Preschool education programs, also called early childhood education (ECE) or early childhood education and care (ECEC) 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 schooling1, 2. Preschool programs typically are offered for a half-day or a full school day3. Black, Hispanic, and Native children and children from families with low incomes are less likely to be enrolled in preschool or have access to high quality preschool than white children and children from families with higher incomes and are less likely to be prepared for kindergarten as a result4.
Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)
Increased academic achievement
Improved cognitive skills
Improved social emotional skills
Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes
Increased high school completion
Reduced delinquent behavior
Improved healthy behaviors
Improved mental health
Evidence of Effectiveness
There is strong evidence that preschool participation increases academic achievement and improves children’s cognitive and social skills1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8. Effects are strongest immediately following preschool but can persist1, 2, 9, especially if combined with continued support in later school years9, 10, 11. 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 outcomes1, 12.
Preschool improves cognitive abilities (e.g., general knowledge, language, and math skills) and educational success among participating children1, 2, 7, 8. Available evidence shows greater improvements in academic and executive function skills among students who spend more time in high quality early childhood education (ECE) programs than those spending less time13, 14. Among children attending high quality elementary schools, the academic benefits of preschool can persist through fifth grade; however, academic effects fade more quickly among children attending low quality elementary schools10. ECE participation is associated with decreases in special education placements and grade retention and increases in high school completion among participants5. Gains in cognitive skills and academic achievement are larger for students from families with low incomes than for students from families with high incomes15, 16. Participation in economically integrated preschool programs may improve academic achievement more for children from families with low incomes than programs that only serve children from disadvantaged backgrounds17, 18. Available evidence suggests participation in Head Start, a publicly funded preschool program for children from low income backgrounds, is associated with large benefits over the long-term, including increased high school completion, college enrollment and completion, economic self-sufficiency, and labor force participation19.
Preschool participation also improves social-emotional abilities; such gains can persist after cognitive effects fade7. In some circumstances, preschool participation can modestly reduce social deviance in adolescence2, 7 and can increase determination and positive attitudes around goal-setting among middle school students20. Preschool program participation is also associated with reduced obesity, improved mental health and social competence for children21, and improved adolescent health outcomes, especially in cardiovascular health22. Programs support healthy behaviors as children age but have no impact on chronic disease outcomes23, 24.
Teachers with higher qualifications are associated with improved learning environments and higher quality ECE25. In-service professional development programs can improve outcomes for child development and increase quality of ECE26. Overall, preschool enhancement programs, such as curricular enhancements, parent education, skills-based opportunities, and professional development, whether implemented alone or in combination, can improve behavioral, cognitive, health and socio-emotional outcomes for participating children27. Among early childhood education curriculum options, implementation varies and teacher training and ongoing support are needed to achieve intended child development benefits28.
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 not29. Child-directed play is important, however, as it contributes to healthy cognitive, social, and physical development30. Explicit academic instruction, low staff-to-student ratios7, instructional support for students, and rich student/teacher interactions are components of effective preschool programs6.
Part- and full-day programs and 1- and 2-year programs have demonstrated positive effects16. Overall, higher quality programs have modestly stronger and more sustained effects than lower quality programs16, 31. High quality preschool programs in racial or ethnic minority communities or communities with low incomes can reduce educational achievement gaps1, 15 in some circumstances2.
The estimated economic return for full-scale, high quality preschool ranges from $2-$4 for every $1 invested16. Models suggest that providing high quality, free preschool programs for children from families with low socio-economic status generates positive net gains to society32. A benefit-cost analysis of the Perry Preschool Project shows multi-generational benefits for participants and their children, as well as large, positive net gains for society from high quality ECE programs33.
