Preschool education programs

Preschool education programs are center-based interventions that foster children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. Programs usually focus on children who are at least three years old but not yet old enough to enter formal schooling (). Children from low income families are less likely to be enrolled in preschool than children from higher income families. African-American children and children from low income families are also the most likely to attend low quality preschool programs (US ED-Preschool 2015).

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased academic achievement

  • Improved cognitive skills

  • Improved social emotional skills

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Increased high school graduation

  • Reduced delinquent behavior

  • Improved healthy behaviors

  • Improved mental health

  • Reduced obesity

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that preschool participation increases academic achievement and improves children’s cognitive and social skills (, CG-TFR Education, ). Effects are strongest immediately following preschool, but can persist (, CG-TFR Education), especially if combined with continued support in later school years (Brookings-Sawhill 2015). Additional research is needed to determine which components of comprehensive preschool programs (e.g., teacher training, curriculum, class size, child assessment, additional services offered, etc.) are most important for improving child outcomes (Mathematica-Caronongan 2016, CG-TFR Education).

Preschool improves cognitive abilities (e.g., general knowledge, language, and math skills) and educational success among participating children (, , CG-TFR Education). Gains in cognitive skills and academic achievement are larger for students from low income families than for students from high income families (, RAND-Karoly 2016).

Preschool participation also improves social-emotional abilities; such gains can persist after cognitive effects fade (). In some circumstances, preschool participation can modestly reduce social deviance in adolescence (). Preschool programs also appear to reduce obesity, and improve children’s mental health and social competence (). Programs support healthy behaviors as children age, but have no impact on chronic disease outcomes (, ).

Comprehensive preschool programs that include direct teaching and child-initiated activities, also called free play, increase literacy and language development; programs that focus solely on child-initiated activities do not (BEE-Chambers 2016). Child-directed play is important, however, as it contributes to healthy cognitive, social, and physical development (). Explicit academic instruction, low staff-to-student ratios (), instructional support, and rich student/teacher interactions are components of effective preschool programs ().

Part- and full-day programs and 1- and 2-year programs have demonstrated positive effects (RAND-Karoly 2016). Overall, higher quality programs have modestly stronger and more sustained effects than lower quality programs (, RAND-Karoly 2016). High quality preschool programs in low income or racial/ethnic minority communities can reduce educational achievement gaps (, CG-TFR Education) in some circumstances ().

The estimated economic return for full-scale, high quality preschool ranges from $2-$4 for every $1 invested (RAND-Karoly 2016). Models suggest that providing high quality, free preschool programs for children from families with low socio-economic status generates positive net gains to society (NBER-Heckman 2013). 

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

In FY 2015-16, 32 states and Washington DC increased their investments in preschool education programs, while 8 states decreased preschool funding. Overall, state funding increased by nearly $755 million, 12%, from FY 2014-15 (ECS-Parker 2016).

At the federal level, Preschool Development Grants (PDGs) were awarded to 18 states in FY 2014; 5 states were given development grants to build or enhance preschool program infrastructure, and 13 states were awarded expansion grants to expand high quality preschool to 4 year olds from low and moderate income families (US ED-PDG). These PDGs provided more than $100 million in funds, to serve more than 33,000 children. The US Department of Education also launched the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which has awarded more than $1 billion for projects in 20 states to focus on improving programs, including preschool, for young children from low income families, training the early childhood education workforce, and measuring outcomes and progress. (TFAH-Levi 2015).

Many families pay for preschool out of pocket; however, publicly funded programs can be made available for low income families. As of 2015, more than 2.5 million 4 year olds do not have access to publicly funded preschool programs (US ED-Preschool 2015).

Implementation Resources

UW CPC - Waisman Center. Chicago Longitudinal Study: Child Parent Center (CPC).

HighScope - HighScope. Inspiring educators to inspire children.

Head Start - Head Start. An office of the Administration for Children and Families. Early childhood learning & knowledge center (ECLKC).

