The field of early childhood education—spanning infancy to 3rd grade—has seen tremendous change in recent years, particularly in the years before kindergarten. Educators and the public agree that learning begins early in life and that young children’s social and educational experiences help to shape their future achievement in school. A large body of research also shows that children from low-income homes can have better outcomes in life if they receive high-quality preschool experiences. The news articles, research reports and other information gathered in this section of Story Starters examine the role early learning plays in preparing individuals for a lifetime of education.
In recent decades, early childhood education has garnered more attention. Beginning in the 1990s, breakthroughs in neuroscience created greater awareness among educators and policymakers of the importance of children’s early experiences and environment. Researchers note that the back-and-forth interaction between young children and significant adults in their lives is essential for proper brain growth and later achievement in life. Adverse conditions, such as extreme poverty, neglect, abuse or severe maternal depression, however, can threaten healthy development.
As a result, states have worked both to increase families’ access to early learning programs and to ensure that those programs are safe, enriching and based on the best knowledge in the field. Also a major player, the federal government funds the Head Start preschool program for children in poverty, has supported research on early learning, and in late 2011 provided “Early Learning Challenge” grants to nine states that are working to improve services. In late 2012 the Department of Education awarded Early Learning Challenge grants to five more states, contibuting more than $620 million in early education programming funding to those 14 states. The Child Care and Development Block Grant, also a federally funded program for low-income families, is primarily intended to provide care for children while their parents are working, but programs receiving these funds can also be educational in nature.
There has been a strong push by advocates for K-12 schools to see preschool as part of their mission. A 2011 report by The Pew Center on the States said, “If our children are to realize their personal and professional promise, if our country is to continue to boast the creative, adaptable, career-ready populace that has made us the world’s leader in innovation and productivity for more than a century, we must accept that K-12 is the past. The future of public education is pre-K-12.”
Many schools have implemented a pre-K-3 model, which aims to bring greater coordination between preschool programs and the early grades in the areas of curriculum, assessment, teacher professional development and experiences for children—even if the pre-K programs are not physically located in the schools.
There are a number of reasons, however, why early childhood programs continue to remain largely outside of the K-12 system. Some school districts provide preschool and some don’t. The primary obstacle is funding. School districts that offer preschool generally use sources other than their state school funding formulas in order to pay for the programs. These include state dollars for preschool, federal Title I dollars, child-care funds, grants and local district funds. Early learning programs provided in the public sector, however, tend to be reserved for children of low-income families, children with special needs or those who are otherwise at risk for later problems in school.
A few states—including Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma—have implemented “universal” pre-K programs, meaning that any 4-year-old can attend. But this term can be misleading because even in those states, funding can fluctuate and parents don’t always find spaces in their local schools. Early learning programs continue to be vulnerable to shifts in the economy. During President Barack Obama's State of the Union address to Congress in 2013, he proposed a universal pre-K program for all states and cited the Georgia and Oklahoma laws as possible models. In November, a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers debuted a bill that adopted many of the measures found in Obama's proposal. Since the State of the Union address, U.S. Secretary of Education has gone on a full charm offensive in meetings with state-level leaders to raise interest in a national early education initiative. Whether that full court press will bring to bear a federal early education law remains to be seen.
There is some debate whether preschool should be available to all families—just like K-12—or should be “targeted” to children most in need of additional supports. Even with growing advocacy for the universal model, many policymakers—looking at how best to spend limited funds—have returned to focusing on providing services to low-income children because, according to the research, those are the children who benefit the most.
For parents who don’t qualify for targeted programs, the range of options includes child care centers, private preschools, family child care homes, and co-ops run by parents. The cost of child care and private preschool programs can take a big chunk out of a family’s budget. Competition for slots also can be intense. Attention in recent years has turned to improving access for families who don’t qualify for public programs but don’t earn enough to pay for private programs.
Head Start and Collaboration
The federal Head Start program, available in all states, serves close to a million children. Early Head Start serves infants and toddlers. In 2011, funding for both programs was at roughly $8 billion. Funds flow directly to grantees, which are community-based agencies, school districts and other government agencies. Head Start uses a comprehensive model, meaning services focus on children’s health, social and academic development, and family support. Researchers and politicians have long argued over whether it is an effective program, particularly whether participation increases children’s early academic or “school readiness” skills.