Potential to decrease disparities: Supported by strong evidence
There is strong evidence that high quality preschool education programs reduce disparities in educational attainment, especially between students from low income backgrounds and students from high income backgrounds1, 13, 15, 16, 43. Gains in cognitive skills and academic achievement are larger for students from families with low incomes than for students from families with high incomes15, 16, and can persist through 3rd grade for reading and math achievement43. Over the long term, among children from low income backgrounds, more time spent in high quality early childhood education (ECE) programs is associated with greater increases in college completion rates and income levels, and can help close education and income gaps with their peers from higher income backgrounds13. Available evidence suggests participation in preschool programs such as Head Start and the Perry Preschool Project is associated with large long-term benefits for children from low income backgrounds, including increased high school completion, college enrollment and completion, economic self-sufficiency, labor force participation19, increased earnings, and improved health outcomes44.
High quality preschool programs that focus on reducing disparities in education access and quality in racial or ethnic minority communities can reduce racial achievement gaps1, 2. Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native children as well as children from families with low incomes are less likely to be enrolled in preschool or have access to high quality preschool than white children and children from families with higher incomes4, 45, 46. Available evidence suggests that lower preschool enrollment rates among Hispanic families is largely due to language barriers, limited access to ECE programs, and economic inequities47, 48. Experts suggest locating high quality preschool programs in Hispanic communities and using family-centered and culturally responsive outreach and retention strategies to better serve Hispanic families47. ECE classrooms can implement supports for dual language learners whether or not teachers speak the second language49. An Illinois-based study shows that implementing bilingual preschool classrooms on a large scale can increase ECE enrollment among students with English language learner (ELL) status50.
Research has shown higher rates of exclusionary disciplinary action (i.e. suspensions and expulsions) taken against Black and Hispanic children than against white children, starting in preschool51, 52. Black male children are especially likely to be disciplined at school52. Disparities in exclusionary disciplinary action are not supported by any observed differences in disruptive behavior measurements, which suggests that preschool programs need to raise awareness and provide teacher training and professional development to prevent discriminatory punishment practices due to implicit and explicit racial bias51, 52. One study suggests that both teacher and child race or ethnic identification relates to teacher response to children’s behavior and disciplinary recommendations52.
In the US, there has never been an integrated national policy for early childhood education and care (ECEC) programs. Programs focused on child care and programs focused on early education developed separately. In the 1830s, nurseries provided children with basic care and supervision. Enrollment in such programs increased the most during times of war, and generally decreased after wars ended (from the Civil War through WWII). Early childhood programs became more available in the 1960s and 1970s, as maternal workforce participation increased and the number of households headed by single mothers grew3. In 1965, Head Start was established at the federal level as a community action program overseen by the Economic Opportunity Office to provide non-segregated preschool education programs to children from families with low incomes. Despite many obstacles and resistance from school boards and community organizations, many Civil Rights leaders and advocates persisted to establish and develop successful Head Start programs. Head Start programs also created employment opportunities and hired educators, administrators, and employees of color, even in the South53. When Head Start funding expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, preschool enrollment rates increased, though there still were not enough spaces to provide preschool for all eligible children. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 required single mothers to work to receive public assistance and created an even greater need for ECEC programs for infants and children3. Historically roles for women in American society have been constrained, at least in part to discourage mothers from middle class backgrounds from participating in the work force, by offering unequal pay and limited job opportunities. However, policies have simultaneously forced single mothers from low income backgrounds to work outside of the home, regardless of their preferences, the age of their infants or children, or the quality of ECEC available to them3.
Overall, access to high quality ECEC programs varies substantially3, 36. Preschool enrollment growth rates vary by geography and race or ethnicity. Even though publicly funded preschool is designed for children from families with low incomes, enrollment gaps remain based on family income and parent education levels36. States still have responsibility for preschool program offerings and some states are trying to increase preschool access. For example, Georgia and Oklahoma were the first two states to adopt universal pre-K programs, and state-funded pre-K has been expanded in many states from 1998 to the present36. However, in many areas, the need for high quality preschool opportunities persists3, 36.
