How to keep more pre-K teachers in the classroom

May 7, 2020
Pre-kindergarten kids playing

Michigan, like many states, is facing an urgent need to recruit and retain prekindergarten teachers. 

At the same time that increasing numbers of 4-year-olds are entering the state’s pre-K classrooms, their teachers are thinking about departing for lack of pay and appreciation, MSU researchers found.

“When we talk about public pre-K teachers, we’re talking about a pretty marginalized group of individuals,” said Bethany Wilinski, assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education.

During the 2017-18 school year, 34 percent of Michigan’s 4-year-olds enrolled in the Great Start Readiness Program for at-risk pupils, Wilinski said. 

She and her colleagues interviewed 30 pre-K teachers, plus administrators and kindergarten teachers, in two Michigan intermediate school districts. The districts drew 4-year-olds from a mix of rural, urban and suburban communities.

Even when their qualifications were identical to those teaching kindergarten or elementary school classes, the pre-K teachers could be paid much less, Wilinski said. On average, Michigan pre-K teachers are paid $20,000 less than elementary school counterparts and the research found dramatic variations in pay across districts. Pre-K teachers might be compensated similarly to teachers in the same building, be paid on a different scale or be paid hourly without benefits or paid time off.

Pre-K teachers often felt isolated and left out of a district’s budget and policy discussions, Wilinski said. They may be looked down upon for working with young children, or for a play-based curriculum less bound by tests and rigorous academic results, she added.

“Most of the teachers we interviewed expressed a desire for greater recognition of the value and importance of early childhood education,” Wilinski said. “Teachers wished that building colleagues, the school district and society in general would recognize the importance of the work they were doing.”

The researchers found that 47 percent of those questioned were thinking of leaving their profession or unsure about continuing to teach because of compensation.

The report called for compensation parity for public school teachers in the Great Start Readiness Program, combined with opportunities for advancement and heightened awareness about the importance of early childhood education. The researchers also recommended added training for school administrators, increased interaction between Great Start and kindergarten teachers and support for play-based learning curriculum that guides pre-K activities.

Wilinski’s co-authors were Alyssa Morley, MSU research associate and graduate (Ph.D. ’19, Education Policy), and Jessica Marie Landgraf, a Ph.D. student in Education Policy

Originally written by Cynthia Kyle

Wilinski’s research on how policies shape pre-K teachers’ daily experiences and work lives was published in Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood in 2019. Her current research examines teachers’ work and notions of quality in the context of Tanzanian pre-primary education. In 2019, she was awarded an NAEd/Spencer Research Development Award to support this work.


“Supporting Great Start Readiness Program Teachers in Michigan,”Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, Michigan State University, 2018.