Early childhood education is the teaching of children from birth up to age 8. Head Start, childcare, public and private preschools as well as traditional K-2 classrooms are all examples of early childhood education providers. Access and quality of early childhood education varies from institution to institution and from state to state.
Preparing to Perform on Grade Level and Graduate
Early childhood education helps foster a child’s natural curiosity for learning and builds a knowledge basis for success in school. High performing preschool programs engage kids’ motor skills –think hand-eye coordination –and socioemotional skills –think playing well with others and expressing oneself effectively. Preschool programs are also valued for providing cognitive development, especially in the area of language growth. Experts believe language growth is so critical, vocabulary skills are often the focal point when measuring kindergarten preparedness. Studies also show people whom attend preschool are more like to have the interpersonal skills crucial to gainful employment, and students with well developed interpersonal skills are also less likely to drop out of high school.
Kindergarten expands on basic motor, socioemotional and cognitive skills, and branches further into early reading (storytelling and word recognition) and mathematics skills (counting and organizing). First and second grade coursework is particularly attentive to reading, working to develop vocabulary, comprehension and speed. Benchmark reading and intervention services are often core attributes of strong early education reading programs. The emphasis on reading stems from research such as statistics that show if students cannot read by third grade, than they are more likely to stay behind grade level for their entire academic career and are less likely to graduate.
Many Preschool Programs, Few Served
Much of the attention surrounding improvement to early childhood education focuses on pre-kindergarten. Prekindergarten (pre-K) is a type of preschool in the United States and usually refers to curriculum-based instruction of 4-year-olds monitored and supported by the state. All Southern states, with the exception of Mississippi, offer state-funded pre-K to at least some 4-year-olds. When space is limited, some programs admit students based on developmental need, others are strictly first come first serve and still others give seats based on the results of a lottery. Georgia and Louisiana offer pre-k to all 4-year-olds in what is known as universal pre-k. But because education for children under 5 is voluntary, only a fraction of kids get enrolled.
Click on this map to learn more about pre-k in your state.
*Data provided by the National Institute for Early Education Research
While state-funded pre-k is relatively new, public preschool dates back to 1965 with the establishment of the Head Start Program, a federal early learning program for children from low-income families. Head Start provides an education booster for 3- and 4-year-olds as well as nutrition and social services and was modeled to close the achievement gap between these students and their peers from middle-income families. Today, the South receives more federal dollars for this program than any region in the country.
Additionally, the federal government indirectly funds Title I Pre-K Programs –pre-k offered by public school districts funded entirely, or in part, by provisions from Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. School districts have to qualify for this money, and they can decide to spend Title I dollars on pre-k or other K-12 intervention services. Children from low-income families and children with disabilities are first in line for these programs, and space is usually limited.
Head Start serves 11% of 4-year-olds and dramatically fewer kids are served in Title 1 pre-k programs. So where federal- and state-supported programs fall short, private programs pick-up the slack. Nationally, Childcare Centers serve as early learning environments for almost half of 4-year-olds. The cost is usually the responsibility of parents and so it’s not a service in which all kids are given access. Low-income parents can apply for limited, states-administered, federal funds as a way of subsidizing or covering the cost of child care. Despite indirectly receiving tax dollars, the childcare centers are not as accountable as public preschool institutions. Centers are required to comply with state safety regulations to be licensed, but centers are not required to pursue pre-academic work with kids. Some states, however, reward centers that take steps towards improving learning, and sometimes childcare centers independently choose to provide high quality services.
In response to the myriad of early learning offerings, Collaborative preschool systems seek to integrate the services of Head Start, Title I Pre-K or state-funded pre-K and childcare centers. Successful collaborative approaches often include developing a statewide curriculum and making sure providers are more accountable for the quality of service provided. The Obama Administration showed a preference for the collaborative preschool during the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge by requesting proposals that “integrated system of high-quality early learning programs.” All of the winning states showed a collaborative record and proposed to use winnings to increase enrollment and effectiveness of preschool programs.