- Which neighborhoods in your community have access to high quality preschool education programs? Are there publicly funded preschool options available for families with low incomes?
- How could you support quality improvements for early childhood education and care programs in your community? Are there partnerships or collaborations that could support teachers, students, and parents involved in the program?
- What can you do to increase enrollment in preschool education programs among students identifying as a racial or ethnic minority? Among students with English language learner status? Among students from low income backgrounds?
- How can local preschool education programs support equitable outcomes for students of all backgrounds? What training can you offer to teachers and providers to reduce implicit and explicit bias and promote fair punishment practices?
During the 2021 legislative session, state legislatures in 43 states enacted 208 bills related to early childhood; many bills aimed to increase access to center-based programs and many others focused on improving preschool education programs and school readiness34. The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains a database to track legislation on early childhood education (ECE) in all 50 states and US territories35.
As of 2018, approximately 61% of 4-year-olds and 34% of 3-year-olds were enrolled in center-based preschool programs36. As of 2020, 44 states and Washington, DC have publicly funded pre-kindergarten (pre-K) programs that serve over 1.37 million 4-year-olds, about one-third of all 4-year-olds in the country. Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Wyoming do not have publicly funded pre-K programs. Eight states served nearly 50% or more of 4-year-olds in their states, and five states enrolled more than 70% of their 4-year-olds. Alabama, Hawaii, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, and Rhode Island are the only states with programs that meet all 10 of the National Institute for Early Education Research’s (NIEER’s) quality benchmarks for state preschool. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly reduced previous progress achieved in preschool education enrollment and funding37. The Administration for Children and Families’ (ACF) Office of Childcare offers tips for choosing a preschool program and a database searchable by state for finding local preschool programs and resources38, 39
The US Department of Education (US ED) administers several programs and grants to support early learning initiatives and to develop state capacity for preschool education programs40. The Preschool for All proposal aims to establish a cost sharing partnership between US ED and all 50 states, to improve access to high quality preschool programs in all states41. As of 2022, federal investment in Head Start and Early Head Start has also increased, with some funds earmarked for quality improvement initiatives42.
Head Start - Head Start. Early childhood learning & knowledge center (ECLKC). An office of the Administration for Children and Families, US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS).
HighScope - HighScope. Inspiring educators to inspire children.
CN-ROA 2015 - California Newsreel (CN). The raising of America: Early childhood and the future of our nation. 2015.
US DHHS OCC-CC state search - US Department of Health & Human Services (US DHHS), Administration for Children & Families, Office of Child Care (OCC), Childcare.gov. See your state’s resources: Find local resources on child care (CC), health and social services, financial assistance, support for children with special needs, and more.
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1 CG-Health Equity - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Health equity.
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25 Campbell-Manning 2017 - Manning M, Garvis S, Fleming C, Wong GTW. The relationship between teacher qualification and the quality of the early childhood education and care environment. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2017;13(1):1-82.
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34 NCSL-ECE report 2022 - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). 2021 Enacted legislation on early care and education (ECE) report. 2022.
35 NCSL-ECE tracking - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Early care and education (ECE) bill tracking.
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37 NIEER-Friedman-Krauss 2021 - Friedman-Krauss AH, Barnett WS, Garver KA, et al. The state of preschool 2020: State preschool yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER); 2021.
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39 US DHHS OCC-CC state search - US Department of Health & Human Services (US DHHS), Administration for Children & Families, Office of Child Care (OCC), Childcare.gov. See your state’s resources: Find local resources on child care (CC), health and social services, financial assistance, support for children with special needs, and more.
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41 US ED-Preschool for all - US Department of Education (US ED), Administration for Children & Families, Office of Early Childhood Development. Preschool for all
42 Head Start-2022 funding - Head Start, Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. FY 2022 Head Start funding increase. ACF-PI-HS-22-02. 2022.
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53 NHSA-Head Start history - National Head Start Association (NHSA). Black history month: A reflection on Head Start history.
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