In an effort to maximize educational gains, educators and policymakers are placing more importance on the early education of the 19 million children in the United States under the age of 5.
The first few years of life are critical for a child's cognitive development and learning. Evaluations of well-run prekindergarten programs have found that children exposed to high-quality early education were less likely to drop out of school, repeat grades, or need special education, compared with similar children who did not have such exposure (Barnett, 1998). Yet despite research linking good pre-K programs with later academic success, early care and education in the United States is essentially a nonsystem consisting of a "patchwork of programs" (Shore, 2002).
Head Start is the main federal preschool program. This public program, created in 1964 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's anti-poverty agenda, provides economically deprived preschoolers with education, nutrition, health, and social services at special centers based in schools and community settings throughout the country. In fiscal year 2003, over $6 billion was appropriated to Head Start (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003). Longitudinal studies on the effectiveness of the Head Start program indicate that students who participate have higher educational outcomes and lower occurrences of criminal activity in later years (Oden et al., 2000). According to the Head Start Bureau, approximately 900,000 children were enrolled in Head Start programs in 2002.
The long-term benefits of high-quality prekindergarten programs are documented in well-known longitudinal studies. The Abecedarian Study, a rigorous scientific study of pre-K programs in North Carolina, revealed students who attended high-quality early education programs experienced greater academic success and educational attainment. Fifty-seven infants were randomly assigned to receive early interventions, and their outcomes were compared with a control group of 54 infants who did not receive such interventions. The children in the treatment group attended high-quality pre-K programs from infancy through age five. Follow up assessments at ages 12 and 15 revealed that children from the treatment group had significantly higher scores in reading and mathematics, compared with the control group. Follow-up assessments with study participants at age 21 revealed that the students from the treatment group were more likely to have recently graduated from or be enrolled in college (Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, 1999).
The High/Scope Perry Preschool Project is perhaps the best-known study of the long-term effects of a high-quality prekindergarten education. The High/Scope Educational Research Foundation tracked, from age 3 or 4 through age 27, a group of 123 African-Americans who were living in poverty at the start of the study. The study provided a comprehensive evaluation of the lasting impact of prekindergarten on the lives of those students. Comparisons with young people who did not take part in preschool revealed that the preschool participants were more likely to graduate from high school, earn as much as $2,000 more per month, own homes, and have marriages that lasted longer, and were arrested less frequently (Schweinhart, Barnes, and Weikart, 1993).
Given the evidence for the importance of high-quality prekindergarten, state policymakers have responded by supporting pre-K efforts. Forty-three states fund prekindergarten programs (Education Commission of the States), and 19 states have formally adopted pre-k outcome standards (Scott-Little, Kagan and Frelow, 2003). A nationwide survey of pre-K programs, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, found approximately 35 percent of elementary schools nationwide offered prekindergarten classes, including Head Start programs. Urban schools were more likely than schools in suburban or rural areas to have prekindergarten classes. Forty-six percent of elementary schools in the Southeastern region of the United States offered pre-K classes. Data also indicate that children from poor or minority families are more likely to participate in prekindergarten programs than their wealthier, white counterparts. That finding is attributed to the fact that pre-kindergarten programs generally target groups of children deemed at risk for having educational problems (2003).
Advocates for early education place universal access to prekindergarten programs at the top of their priority list. Advocates recommend that states increase access to pre-K programs for all children who need it by: increasing funding for pre-K initiatives and making funding a priority in low-income areas; offering all-day programs; providing transporation to and from school; and making staff members available who can communicate with parents and students whose primary language is not English (Blank, Schulman, and Ewen, 1999).
A recent federal study of 33 states that provide money for prekindergarten programs found that states are making headway in establishing quality prekindergarten programs (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003).
But the evidence suggests there are still important challenges ahead. Although every state requires kindergarten teachers to have at least a bachelor's degree and a certificate in elementary or early-childhood education, for example, only 20 states and the District of Columbia require teachers in state-financed prekindergarten programs to meet similar requirements (Quality Counts, 2002). Low wages earned by prekindergarten teachers also remain a significant issue in overall program quality. As a nation, the United States pays about as much to barbers as it does to early-childhood educators, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. For example, BLS data indicates that preschool teachers, who typically work with 3- to 5-year-olds, earned an average annual salary of $21,730 in 2001, or less than half what the average elementary school teacher earned.