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Early Childhood Education

Preparation Of Teachers, International ContextOVERVIEW

Janet S. Hansen

Daniel J. Walsh

Robert G. Myers


Early childhood education is concerned with the learning experiences of children below the age when compulsory schooling begins (usually age five or six). In terms of organized educational programs, it generally encompasses kindergartens (enrolling mainly five-year-olds) and prekindergartens and preschools aimed at children starting at about age three.

Mapping American Early Education

Kindergarten, while not compulsory in most states, became over the course of the twentieth century largely the responsibility of public schools. In the process it became accessible and free to most children, and it came to be administered as part of elementary education. By contrast, preschool at the beginning of the twenty-first century is part of a piecemeal and haphazard "nonsystem" of early care and education in which a wide range of providers offer varying mixtures of structured learning and child care to interested parents who either can afford to enroll their children or receive public subsidies, most of which are targeted to lower income families.

Kindergarten. Margarethe Schurz founded the first American kindergarten in her home in 1855; a century later kindergarten education was available as part of public school systems to just over half of children of kindergarten age. By October 2000, 73 percent of five-year-olds were enrolled in kindergarten, along with 4 percent of three- and four-year-olds and 14 percent of six-year-olds. The overwhelming majority of kindergartners (83%) attended public schools–just 17 percent attended private kindergartens.

Although most children attend public kindergarten, attendance is not compulsory in most states and not all states require that public schools offer kindergarten. In 2001, eleven states did not require that districts offer kindergarten, though districts could choose to do so. Only eight states set their compulsory school age at five and required children to attend kindergarten. Several others mandated kindergarten attendance and either permitted parents to hold their children out of kindergarten until the children were six years old or allowed the children to skip kindergarten by demonstrating "readiness" for first grade.

State and district policies about the length of the kindergarten day vary enormously, and the absence of data on and common definitions of "full-day" and "part-day" complicate the task of portraying the availability of different kindergarten offerings. A study of a national sample of about 22,000 kindergartners enrolled in 1998 indicated that 55 percent attended full-day programs and 45 percent attended half-day programs. Some states required districts to offer full-day kindergarten but not necessarily to the exclusion of half-day offerings.

States were slower to assist districts with the funding of kindergarten than with elementary and secondary education, but in 2001 all provided some assistance with kindergarten costs of public schools. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia financed full-day kindergarten for all districts or schools or those that chose to provide it. The remaining twenty-five states financed half-day programs or provided partial funds for kindergarten.

Preschool. Characterizing the early education experiences of three-to five-year-olds who have not yet entered kindergarten is made difficult by the absence of clear rules defining the offerings of the myriad providers who serve these children in center-based settings (as distinct from services provided to children by relatives or nonrelatives in home-based settings). What is known is that by the late twentieth century, it had become the norm for these children to spend at least part of a week in a center-based program. In 1999, 59 percent of these prekindergartenage children were enrolled in settings variously labeled day care, nursery school, prekindergarten, preschool, and Head Start. The older the child, the more likely she was to be enrolled in such a program: 46 percent of three-year-olds were so enrolled, 69 percent of four-year-olds, and 76 percent of five-year-olds.

Center providers operate under a variety of auspices. Nonprofit groups, including religious organizations, operate some of the centers. Some centers are profit-making businesses, in the form of both single centers and large corporate chains. In some places the public school system offers prekindergarten classes, often targeted to children who are at risk of not being ready to succeed in school because of poverty, limited ability to speak English, disabilities, or other factors.

It is not known precisely how many centers serve children age three and over who have not yet entered kindergarten, but in 2001 there were well over 100,000 licensed child-care centers. States differ, however, in the extent to which they include or exclude educationally oriented preschool programs in their child-care licensing requirements. Some states, for example, exclude prekindergartens operated by public schools, which may be regulated by different agencies. Some states exclude religiously affiliated centers from licensing requirements.

While precise information on who pays for preschool education is unavailable, it is clear that at the start of the twenty-first century parents bear far more responsibility for preschool costs than they do for kindergarten or elementary and secondary education. Federal and state subsidies supplement parent-paid fees through a variety of programs that differ in the extent to which they emphasize educational purposes or custodial care to help working parents.

Federal preschool initiatives. At the start of the twenty-first century, most of the federal funding that subsidized education and care for children under age five came from two programs: Head Start and the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF). The former had its origins in 1960s' efforts to expand educational opportunity by giving disadvantaged children a "head start" in school. The CCDF was created out of several earlier child-care programs as part of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

Head Start furnishes grants to local agencies to provide comprehensive early childhood developmental, educational, health, nutritional, social, and other services to low-income children and their families. Most participants must be from families whose income is below the poverty level, and in fiscal year 2000, 94 percent of the enrolled children were ages three to five, with a modal age of four. Head Start programs have traditionally been half-day and part-year programs, and local grantees have had wide flexibility in deciding on program structure. They must comply with federal program standards, which have increasingly put more emphasis on school readiness.