Reporters covering early childhood programs should understand that there is a great deal of collaboration and overlap among state-funded programs, Head Start and community-based program providers. Because many public schools don’t have space for additional classrooms, states have formed partnerships with private programs in order to offer early childhood services.
Some centers, for example, might have several programs—or “funding streams”—under their roofs, as well as slots that are fully paid for by parents. This structure has broken down some of the barriers that have existed in the field and has allowed staff from different programs to participate in training together. But because each program has its own set of requirements and standards, conflicts can also arise.
A Variety of Models
Most experts agree that early learning programs should help to develop the “whole” child—youngsters’ physical, emotional, social and cognitive growth. As with K-12 schools, states have also developed standards for their early learning programs, but they don’t always cover all those areas of child development.
With the push for public schools to meet higher academic goals, many preschool classrooms have in turn increased their emphasis on children’s academic skills and assessments. In response, some experts have called for preschool and the early grades to allow for more play in the daily schedule.
The term “developmentally appropriate,” used by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a nonpartisan organization of educators, researcher, policymakers and others who focus on helping young children learn, has guided many early childhood educators for decades. But it’s a phrase that has often created confusion over how learning for young children should be structured.
Multiple teaching approaches and curriculum models exist throughout the early childhood field, with some being more “teacher directed” and others giving children more control over their activities.
Most experts agree that high-quality classrooms should have the following components:
- a choice of activities
- a curriculum
- opportunities for rich conversation and language development
- exposure to the major content areas
- hands-on, active learning
- well-trained, culturally responsive and nurturing teachers
- a structured routine
- a mix of individual, small-group and whole-group learning
- ongoing communication with parents and opportunities for them to be involved in their children’s learning
Reporters will hear a mix of acronyms and terms in reference to the mechanisms used for determining whether programs are meeting expectations, such as:
ECERS-R—Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised: a series of 43 indicators in categories such as space and furnishings, personal care routines, language-reasoning and program structure.
CLASS-Classroom Assessment Scoring System—Observation tool that focuses on the interaction between teachers and students and the emotional and instructional support provided.
Accreditation—A seal of approval by a professional or other educational organization. Most typically refers to the NAEYC’s accreditation system. — Linda Jacobson, June 2012 (Updated in February and November of 2013)
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
Mills’s story is one of many the National Head Start Association, an advocacy group representing Head Start centers across the country, is collecting as it begins a campaign to find and organize an estimated 27 million alumni of the program. The central office of Head Start, a federal program approved by Congress in 1964 to fight the lasting effects of poverty, is not directly involved in the effort. (The Washington Post)Read More »
But now, Duncan needs Congress. In particular, he needs Republican lawmakers to approve $75 billion in new federal tobacco taxes to fund his early childhood education plan.
To cultivate that support, Duncan, a one-time professional basketball player, is playing an “outside-in” strategy. He is reaching out to Republican governors, hoping they will help him persuade GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill to embrace the “Preschool for All” initiative. But it’s a tall order for many Republican governors who are cool to the notion of new taxes.(Washington post)Read More »
Preschools and kindergartens long have taught children "task skills," such as cutting paper and coloring inside the lines. But new research suggests the spatial and fine-motor skills learned in kindergarten and preschool not only prepare students to write their mathematics homework neatly, but also prime them to learn math and abstract reasoning. (Education Week)Read More »
More than 20 states now require measures of student achievement to carry significant weight in teachers’ effectiveness ratings – even in the earliest grades, in which children do not participate in state standardized testing. (New America Foundation)Read More »
State financing for preschool fell by more than $548 million, or close to 10 percent, in the 2011-12 school year, the largest annual drop in a decade, according to a report released Monday. (The New York Times)Read More »
"State financing for preschool fell by more than $548 million, or close to 10 percent, in the 2011-12 school year, the largest annual drop in a decade, according to a report released Monday." (The New York Times)
But the $77 billion measure, to be funded by a 94-cent tax increase on a pack of cigarettes, is no sure bet. And even if Congress does pass the measure, it would not require states to actually expand preschool offerings. Rather, it would give incentives for them to do so, much like the Affordable Care Act. But the preschool incentive may be even less compelling to states than Obamacare, since Preschool for All doesn't help governors fulfill a federal mandate. (The Huffington Post)
Young children—even toddlers—are spending more and more time with digital technology. What will it mean for their development? (The Atlantic)Read More »
The Perry Preschool Project is one of the most famous education experiments of the last 50 years. The study asked a question: Can preschool boost the IQ scores of poor African-American children and prevent them from failing in school? The surprising results are now challenging widely-held notions about what helps people succeed – in school, and in life. (American RadioWorks)Read More »
Many Oklahoma children now arrive in elementary school so well prepared that some districts have overhauled their kindergarten curricula. (The Wall Street Journal)Read More »
A comprehensive study by the Pew Economic Mobility Project documents that in the U.S. today, few poor people become even upper middle class. (Time)Read More »
To address these and other issues, the White House is considering a major step to boost early childhood education. According to sources close to the administration, Duncan and the Department of Health and Human Services are outlining a plan to create universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds from low- and some middle-income families -- approximately 1.85 million children. The plan, which is projected to cost as much as $10 billion to implement in full, is still under review by the White House, but sources said that last Tuesday, Linda Smith, an HHS official, discussed the proposal at a meeting of early childhood advocates. (The Huffington Post)Read More »
California embarked on an ambitious experiment in 1996 to improve its public schools by putting its youngest students in smaller classes. Nearly 17 years later, the goal of maintaining classrooms of no more than 20 pupils in the earliest grades has been all but discarded-- a casualty of unproven results, dismal economic times and the sometimes-fleeting nature of education reform.
To save money on teacher salaries amid drastic cutbacks in state funding, many school districts throughout the state have enlarged their first-, second- and third-grade classes to an average of 30 children... (AP)
The grant funding announced is part of "Race to the Top" money aimed at early childhood education programs. Colorado and four other states are getting the funding because they were finalists in last year's competition.
"Colorado is committed to helping ensure every child is ready for kindergarten and reading by the third grade," Hickenlooper said.
Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin are also receiving funds. (The Record)Read More »
Mississippi needs the help: It has the highest rate of child poverty in the nation and some of the lowest standardized test scores. Licensing and oversight of small, family child care homes in Mississippi rank dead last in the country. And it’s the only state in the South that doesn’t fund pre-kindergarten. (The Hechinger Report)Read More »
The share of kindergartners whose parents opted out of state immunization requirements more than doubled in the decade that ended in 2008, peaking at 7.6 percent in the 2008-9 school year, according to the state’s Health Department, raising alarm among public health experts. But last year, the Legislature adopted a law that makes it harder for parents to avoid getting their children vaccinated, by requiring them to get a doctor’s signature if they wish to do so. Since then, the opt-out rate has fallen fast, by a quarter, setting an example for other states with easy policies. (The New York Times)Read More »
To make friends, it turns out, children need to be able to carry out sophisticated social maneuvers, screening potential pals for certain positive qualities and making careful assessments about how much common ground they share. And in order to be a good friend—the kind that inspires loyalty and dedication—even a very young child must be not only fun to spend time with, but capable of being emotionally mature in ways that can be difficult even for grown-ups. (The Boston Globe)Read More »
This reported article examines the benefits of early education access, how North Carolina leads the nation in Pre-K options for ages zero to five, and what cuts to the state's vaunted early education program can mean for future academic success among the poor students affected by these programs. (The Huffington Post)Read More »
This 2012 report provides a detailed look at how early-childhood professions, working at various settings, are working to support young children as they move from one educational program to the next. (American Federation of Teachers)Read More »
Finding access to quality preschool is a problem for both low-income and middle-class parents. This piece describes the lengths that some families in New York go to when they can’t find spaces for their children in public school programs and can’t afford high-priced private preschools. (The New York Times)Read More »
This feature looked at the history of the federally funded Head Start preschool program and examined the ever-present questions over whether the program is effective. (Education Week)Read More »
Released in 2007, this report provided a demographic profile of young Latino children in the U.S., and drew attention to the lack of access many Latino families have to early-childhood programs. (National Task Force on Early Childhood Education for Hispanics)Read More »
Reporters often write about new funding for early-childhood programs, but this four-part investigative series looked at how funding for preschool in New Jersey was being misspent. (Bergen Record)Read More »
This article features the Nurse-Family Partnership, an effective intervention program developed by psychologist David Olds, which aims to improve outcomes among very poor mothers with young children. Home-visiting programs are one model used to support development of infants and toddlers, and many states spend money on home visiting, so it’s important for reporters to have an understanding of the research in this area. (The New Yorker)Read More »
This report analyzed some of the findings from brain research and urged early-learning programs to focus on children’s emotional growth and development as well as their academic progress. (National Research Council and the National Institute of Medicine)Read More »
This 2000 report outlined the elements of well-designed preschool programs, including instruction in the four core content areas, and recommended bachelor’s degrees for teachers. It emphasized that young children are far more capable learners that previously thought. (National Research Counci)Read More »
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Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
"The 2012 State Preschool Yearbook is the newest edition of our annual report profiling state-funded prekindergarten programs in the United States. This latest Yearbook presents data on state-funded prekindergarten during the 2011-2012 school year as well as documenting a decade of progress since the first Yearbook collected data on the 2001-2002 school year." (National Institute for Early Education Research)Read More »
Other key findings of the report include:
- Poverty is up. Over the past decade, the percentage of children living in families below the poverty line has increased from 15.6 percent in 2001 to 21.4 percent in 2011.