CN-ROA 2015 - California Newsreel (CN). The raising of America: Early childhood and the future of our nation. 2015.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

Camilli 2010* - Camilli G, Vargas S, Ryan S, Barnett WS. Meta-analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record. 2010;112(3):579-620.

Manning 2010* - Manning M, Homel R, Smith C. A meta-analysis of the effects of early developmental prevention programs in at-risk populations on non-health outcomes in adolescence. Children and Youth Services Review. 2010;32(4):506-19.

Burger 2010* - Burger K. How does early childhood care and education affect cognitive development? An international review of the effects of early interventions for children from different social backgrounds. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 2010;25(2):140-65.

CG-TFR Education - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Task Force Recommends (TFR) Education Programs to Promote Health Equity.

Keys 2013* - Keys TD, Farkas G, Burchinal MR, et al. Preschool center quality and school readiness: Quality effects and variation by demographic and child characteristics. Child Development. 2013;84(4):1171–90.

Englund 2015* - Englund MM, White B, Reynolds AJ, Schweinhart LJ, Campbell FA. Health outcomes of the Abecedarian, Child–Parent Center, and HighScope Perry Preschool programs. In Reynolds AJ, Rolnick AJ, Temple JA, eds. Health and Education in Early Childhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2015:257-292.

Belknap 2014* - Belknap E, Hazler R. Empty playgrounds and anxious children. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health. 2014;9(2):210–231.

Mathematica-Caronongan 2016 - Caronongan P, Kirby G, Boller K, Modlin E, Lyskawa J. Assessing the implementation and cost of high quality early care and education: A review of the literature - OPRE Report 2016-31. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS), Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation; 2016.

BEE-Chambers 2016 - Chambers B, Cheung ACK, Slavin RE. Literacy and language outcomes of comprehensive and developmental-constructivist approaches to early childhood education: A systematic review. Best Evidence Encyclopedia (BEE). Educational Research Review. 2016;18:88–111.

D’Onise 2010* - D’Onise K, McDermott RA, Lynch JW. Does attendance at preschool affect adult health? A systematic review. Public Health. 2010;124(9):500–511.

D’Onise 2010a* - D’Onise K, Lynch JW, Sawyer MG, McDermott RA. Can preschool improve child health outcomes? A systematic review. Social Science & Medicine. 2010;70(9):1423–1440.

Garcia-Carrion 2016* - García-Carrión R, Villardón-Gallego L. Dialogue and interaction in early childhood education: A systematic review. REMIE - Multidisciplinary Journal of Educational Research. 2016;6(1):51–76.

Duncan 2013* - Duncan GJ, Sojourner AJ. Can intensive early childhood intervention programs eliminate income-based cognitive and achievement gaps? Journal of Human Resources. 2013;48(4):945–968.

RAND-Karoly 2016 - Karoly LA, Auger A. Informing investments in preschool quality and access in Cincinnati: Evidence of impacts and economic returns from national, state, and local preschool programs. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation; 2016.

Brookings-Sawhill 2015 - Sawhill IV, Karpilow Q. How much could we improve children’s life chances by intervening early and often? Washington, DC: Center on Children and Families, Brookings Institution; 2015.

NBER-Heckman 2013 - Heckman JJ, Raut LK. Intergenerational long term effects of preschool - Structural estimates from a discrete dynamic programming model. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2013: Working Paper 19077.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

US ED-Preschool 2015 - US Department of Education (US ED). A matter of equity: Preschool in America. 2015.

US ED-PDG - US Department of Education (US ED). Preschool development grants (PDG).

ECS-Parker 2016 - Parker E, Atchison B, Workman E. State pre-K funding for 2015-16 fiscal year: National trends in state preschool funding: 50-state review. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States (ECS); 2016.

TFAH-Levi 2015 - Levi J, Segal LM, Rayburn J, Martin A, Miller AF. A healthy early childhood action plan: Policies for a lifetime of well-being. Washington, DC: Trust for America’s Health (TFAH); 2015.

Date Last Updated

Sep 14, 2016