The CCDF provides federal grants to states for subsidizing the child-care costs of eligible families and for improving the overall quality and availability of child-care services. Children up to age thirteen who reside with a family whose income does not exceed 85 percent of the state median income are eligible to participate. States are free to set lower eligibility levels and most do. States also set subsidy levels and fee schedules. Parents share responsibility for paying child-care fees, which states may waive for families below the poverty line. In keeping with the CCDF's link to welfare policy, the law requires parents to be working or in education or training.

Although children benefiting from the CCDF may receive care that helps prepare them for school, school readiness and organized educational instruction are not explicit program goals. As of 2002 there were no national performance standards for services or staff other than a basic requirement that states must have and enforce health and safety rules.

In addition to some smaller child-care subsidy programs, federal aid for children with disabilities included educational assistance for children under age five. Some federal aid for supplemental educational and related services to educationally disadvantaged children in low-income areas went to children under age five, though the bulk of it was used for elementary and secondary students.

State preschool initiatives. As of 1998–1999, forty-one states and the District of Columbia invested in state pre-kindergarten initiatives offering regularly scheduled group experiences to help young children learn and develop before entering elementary school. Only Georgia offered pre-kindergarten to all four-year-olds whose parents wanted them to participate. New York and Oklahoma had launched school-district-based initiatives to open pre-kindergarten to all four-year-olds, regardless of income, but not all districts in these states participated (in New York the state limited district eligibility because of funding constraints). The remaining states tended to target pre-kindergarten services to lower-income children or those considered especially in need of preschool preparation. Some served mainly four-year-olds and others included younger children as well.

Unlike publicly funded elementary and secondary education, which was provided through public schools, pre-kindergarten programs in many states operated in a variety of settings, such as public and private schools, Head Start centers, profit-making and nonprofit child-care centers, and churches. Most state pre-kindergarten programs offered only part-day (two to four hours a day), part-year services, although a few states provided the necessary funding for full-day and/or full-year pre-kindergarten for eligible children and also required that it be offered by at least some percentage of eligible programs. Parental fees were required in these extended programs. Many but not all state pre-kindergarten initiatives required providers to meet quality standards that were higher than the state's child-care licensing standards.

Pressures for Improvement

While educators and other child advocates repeatedly urged the expansion of formal early education opportunities for young children during the twentieth century, what had developed by the dawn of the new century was a fragmented and haphazard early learning "nonsystem" that seemed increasingly inadequate to meet the needs of both children and society.

Changing views of education, work, and welfare. Changing societal perspectives on education, work, and welfare make early education an important public issue and not just a family concern. Efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to improve the quality of elementary and secondary education for all children caused reformers to increasingly realize that student achievement is affected by differences in children's development that are already evident when formal schooling begins.

State courts in New Jersey in 1998 and in North Carolina in 2000 ordered state officials to provide preschool education to children at risk of developing later educational problems. The judicial decisions came in school finance lawsuits challenging the legality of state school funding laws on the grounds that insufficient and inequitable funding denied some students their constitutional rights to an adequate education.

Preschool education also was increasingly seen as a factor helping families balance child-rearing and work responsibilities. Most women are in the labor force; 60 percent of women were working in 2000. This included 73 percent of all women with children under age 17 and 72 percent of women with children aged three to five years.

Reflecting that employment had become the norm for American women, public policy concerning welfare also shifted in its expectations about low-income mothers' participation in the workplace. The major overhaul of welfare policy enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1996 had as key assumptions that all adults, even those with young children, should be self-supporting and that receipt of public income subsidies should be contingent on meeting work or work preparation requirements. This, too, had the effect of shining a brighter spotlight on arrangements for the early care and education of young children.

Untapped capacity for learning. Research provides growing evidence that young children have much greater power to learn than has traditionally been realized or developed. In 2001 the National Research Council (NRC) published a report that claimed to be "the first attempt at a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary examination of the accumulated theory, research, and evaluation literature relevant to early childhood education" (p. 31). The review documented a shift in view about "the major tasks for children during the preschool years" (p. 37). In earlier times, these tasks were seen primarily as ones of "socialization: separating from home, learning how to interact with peers and unfamiliar adults, and experiencing new material in a novel environment. Today we recognize the first five years as a time of enormous growth of linguistic, conceptual, and social competence" as well (p. 37).