- Median family income is down: Families with children ages 0–18 have sustained a large decline in median family income, from $62,796 in 2001 to $55,918 in 2011—a drop of $6,300 (in real dollars).
- Secure employment is down: Parents today are less likely to be securely employed than they were in 2001.
- PreK enrollment progress has stalled. Despite solid improvement in the 1990s, we have failed to sustain a pattern of growth in PreK enrollment in this past decade.
- Educational Attainment progress is slow. In the year 2000 (the most recent year prior to 2001 for which data are available), only 29 percent of children in the 4th grade were reading at grade level.
- Health insurance coverage has increased only slightly. We have consistently been unable to provide health insurance to nearly 1 in 10 children. (Foundation for Child Development)
Our report, Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West: Empowering Parents and Educators, shows that while many digital products claim to teach reading, the app marketplace currently puts a heavy emphasis on teaching letters, sounds and phonics. A snapshot of the iTunes App Store's most popular paid literacy apps showed that 45 percent targeted letters and sounds and half targeted phonics, but only 5 percent targeted vocabulary. And none of the iTunes paid apps in the scan focused on comprehension, grammar and the ability to understand and tell stories. (New America Foundation)Read More »
New theoretical ideas and empirical research show that very young children’s learning and thinking are strikingly similar to much learning and thinking in science. Preschoolers test hypotheses against data and make causal inferences; they learn from statistics and informal experimentation, and from watching and listening to others. The mathematical framework of probabilistic models and Bayesian inference can describe this learning in precise ways. These discoveries have implications for early childhood education and policy. In particular, they suggest both that early childhood experience is extremely important and that the trend toward more structured and academic early childhood programs is misguided. (Science)Read More »
"Even as the availability of data on K-12 education programs has exploded over the past decade, the American education system suffers from an acute lack of some of the most basic information about publicly funded programs for young children. Although, for example, pre-K often comprises significant investments by state and federal governments, in many localities it is difficult to determine how many children receive publicly funded pre-K services or to make fair comparisons between local programs." (New America Foundation)Read More »
A project of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, this study ran from 1991 through 2009. Analysis of the data, however, continues. The large team of researchers from multiple universities followed more than 1,300 children from their earliest years in various forms of child care into preschool and K-12 classrooms.
The study’s findings—which included connections between children’s behavior problems and long time spent in center-based child care—sparked considerable controversy. Some commentators used the results to argue that mothers’ work outside the home hinders their children’s development. Others, however, have focused on the positive aspects of center-based care, which can include stronger cognitive skills, and have said such findings show that policymakers should focus on improving center quality.Read More »
This is an ongoing study of Oklahoma’s state-funded “universal” preschool program in the Tulsa Public Schools. Led by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center for Research on Children in the United States, the project found that the pre-K program has led to significant academic gains for participants. Gains among Hispanic and African-American children, and those from poor families were the greatest. As with the Child Parent Centers in Chicago, preschool advocates have argued that the results show that quality doesn’t have to suffer when preschool is offered on a wide scale. Those in favor of targeting preschool to the most disadvantaged children focus on the results showing higher gains among children with low-socioeconomic status.Read More »
This federally funded program is made up on three longitudinal studies that examine child development, school readiness, and early school experiences. The birth cohort of the ECLS-B is a sample of children born in 2001 and followed from birth through kindergarten entry. The kindergarten class of 1998-99 is a sample of children followed from kindergarten through the eighth grade. The kindergarten class of 2010-11 cohort will follow a sample of children from kindergarten through the fifth grade. It is important for reporters to know about these studies because researchers have used the data to investigate a variety of questions around the early years of schooling.Read More »
This resource is published each year by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. The report evaluates where state-funded preschool programs stand on a series of 10 indicators of quality, such as providing comprehensive services, or the level of training and education they require of teachers. Overall trends for the nation are also discussed. Education reporters have come to use the annual report to provide readers with a snapshot of what their state is doing regarding early childhood programs.Read More »
This 2006 paper from University of Chicago economist James Heckman summarizes the research on the effects of early environments on child, adolescent and adult achievement—reinforcing the finding that “investing” early in life brings the greatest returns. Heckman’s ongoing research has fueled advocates’ efforts to convince policymakers that spending money on high-quality early learning and child development programs is wiser than many other economic development strategies.Read More »
No study has been used to back up the lasting social and economic benefits of high-quality preschool for low-income children more than the HighScope Perry Preschool Study. Launched in 1962, the longitudinal study involved 123 African-American Ypsilanti preschoolers from Ypsilanti, Mich. The children, all of them from families living below the poverty line, were assigned to “treatment” and control groups.
