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It has become widely accepted that children’s early experiences can have a lasting influence on their life trajectories, and that for the majority of young children in America, these early experiences now include some form of regular, non-parental care. Seventy percent of American children now attend some kind of early childhood education (ECE) program during the preschool year (Magnuson & Waldfogel, 2016). Developmental and educational research suggests that the adults who care for children in these settings play a pivotal role in shaping children’s developmental trajectories. Children thrive in warm, secure settings staffed by skilled teachers able to respond to children’s learning needs, suggesting that for children to extract the developmental benefits of ECE settings, much rides on the quality and consistency of the adult in the room. Historically, however, the ECE workforce in the United States has been highly unstable; some estimates suggest that about 25% of ECE teachers leave their jobs each year, a turnover rate that is four times higher than that of elementary school teachers (Bassok et al., 2013; Whitebrook, Phillips, & Howes, 2014).
Consequently, there has been a rising public interest in developing a more stable ECE workforce, and large investments have been across publicly funded settings to professionalize the ECE workforce (e.g. Barnett & Friedman-Krauss, 2016; Friedman-Krauss et al., 2018; QRIS Compendium, 2017). Given the estimated size of the turnover problem and the scope of these investments, it is surprising that there is just one empirical study (Tran & Winsler, 2011) exploring the consequences of teacher turnover in ECE settings. This study fills this gap by examining the relationship between within-year teacher turnover and children’s school readiness outcomes in Head Start, a large, federally-funded ECE program serving the United States’ most vulnerable children.
We use the 2006 and 2009 waves of the nationally-representative Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (N≈5,000 children, N≈850 teachers). We find that 10% of children in Head Start experience within-year teacher turnover, that is, they have a teacher that leaves during the program year. This turnover was rarely related to child or family characteristics (see Table 1).
We then examine the relationship between teacher turnover and a broad set of child outcomes, including mathematics, literacy, and behavioral regulation. We use a program fixed-effects specification and include measures of children’s skills taken from the fall of the Had Start year (see Table 2). Our results suggest that within-year teacher turnover is deleterious for children’s development, particularly for literacy and behavioral outcomes. Effect sizes were modest, ranging from -0.10 of a standard deviation to -0.25 of a standard deviation for literacy and behavioral outcomes, respectively.
Our findings provide the first empirical evidence on within-year ECE teacher turnover, using large, nationally-representative Head Start data. The results are consistent with claims that within-year turnover has negative impacts on children’s development, and suggest that practitioners and policymakers hoping to use ECE to improve children’s school readiness and close achievement gaps should work to increase the stability of the ECE workforce.