The NRC review found that there was no one preschool curriculum that was superior to others in terms of effectiveness. The study panel did not find this surprising in light of the evidence that other aspects of learning in addition to curriculum are important to early learning: the adult-child relationship, temperament, social class, and cultural traditions. The panel did, however, find that "children who attend well-planned, high-quality early childhood programs in which curriculum aims are specified and integrated across domains tend to learn more and are better prepared to master the complex demands of formal schooling" (p. 307). It concluded that, among other factors, incorporating more ambitious learning goals into programs for young children requires teachers who are deeply knowledgeable about how children develop in the early years and about how to teach preschool youngsters.

Such expectations about teachers were quite at odds with the training levels of many of the adults who work with young children. Public school kindergarten teachers generally have college degrees and often have additional degrees and certificates common to elementary school teachers, though they may not have specific backgrounds in early childhood education. In 2000, twenty-nine states required their pre-kindergarten teachers to be certified, which required a college degree.

In other pre-kindergarten and preschool settings, however, training levels were significantly lower. In 2000, thirty-one states set no minimum requirements for teachers in child-care centers, and individuals could often be hired with only a high school diploma and little or no experience. Of states with minimum requirements, only Rhode Island and New York City (which has regulations separate from New York State) required teachers in child-care centers to have bachelor's degrees.

In 2002 the most widely held credential among child-care workers (which also qualified holders to teach in pre-kindergarten programs in some states) was the child development associate (CDA). A nationally recognized credential originally developed for Head Start workers, it certifies that high school graduates with experience working with children and 120 hours of formal child-care education have also passed a performance-based assessment of their care-giving knowledge and skills. Efforts to upgrade preschool teacher qualifications are likely to reduce the importance of the CDA: the Georgia Prekindergarten Program removed it from the list of acceptable credentials for lead teachers for the 2002–2003 school year, and Congress decreed in 1998 that by 2003 half of Head Start teachers must have an associate's degree.

The poor pay of early education teachers makes it difficult to attract a highly qualified and stable workforce. Median annual earnings for those teaching in preschools was $17,310 in 1998, with higher averages for those teachers working in elementary and secondary school systems and lower averages for those classified as working in "child day-care services." Other child-care workers fared even worse. Moreover, preschool teachers and child-care workers frequently do not receive benefits such as paid vacation and health care. Not surprisingly, high levels of turnover have plagued the preschool and child-care industries.

Access to educational opportunities. While kindergarten opportunities are widely available to children from all socioeconomic backgrounds, preschool enrollment patterns in 2000 indicated that children of higher-income and better-educated parents were mostly likely to have the advantage of structured educational programs.

In October 2000 the U.S. Census Bureau found that 52 percent of all three-to five-year-olds not yet enrolled in kindergarten were enrolled in "nursery school"–a group or class organized to provide educational experiences for pre-kindergarten children that included instruction as an important and integral phase of its program. Hispanic children were significantly less likely to be enrolled than non-Hispanic white and African-American children, and only 44 percent of children from the poorest families were enrolled as compared to 71 percent of children from families in the top income level ($75,000 and over). An even wider gap was evident between the enrollment rates of children whose mothers had only an elementary school education and those whose mothers had college degrees. Poorer children were mostly enrolled in public nursery schools, whereas children from wealthier families depended mostly on private schools.

Unequal access to early education is worrisome because learning gaps are developing among children in the preschool years, and children who are behind when they enter school are unlikely to catch up with their peers. In 2000 the National Center for Education Statistics reported initial findings from a longitudinal study of 22,000 kindergartners that documented many differences in what children know and can do when they enter kindergarten that are linked to family income and mother's education. Differences were found not only in knowledge and academic skills but also in noncognitive domains that are important for school success (such as physical health) and in learning-related experiences that children have at home (such as being read to frequently).

Unequal access to early education is also disturbing in light of a growing body of research showing that early education offers long-term benefits that can substantially offset the large costs involved. Evidence from model demonstration programs providing intensive, high-quality educational and related services to young children from disadvantaged backgrounds shows that participation increased enrollee's school success on such measures as reduced referral to special education, lower incidence of retention in grade, reduced dropout rates, and improved test scores.

The most persuasive results were produced by the High/Scope Perry Preschool and the Carolina Abecedarian projects, both of which employed "gold standard" research designs using randomized treatment and control groups and follow-up of participants over many years. Analyses of the age twenty-seven follow-up on the Perry Preschool program, for example, found that benefits exceeded costs by ratios ranging from 2:1 to 7:1, depending on whether benefits included just savings to government or benefits to program participants, their families, and other members of society as well.