At age 40, those who attended the small demonstration program in the 1960s were found to have higher rates of employment and homeownership, and lower rates of illicit drug use and arrests for selling illegal drugs, when compared with the sample of adults who did not attend the classes. Critics have said the sample size was too small and that it’s unrealistic to expect similar results from large-scale preschool programs without the same level of support.Read More »
A federally funded investigation of Chicago’s Child Parent Centers, which provide educational and family support services to children from preschool to 3rd grade. The centers are funded by Title I and have operated in the Chicago Public Schools since 1967. The study began in 1986 to investigate the effects of government-funded early-childhood education programs for 1,539 children in the Chicago Public Schools.
Led by University of Minnesota researcher Arthur Reynolds, the study has found that those who participated in the program beginning at age 3 showed higher levels of educational attainment, socioeconomic status, job skills, and health insurance coverage as well as lower rates of substance abuse, felony arrest, and incarceration than those who received the usual early childhood services. Many preschool advocates have said the results show it’s possible for public schools—not just small demonstration programs—to deliver early learning services that have lasting benefits.Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- Whom does this program serve? Understand the target audience for this program—disadvantaged children, those with special needs, middle-class families or more affluent families?
- How is the program funded and what partners/agencies are involved? Early childhood programs are often collaborative efforts involving public and private dollars.
- What is the philosophy/curriculum of the program? Does it follow a Montessori model, Direct Instruction, or Creative Curriculum, for example? Many classrooms use a mix of methods and materials to achieve their goals.
- What level of training does the program require of teachers? Debate continues over whether a bachelor’s degree is necessary for preschool teachers, but the field has generally moved toward more education and specific training in child development.
- What does the program do to help children and their parents make the transition from one program to the next—from a toddler program into preschool? From preschool into kindergarten?
The Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina is one of the leading research institutes on early-childhood development, including issues related to children with special needs. Work from the center includes evaluations of early-childhood programs, rating scales for evaluating childcare and preschool classrooms, and research on achievement gaps.
The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies is a good source of information related to child-care options and funding at the state and local levels. Resource and referral agencies help families find programs that meet their needs and work to improve the quality of care through technical assistance and professional development.
The National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education is an organization of state education staff members who work in the field of early childhood. The organization is a good resource on issues such as state pre-K, Title I funds for early childhood, and trends in teaching and practice.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children is a large association that represents professionals who work throughout the early-childhood education field. The organization’s accreditation system for early-childhood programs is the most widely recognized in the country. NAEYC also holds one of the largest education conferences every year and is a leading voice on early-childhood research and policy at the federal level.
The National Institute for Early Education Research is based at Rutgers University. In addition to publishing the State Preschool Yearbook, NIEER conducts its own research on a variety of early-childhood education issues, including classroom quality, teaching practices and access. The website also has a news section that includes early learning-related articles from across the country.
“Early Lessons,” a project of American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford, takes a look back at the Perry Preschool Project and contrasts it with what happens in many of today’s preschool classrooms.
“The Promise of Preschool” is a documentary by education reporter John Merrow, the president of Learning Matters. The report followed the experiences of four families in New York, Atlanta, Bridgeport, CT and Paris, France, as they considered the range of early-childhood education options available to them. Merrow asked whether it was possible for families to find a consistent level of service in America when even public schools are struggling to maintain programs.
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.