Betsy Cahill knows the problems of teacher retention firsthand. She worked as a preschool teacher for more than 17 years before becoming an associate professor of early childhood education at New Mexico State University in 1994. A native of New Jersey, she attended Kent State University in Ohio and ended up remaining there afterward. She and two friends eventually started a child care program, but it proved so difficult to retain staff that her partners eventually put their houses up for mortgage just to pay their teachers a decent salary.
Cahill, a leading expert in early childhood education, spoke with Searchlight New Mexico about the challenge of creating a workforce in a field that has historically been undervalued and underpaid.
Searchlight New Mexico: For as long as I can remember, early childhood education has been seen as the job of women who are little more than babysitters. How do you change that outlook?
Elizabeth Cahill: Historically, the younger the child, the less a teacher is paid. For elementary school teachers, the average salary is $60,000. That’s if you’re at the third tier, where you’re generally doing quite well. Preschool teachers, on the other hand – if they’re not affiliated with a public school – make $33,000. Whereas childcare workers get $22,000.
And you might have the exact same college degree. That’s the inequity. As we professionalize the field in early education, when teachers graduate with a BA degree, the majority will go right into the public schools, where you work fewer hours and you get paid more. Hello! Who wouldn’t do that?
Searchlight: Is it all about money?
Cahill: Mostly. But the other issue is that we haven’t done a really good job to make it an interesting profession. A lot of teachers don’t get much recognition, particularly in early childhood, where the media, the legislators and the general public – they think of child care workers as babysitters. Naturally, a lot of students have the same image. We have a public relations image to overcome.
Searchlight: And how do you do that?
Cahill: As we talk about the importance of brain development, vocabulary development, I think preschool will be more valued. But I think children should be valued because they’re children, because families are important.
Searchlight: One of the biggest challenges in New Mexico is just finding enough teachers to fill the classrooms. A report last October by the Public Education Department found that there were 740 teacher vacancies statewide.
Cahill: As preschool grows through PED, there will be more interest because our future teachers know they’ll be paid a decent wage. I see it already. We currently have 200 students at NMSU who are interested in majoring in early childhood. And most of them will go into public school.
But there is another issue. My advisement center tells me I have 200 students but in fact this semester I graduated only nine.
Searchlight: What? That doesn’t make any sense.
Cahill: Most of our students take six or seven years to graduate, because most of them have families and work. Many need to go to school part-time. And it turns out that only 25 percent of part-time students nationally who are Latina will complete their studies.
Searchlight: But you’re saying that only 5 percent of education students at NMSU graduate, right?
Cahill: I’m saying that a small percentage of early childhood education student graduate within four years. And, another issue is that between freshman year and senior year, a majority do not pass the test. In New Mexico, there’s an entrance test for teacher education programs. All other fields – once you’re accepted into college, you graduate and then you have an exit exam. And when you take a test for algebra in junior year and you haven’t taken it in 15 years, you’re going to fail. So we have lot of concern getting people to pass the test.
Searchlight: Is there any value to these tests?
Cahill: These mandatory tests, I’m frustrated by them. Even nurses – they have a very powerful and worthwhile exit test, but you don’t have to take a test to get into nursing school. But in teaching, halfway through your degree program, if you’re in an accredited program nationally, you have to take a test. It’s a basic skills test in reading, writing and math, and our pass rate is very low. Our students can’t get into a licensure program so many early educators continue on in the non-licensure degree program.
Searchlight: New Mexico has also had a problem filling the early childhood programs that have been funded.
Cahill: So we opened up some Early Head Start sites – for infants and toddlers – and we couldn’t fill them. We tried to expand into three sites, and we only one got enough kiddos to fill one classroom. In urban areas, where Head Start has been around for years, it’s very strong. That’s not the case in Latino communities.
Searchlight: Is it so important that every child attend pre-K?
Cahill: I have noticed that many families in southern New Mexico would prefer to have their child stay home. I get that. Home is a place where a child will learn about themselves, learn a language other than English, and learn about a culture that actually comes from the family. And I don’t think it’s just cultural. It’s about the value of having your child stay home with grandma. And I know it’s the same thing in many Native American communities. So until preschool is culturally responsive and embedded within all of our diverse communities, I think many children will start school at kindergarten.