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As U.S. Young Child Population Is Increasingly Diverse, Early Childhood Field Faces Urgent Need to Improve Workforce’s Linguistic & Cultural Competence

Press Release
Tuesday, April 28, 2015

As U.S. Young Child Population Is Increasingly Diverse, Early Childhood Field Faces Urgent Need to Improve Workforce’s Linguistic & Cultural Competence

WASHINGTON – With one in four of the nation’s 23 million children under age 6 born to immigrant parents, the need to build a culturally and linguistically competent workforce in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) field is urgent.

Extensive research shows that high-quality early learning experiences are critical to children’s healthy development and academic success. Immigrant-origin children, particularly those who speak a language other than English at home, stand to benefit especially from high-quality early learning experiences—yet are enrolled at lower rates in pre-kindergarten than their peers with U.S.-born parents.

The dramatic growth in young child-population diversity, with a doubling of those with an immigrant parent from 2.9 million in 1990 to 5.8 million currently, has been accompanied by increasing diversity in the ECEC workforce.

Yet a new report from the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy finds that immigrants, and the linguistic and cultural diversity they bring to the ECEC workforce, are highly over-represented in the lowest-skilled and lowest-paid sectors of the profession. Though representing nearly one-fifth of the 1.8 million early-childhood workforce, immigrants hold few leadership positions in child-care centers or as pre-kindergarten teachers, and are overwhelmingly concentrated in private home- or family-based programs that are largely in the informal sector.

“Our report demonstrates that immigrant workers, who constitute a growing share of the early-childhood workforce and are the source of most of its linguistic and cultural competence capacity, are in a vulnerable position,” said Margie McHugh, director of MPI’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy and an author of the report. “They are stuck at the lowest ends of the pay and skills spectrum, face significant barriers to advancement and lack access to English-language, adult education and course-content training programs. As efforts to increase formal education requirements of the ECEC workforce move forward, the lack of integrated education and training programs for these workers is particularly worrisome.”

The report, Immigrant and Refugee Workers in the Early Childhood Field: Taking a Closer Look, offers a first-of-its-kind analysis of the ECEC workforce’s nativity, language skills, educational attainment, pay, race/ethnicity and other socio-demographic characteristics. It includes data profiles for a number of key states, including: California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia and Washington State.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Immigrant child-care workers, while nearly as likely as their U.S.-born colleagues to have a bachelor’s degree, are five times more likely to lack a high school diploma. Fifty-five percent of immigrant ECEC workers have a high school diploma or less; nearly the same share are limited English proficient. Overall, 63 percent of the overall early-childhood workforce has less than an associate’s degree.
  • Less than one-fourth of the overall ECEC workforce speaks a language other than English. Spanish is the most common, spoken by 16 percent of early childhood workers; among program directors and teachers, only 9 percent speak Spanish, a rate that rises to 23 percent for family-based child-care workers. Immigrant workers provide the majority of the linguistic diversity in the ECEC field.
  • ECEC wages are extremely low, with most full-time, year-round workers earning less than $22,000 annually (just above the federal poverty line for a family of four) and non-management, part-time workers, who constitute a majority of the workforce, earning $8,000 to $13,400. Seventeen percent of all ECEC workers and 22 percent of immigrant workers live in poverty.

The authors offer a range of recommendations to promote the diversity and quality of the ECEC workforce, including adoption of integrated training pathways that accelerate progress through English as a Second Language (ESL), adult education and credit-bearing, career-focused courses that lead to an associate’s degree and beyond.

“The important findings of this report demonstrate that policies and practices that address the needs of immigrant workers, including well-designed education and training programs that make advanced credentials more accessible, are urgently needed in order to build an early childhood education and care workforce that has the linguistic and cultural skills necessary to effectively serve our country’s increasingly diverse young child population,” said Joan Lombardi, an internationally recognized early childhood expert who served as first Deputy Assistant Secretary and Interagency Liaison for Early Childhood Development in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2009-2011.

The report also suggests options for increasing the field’s “abysmally” low wages and urges improved data collection on young children’s home languages and Dual Language Learner (DLL) status. “Policymakers have a prime opportunity to achieve two-generation gains through mutually reinforcing policies that set high standards for meeting the needs of young children from immigrant families while also providing educational opportunities that allow immigrant early childhood education workers to advance in the field,” said Maki Park, an MPI policy analyst and a report co-author.

Read the report and state fact sheets at: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/immigrant-and-refugee-workers-early-childhood-field-taking-closer-look.

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. MPI’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy is a crossroads for elected officials, researchers, state and local agency managers, grassroots leaders and activists, local service providers and others who seek to understand and respond to the challenges and opportunities today’s high rates of immigration create in local communities. For more on the center’s work, visit www.migrationpolicy.org/integration.