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Anna Markowitz Honored with UCLA’s Society of Hellman Fellowship

By Joanie Harmon

Assistant professor of education will lead a project on economic, health, and psychological inequities faced by childcare center teachers and workers.  

Anna Markowitz, assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Education, has been named a UCLA Society of Hellman Fellow. The award supports the research and creative activities of assistant professors in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and the UCLA Professional Schools, promoting career advancement and enhancing the professors’ progress toward tenure.

Markowitz, whose research interests include early education and teacher wellbeing, will conduct a study titled, “Rebuilding Child Care After COVID: Understanding Teacher Wellbeing, Teacher Turnover, and Pathways to Recovery,” based on her findings both pre- and post-pandemic. The study builds on Markowitz’s already extensive work on the challenges faced by early educators and the prevalence of teacher turnover in early childhood education. In addition, she will, for the first time, connect these challenges to policy relevant outcomes and policy solutions. 

Through her extensive research with early educators in Louisiana, Markowitz will use data gathered from 2018 through 2022 to document changes in emotional and financial wellbeing among child care teachers during COVID-19; to estimate the strength of the relationship between wellbeing and teacher turnover; and to understand the efficacy of a compensation policy put into place by the Louisiana Department of Education during the summer of 2021. 

Markowitz hopes that the data analyses will not only provide a more complete picture of child care teacher wellbeing in the aftermath of COVID-19, but also inform policy efforts to mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic, including a massive exodus from the profession. However, she is quick to note that the field had its challenges from the start, with a workforce that has historically been paid very low wages and received few benefits - if any, despite the enormous responsibilities of the job - and that policy changes to support these educators cannot bring the system back to a pre-COVID status quo. 

What are some the challenges faced by child care teachers and early childhood workers in the wake of the pandemic?

I really wanted to think about what do we know actually about well-being in the wake of COVID and what can we do to solve the problems. It’s a workforce that's almost entirely women. It’s also one of the most diverse workforces in the United States. Historically, the workforce has been paid very low wages. They received very little professional support, and often have access to no benefits, which most people think just come with the job. 

When COVID happened, for a lot of folks it was this real breaking point: “My wages are low, my risk is super-high, and I now have lots of other things that I need to take care of. My own kiddos are at home.” We saw this massive loss of early educators. It’s become this crisis. 

Child care is essential so that families can go to work, but it's also really for those kiddos that every day are learning and growing. This is a time when children are developing extremely rapidly and gaining foundational skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Many children in the United States learn to talk while they are attending child care. People across the nation had been reaching out to researchers saying, “What do we do to solve this child care problem?” That’s what I'm interested in figuring out. 

For me as a developmental psychologist, the focus on [teachers’] well-being makes a lot of sense. Well- being is going to be integral, not just to keeping those teachers in the classroom, but to the kinds of experiences that children are going to be having while they’re there. 

Do these teachers work in rural or urban communities?

It’s a mix of urban and rural. One community is very rural, one is just outside of New Orleans, and one is New Orleans. But I think one really interesting thing about childcare is how the problem has been fairly universal. 

I think one thing that's really interesting in the United States is that child care really forms the backbone of our whole economy. A lot of times, we think of programs for the care of young children as something for families who have low incomes, but it's actually a huge problem across the income spectrum.

I was part of a team at UCLA that did some research about how UCLA faculty, staff, and students were doing with paying for child care, and we found that an overwhelming majority of our respondents were paying far more for care than is the recommended level by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. This is a problem everywhere, and anywhere we can get some purchase on the problem is actually going to be relevant. Of course, the more a family is struggling financially, the bigger the issue. And, it’s often the case that even when families pay a lot for high quality care, the educator in the room is not earning a commensurate wage. 

Who else is part of the whole ecosystem of childcare professionals that are included in the study?

Our data includes the leaders of child care centers, the lead teachers in the classrooms, and the teacher assistant teachers.  And then, there are very often a group of folks that do work that are called floaters. For child care centers, maintaining the right teacher-child ratio is essential for the safety and well-being of children and for maintaining a license. Basically, floaters have the job of popping in from room to room to ensure that the rooms are in ratio when kids filter in and out, depending on what their parents’ work schedules are, things like that.

What is the educational level of most of these child care professionals?

