Early Childhood Explainer


By Lisa Staresina — September 21, 2004 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related Tags:

Barnett, W.S., “Long-term effects on cognitive development and school success,” in Barnett, W.S., and Boocock, S.S. (Eds.), Early Care and Education for Children in Poverty, pp. 11-44, Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press, 1998.
Blank, H., Schulman, K., and Ewen, D., “Seeds of Success: State Prekindergarten Initiatives 1998-1999,” Children’s Defense Fund, 1999.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, “2002 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates,” 2002.
Education Commission of the States, “Online Interactive Pre-Kindergarten Database.”
Education Week, “Quality Counts 2002: Building Blocks for Success,” 2002.
Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, “Early Learning, Later Success: The Abecedarian Study,” 1999.
Oden, S., et al., Into Adulthood: A Study of the Effects of Head Start, pp. 107-119, Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press, 2000.
Schweinhart, L. J., Barnes, H. V., & Weikart, D. P., Significant benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool study through age 27 (Monographs of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, 10). Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press, 1993.
Scott-Little, C., Kagan, S., and Frelow, V., “Standards for Children’s Learning Before They Come to School—A Report on What States are Doing,” SERVE, 2003.
Shore, R., “Starting Early, Starting Strong,” The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2000.
U.S. Census Bureau, “National Population Projections: 2001-2005,” 2000.
U.S Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Pre-kindergarten in U.S. Public Schools: 2000-2001,” (NCES# 2003-019), 2003.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Head Start Bureau, “Head Start Program Fact Sheet-Fiscal Year 2002,” 2003.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “State-funded Pre-Kindergarten: What the Evidence Shows,” 2003.

How to Cite This Article
Staresina, L. (2004, September 21). Prekindergarten. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/prekindergarten/2004/09


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Pave the Path to Excellence in Math
Empower your students' math journey with Sue O'Connell, author of “Math in Practice” and “Navigating Numeracy.”
Content provided by hand2mind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Combatting Teacher Shortages: Strategies for Classroom Balance and Learning Success
Learn from leaders in education as they share insights and strategies to support teachers and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Reading Instruction and AI: New Strategies for the Big Education Challenges of Our Time
Join the conversation as experts in the field explore these instructional pain points and offer game-changing guidance for K-12 leaders and educators.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Early Childhood What the Research Says Starting School in Infancy Can Help Low-Income Children Keep Up With Peers in Elementary School
Research on a birth-to-4 initiative in Tulsa finds academic gains through 3rd grade.
4 min read
Teacher Silvia Castillo, center, reads a book about dinosaurs with Everett Fisher, left, and Jaz Endicott in a toddler classroom at Kids First on Jan. 30, 2019 in Lincoln, Neb.
Teacher Silvia Castillo, center, reads a book about dinosaurs with Everett Fisher, left, and Jaz Endicott in a toddler classroom at Kids First on Jan. 30, 2019, in Lincoln, Neb.
Gwyneth Roberts/Lincoln Journal Star via AP
Early Childhood Why Parents 'Redshirt' Their Kids in Kindergarten
Parents have a number of reasons why they decide to delay their children's school entry, but it's not always a good idea.
5 min read
Students participate in a pre-kindergarten class at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans on Dec. 18, 2018. Charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated, are often located in urban areas with large back populations, intended as alternatives to struggling city schools.
Students participate in a pre-kindergarten class at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans on Dec. 18, 2018.
Gerald Herbert/AP
Early Childhood Q&A An Investment in Early-Childhood Education Is Paying Off Big
Richard Tomko believes that expanding the early education pipeline buffers schools against enrollment loss and academic struggles.
2 min read
Dr. Richard Tomko, Superintendent of Belleville Public Schools in Belleville, N.J., visits science teacher Paul Aiello’s Medical Academy Field Experience class on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. The Medical Academy’s class uses Anatamoge tables, an anatomy visualization system that allows students to garner a deeper, comprehensive understanding of the human body and medical tools to prepare them for careers in the medical field.
Richard Tomko, superintendent of Belleville Public Schools in Belleville, N.J., has expanded academic programs while restoring trust in the school system.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Early Childhood Opinion What K-12 Can Learn from Pre-K
Early-childhood education has valuable lessons to share with K-12.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty