Universal pre-kindergarten

Universal pre-kindergarten (pre-K) is offered through a state to all 4-year-olds regardless of family income (). Universal pre-K typically includes strong state standards and enrolls a wider variety of students than targeted interventions like Head Start (). Oklahoma’s program, for example, offers voluntary, free, school-based pre-K to all 4-year-old students in participating school districts. The program limits class size to 20 students and sets child-teacher ratios at 10-to-1. Oklahoma’s Pre-K teachers are required to hold a bachelor’s degree as well as early childhood certification (NIEER-Barnett 2013).

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Improved cognitive skills

  • Improved social emotional skills

  • Increased academic achievement

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Increased earnings

  • Reduced child care costs

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that universal pre-K improves cognitive outcomes for disadvantaged children (, , ). Universal pre-K can also improve school progress () and increase academic achievement (Brookings-Cascio 2013), and may improve attentiveness and decrease timidity among participants ().

In general, children who attend preschool demonstrate gains in cognitive and social skills (, , ). State-sponsored pre-K programs, whether universal or not, improve children’s language, math, and reading skills (Wong 2008).

Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program has demonstrated stronger effects for Hispanics, blacks, and very poor children than for white and non-poor children (). Georgia’s universal pre-K program benefits disadvantaged rural children the most, possibly because they cannot access alternative pre-K programs (). Effects for low income children in these programs diminish with time but can last through fourth grade in reading and eighth grade in math (Brookings-Cascio 2013). 

Some researchers recommend states focus resources on minority and disadvantaged children who will benefit from pre-K access the most (). Others contend that universal pre-K should be promoted as it garners more public support than programs targeted at vulnerable populations (). Offering preschool universally can increase enrollment for children of all income levels. Among high income families, universal programs can reduce child care costs as families enroll their children in public preschool (Brookings-Cascio 2013).

Preliminary evidence indicates that pre-K programs that focus on instruction and coaching learners as they think through tasks can yield more cognitive growth than those focused on child-directed play and exploration (). Explicit academic instruction, low staff-to-student ratios (), good classroom management, and emotional support can also improve children’s cognitive and social outcomes ().

In 2012-13, state pre-K programs spent an average of about $4,000 per student in addition to federal and local funding, ranging from $1,300 to over $12,000 per student. Oklahoma spent $3,600 per pre-K student (NIEER-Barnett 2013). Based on improved academic outcomes, research suggests that increases in participating children’s future earnings will exceed Oklahoma’s costs; strongest income effects are projected for participants from low income families (Bartik 2012, Brookings-Cascio 2013).

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

In 2012-13, of the 40 states that offer universal or targeted pre-K, the District of Columbia, Florida, Oklahoma, and Vermont enrolled more than 70% of their 4-year olds. Nationwide, 28% of 4-year-olds were enrolled in state pre-K (NIEER-Barnett 2013).

Implementation Resources

Pre-K Now - Pre-K Now. Resource center.

CPE-Pre-K - Center for Public Education (CPE). Pre-K toolkit.

OK-SDE - Oklahoma State Department of Education (OK-SDE). Early childhood and family education.

IA-Ch 148 2007 - Iowa General Assembly. Chapter 148: Statewide preschool programs for four-year-old children - Appropriations H.F. 877. Des Moines: State of Iowa Legislature; 2007:438–42.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

Wong 2008 - Wong VC, Cook TD, Barnett WS, Jung K. An effectiveness-based evaluation of five state pre-kindergarten programs. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 2008;27(1):122-54.

NIEER-Lamy 2005* - Lamy C, Barnett WS, Jung K. The effects of Oklahoma’s early childhood four-year-old program on young children’s school readiness. New Brunswick: National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), Rutgers University; 2005.

Bartik 2012 - Bartik T, Lachowska, M. The short-term effects of the Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship on student outcomes. W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. 2012: Working Paper 12-186.

Gormley 2005* - Gormley WT, Phillips D. The effects of universal pre-k in Oklahoma: Research highlights and policy implications. Policy Studies Journal. 2005;33(1):65-82.

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.

Fitzpatrick 2008* - Fitzpatrick MD. Starting school at four: The effect of universal pre-kindergarten on children’s academic achievement. B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy. 2008;8(1).

Chien 2010* - Chien NC, Howes C, Burchinal M, et al. Children’s classroom engagement and school readiness gains in prekindergarten. Child Development. 2010;81(5):1534-49.

Gormley 2011* - Gormley WT, Newmark K, Welti K, Adelstein S. Social-emotional effects of early childhood education programs in Tulsa. Child Development. 2011;82(6):2095-109.

Hamre 2013* - Hamre BK, Pianta RC, Downer JT, et al. Teaching through interactions: Testing a developmental framework of teacher effectiveness in over 4,000 classrooms. Elementary School Journal. 2013;113(4):461–87.

NIEER-Barnett 2013 - Barnett WS, Carolan ME, Squires JH, Clarke Brown K. The state of preschool 2013: State preschool yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

Brookings-Cascio 2013 - Cascio E, Whitmore Schanzenback D. The Impacts of Expanding Access to High-Quality Preschool Education. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. 1:127–178. 2013.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

NIEER-Barnett 2013 - Barnett WS, Carolan ME, Squires JH, Clarke Brown K. The state of preschool 2013: State preschool yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

Date Last Updated

Mar 11, 2015