It varies. In terms of the degree that you have in order to work in childcare in Louisiana, it is a high school diploma, and so there's a lot of variability. Nationally, about 35 percent of women working in early education have a BA or higher, but among child care teachers, it’s much lower.

For a lot of these women, [a degree is not] required for them to enter their role. A lot of them pursue additional education in order to maintain their ability to stay in child care, but achieving a bachelor's degree is cost prohibitive. We also have lead teachers in our sample that make $7.25 an hour. Our average wage for child care teachers is under $20,000 a year.

They don't have the money to go to get a bachelor's degree and there's not a guarantee that they are suddenly going to have enough money once they get that bachelor's degree in order to pay off any [student] loans. So, they're doing this incredibly hard job. They are doing it with alacrity and care, but have no incentive to get a bachelor's degree. Like I said, many of them [are] working on developing their skills, but that bachelor's degree is out of reach, both being able to pay for it now and in terms of thinking this is going to pay them dividends later. 

In fact, a major concern nationally is that if a bunch of child care teachers got their bachelor's degrees, they would leave the field and get higher-paid work. There’s also a concern that requiring BAs would lead to a whitening of the workforce, and that we’d lose the diversity that is such a strength in this workforce, particularly for the diverse young children of the United States. For many women who do this work, though, it's like [with] teachers: they see it as their calling. They see it as the work that they’re here to do. 

How do factors like food insecurity and lack of access to health care for themselves impact child care teachers on the job?

Among the early educators, we will be looking at food insecurity, economic well-being and emotional well-being. This is about the educators themselves and establishing a link between how they are faring, and both the quality of the relationships they're able to have in the classroom and their likelihood of staying in the classroom. We’re thinking about outcomes in terms of stability at the child care center level and what children are experiencing day to day. 

It’s worth noting that in our data pre-COVID, about 60 percent of child care teachers were food insecure, which is an incredibly high rate. Forty percent say that they struggled to pay their medical bills - most are not receiving any kind of health benefits from their sites. Employer- provided health care is very expensive for child care centers and they don't have the money to provide it. And about 25 percent of those early educators are depressed. That was all pre-COVID. 

We know that particularly on the emotional well-being side, COVID has exacerbated things. It’s this question of what are we looking at now, in 2022, and what is that going to mean for children and families.

This is part of what people are talking about – what can we do post-COVID? In some ways, is COVID going to be an impetus to solve a problem that has long existed and can it really make a change for a field that has been underserved and undervalued.

When I’ve talked about kind of the importance of having changed data and sort of arguing against going back to business as usual, it's for reasons, like this. These statistics I’m citing here are from our 2018 data. This is pre-COVID. This isn’t like it was a functioning system, and then COVID happened and it's been disrupted and we could just prop it back up.

It was struggling before, and you know only existed on the back of folks that cared about their communities, cared about children, and were willing to do this. But that's no way to run a functioning system that's going to remain stable and do what's best for children and families and communities.

Do you have classroom experience yourself?

I originally was an eighth grade teacher, and I think one thing about being a developmental psychologist is you are always [thinking], “Oh, If only we could have provided more for these kids when they were a little younger, if we could have done more, if we could have provided a more robust system then.” You think a lot about kids’ earliest experiences, because as a developmentalist and psychologist, you think about how powerful they were.

Over the course of graduate school, I sort of got sucked in by the potential for early education. The other thing for me was that the more that I learned about what young children's experiences were, the way that inequality was born - really from the time that children were very, very young - really struck me, and the way it was bound up with what we provide their families and the adults who work and spend time with them. That became a place where I thought “Oh, this is, something I want to understand better, and something I want to do something about.”

One thing that's true about the child care workforce, I think I said earlier, it's one of the most diverse workforces in the country. We have extremely dedicated and compassionate Black and Brown women doing this work and we're paying them a poverty wage.  

Calling attention to the fact that these women at the backbone of what we do as a country and that we're not treating them with respect is something that I’ve also gotten really passionate about, because I look at their job and [think], that's a lot harder than even what I did as an eighth-grade teacher. It just became a real passion point for me. And then I’ve been fortunate in my work in Louisiana, to get to spend time in centers, and with directors, and talking to teachers and getting a better feel for the work that way as well. It is foundational to the development of young children at a time when they're growing and learning so much.

For Professor Markowitz’s recent comments on the pandemic’s impact on kindergarten enrollment California, visit the Los Angeles Times.