is it worth to us?
There is a big debate going on now about whether preschool teachers need more schooling to be better at their jobs. Last year, Washington, D.C. politicians mandated that by 2020, lead teachers must earn an associate degree, child-care center directors must get a bachelor’s degree, and home-care providers and assistant teachers need to qualify for a CDA (Child Development Associate) Credential. This will certainly increase the cost of becoming a preschool teacher. And, as the New York Times magazine points out, this may have the unintended effect of pushing out those who have devoted many years to the profession but don’t have the time or the money to pursue extra schooling. And there is also not much evidence that such programs boost the overall performance of teachers—let alone students—in these classrooms.
Particularly when we are talking about kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, there are unfortunately few strategies that seem to improve things. And those that do only work temporarily, and need to be weighed against the negative effects of long hours spent in daycare and away from parents. The positive effects from, say, Head Start programs, start to peter out around second grade. Even at a KIPP pre-K school I visited earlier this year, the effects were not what I had hoped given KIPP’s record of success in other areas.
One reason there is presumably such a disparity between the wages of preschool teachers and those of other teachers is that preschool teachers are generally not unionized. There is no evidence, however, that unionization of teachers—and all of the rules about tenure—have improved kids’ educational outcomes.
Which leads me back to my first question. It may be very difficult to find people who will treat your children as their own. Few of the moms I know—stay-at-home or working full time—would reasonably say that they are anywhere near as patient and kind with other people’s children. Nor do they have any interest in trying. (When people tell me they’re not sure whether to have children because they don’t “love babies,” I tell them it’s different when they’re your kids.)
I don’t know if there is a good way for our society to tackle this problem. We can try to train educators in the ways they are supposed to speak to young students, keep discipline in a preschool classroom, and get their students more interested in learning. But it’s not the same as teaching high school social studies or middle school PE. When all is said and done, there are a limited number of people who are capable of doing a parent’s job, and sending them to school for longer or offering them more money may not change that.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a columnist for the New York Post. Her latest book is Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat (Templeton Press).
Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.