Because model programs are typically small and more expensive than "scaled-up" programs are likely to be, there have long been questions about whether investments in more typical and less-expensive early education programs, such as Head Start and pre-kindergarten, would have similar payoffs. The first large-scale, random-assignment research study on Head Start was scheduled to begin data collection in the fall of 2002 and continue through 2006. Prior research suggests that childcare, health and nutrition, and educational benefits of Head Start partially or perhaps substantially offset the costs of public investment. Methodological concerns (absence of control or comparison groups, short-term perspectives rather than long-term follow-up, and others) have made findings about the size and sustainability of cognitive gains among Head Start participants controversial.

The most persuasive evidence that large-scale programs that run at lower cost than model pre-school programs can also generate significant benefits comes from the Chicago Child-Parent Center (CPC) program begun in 1967. CPC provides pre-school and other services to three-to five-year-olds as well as extended interventions into the elementary school years to economically disadvantaged minority children. Researchers followed a group of 1,539 children, born in 1980, who received some combination of CPC services or who were enrolled in locally funded full-day kindergarten programs but did not receive preschool services (the comparison group). The follow-up study of participants at age twenty-one showed that each component of CPC had economic benefits that exceeded costs, with the greatest return resulting from the preschool component. Benefits included increased earnings for participants expected from attaining higher education levels, lower crime rates, and reduced need for school remedial services.

Comparatively little research has been done on the costs and benefits of early education programs for children from middle- and upper-income families, because these children historically were not eligible for public subsidies. As early education programs grow through such developments as the adoption by states of universal pre-kindergarten, this situation should change. While the "payoff" to public investments in disadvantaged children will almost certainly be higher, it is reasonable to expect that all children can potentially benefit from early education, especially if findings from research on the learning capacities of young children are translated into high-quality preschool programs.

The need for integrated early education and care. Public policy at the start of the twenty-first century has not caught up with economic and social realities facing parents and society. In fact, "education and care in the early years are two sides of the same coin" (National Research Council, p. 306). Children need early education to develop social competence and exploit their learning potential. Parents, most of whom are employed, need to know that their young children not only are learning but also are being well-cared-for during the working day.

Public programs, however, are not connected by a comprehensive vision that encompasses both the goals of school readiness for children and support of working parents. Programs tend to emphasize one goal or the other. The result is a service delivery system with disparate missions, administrative mechanisms, and objectives. As a consequence, states face a huge challenge in trying to build comprehensive and coordinated systems of services for young children. Service providers must cope with different eligibility requirements for children and families, different methods of delivering federal and state funds, and different requirements and standards for the programs they deliver. Families face barriers trying to understand the public subsidies for which they are eligible and looking for providers who can meet both the educational and child-care needs of their children.

Falling behind internationally. The United States entered the twenty-first century significantly behind other industrialized countries in recognizing the wisdom of investments in young children. European countries in particular have made much progress in providing early learning opportunities available for all with convenient schedules for working parents.

Countries such as Belgium, France, and Italy offer universal, voluntary, and free programs for preschool children age three to six and in 1999–2000 enrolled 95 to 99 percent of this age group. Preschool in these countries lasted for the normal school day, seven or eight hours, with supplemental services (with costs shared by parents) available before and after school and during school holidays. Denmark, Sweden, and Finland enrolled 73 to 83 percent of their three- to six-year-olds in early education programs that integrated education and care, with government paying most of the costs. Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom also had preschool enrollment rates above 70 percent either for children age three and over or those age four and over.

These figures are especially impressive because they apply to education-oriented programs that are required to recruit staff with specialized qualifications in education and exclude day-care centers and similar facilities. Professional staff in Europe who work with children age three and over are generally required to have completed at least three years of postsecondary education (which is the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in many countries).

Public financing is widely accepted as the appropriate way to pay for preschool in the industrialized countries of Europe. Parents share costs on an ability-to-pay basis in some cases, but their share is small and sometimes limited to the wraparound care needed by those who work.


Public investment in education in the United States appears seriously unbalanced. In 2001 governments spent roughly $20 billion to $25 billion annually on early education for children from birth to age five, compared to roughly $400 billion on elementary and secondary education and at least $100 billion on postsecondary education, including student aid. Nobel laureate economist James Heckman argued that at these levels of investment devoting additional funds to improving the basic learning and socialization skills of the very young is the best way to improve the skill levels of American workers. Early education is as vital to both individual and society well-being as the education of older children and young adults and equally worthy of public support.


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CENTER FOR CAREER DEVELOPMENT IN EARLY CARE AND EDUCATION. 2001. "Child Care Licensing: Qualifications and Training for Roles in Child Care Centers and Family Child Care Homes: 2000 Summary Sheet." <www.nccic.org/cctopics/cclicensing00.pdf>.

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