There is some good news to report about the education of young children in the United States. One of the most encouraging developments in recent years has been the growing number of children who have access to early educational experiences. Nearly all five-year-olds are now enrolled in school, and the proportion of U.S. three- and four-year-olds who attend preschool has increased dramatically over the past four decades. In 1965, the year Head Start was first implemented, only 5 percent of three-year-olds and 16 percent of four-year-olds attended preschool; in 2002 the proportions were 42 percent and 67 percent, respectively. While some of this increase is due to demographic changes (such as greater percentages of single-parent households or those in which both parents work), it is encouraging that many more children participate in structured learning experiences at younger ages than ever before.
Research has demonstrated that these early educational experiences do make a difference; empirical evidence of the value of high-quality educational programs for children before they enter kindergarten has become clear and persuasive. We now know that preschool education can promote a variety of positive outcomes over the long term, including higher academic achievement, lower rates of grade retention and special education placement, higher graduation rates, and lower delinquency rates.
There is also good news on the policy front, as an increasing number of policymakers are paying attention to the latest research findings. More than 40 states and the District of Columbia have implemented or are creating state-funded prekindergarten programs. The total of all state funding for these programs increased from $190 million in 1998 to $2 billion in 2002. And states like Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin have made strides toward universal preschool education.
We have made progress and young children are benefiting, but there also is much work yet to be done:
- Children’s access to preschool in the United States continues to lag behind that in other countries. In France, nearly all children from three to five years old attend publicly funded preschool. Almost all four-year-olds in England, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands go to public school. Preschool attendance rates in Greece, Spain, Germany, Denmark, and Italy range from 70 to 90 percent.
- Early childhood education teachers still earn poverty-level wages. In 2003, the median hourly wage of a preschool teacher was $9.53; for child-care workers it was $7.90. To put this in perspective, animal trainers made an average of $13.08 per hour. Not surprisingly, at least one in five teachers in center-based early childhood programs leaves each year. Preschool teachers are paid on average less than half of what kindergarten teachers are paid. This pay differential would presumably be reduced if preschool teachers were required to meet higher educational qualifications, but as a group, today’s prekindergarten teachers are both underqualified and underpaid.
- Social-class disparities in preschool participation have not noticeably declined in the last decade. In 1991, 44 percent of children living in poverty were enrolled in center-based early childhood care and education programs, compared to 56 percent of children at or above the poverty line. A decade later, the gap was the same, with participation rates of 47 percent and 59 percent for children below and above the poverty line, respectively. There are also class-based differences in quality. High-quality preschool programs are out of reach of the working poor in particular—families whose incomes are too high to qualify for subsidized prekindergarten but too low to pay for quality programs.
The socioeconomic gap in preschool participation is particularly disturbing because there is evidence that children from low-income families begin school at a serious disadvantage. One of my own studies found more than a year’s gap between low-income and middle-class children on an array of cognitive and academic achievement tests. In fact, on many tests middle-class preschool children (mostly four-year-olds) scored significantly higher, on average, than the economically disadvantaged kindergarten children (mostly five-year-olds). Similar gaps between children from low-income and middle-income families were found on the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. Kindergartners with one risk factor associated with poverty were twice as likely as children with no risk factors to have reading scores in the lowest 25 percent of the distribution. Socioeconomic differences were also found in children’s ability to identify letters of the alphabet, associate letters and sounds correctly, recognize two-digit numerals, identify ordinal positions of an object, and perform other academic tasks.
Children’s academic skills when they enter school can have dramatic and long-lasting effects. Correlations between cognitive skills at school entry and academic achievement through high school are very strong. One meta-analysis of eight national surveys, for example, estimated that about half of the total math and reading gaps between black and white students at the end of high school could be attributed to skill differences at the start of school.
Strategies for Effective Instruction
Preschool education programs offer us an important opportunity to narrow achievement gaps before children begin school. A question that is not yet settled, however, is what kinds of instruction will narrow these gaps without undermining young children’s enthusiasm and self-confidence. We have considerable knowledge about many of the characteristics of quality early childhood education programs. We know, for example, that language-rich classrooms and sensitive teachers who develop close, supportive relationships with children make a difference. But there is still much to learn about the best strategies for teaching academic skills to young children, and the knowledge base for meeting the needs of the ever-increasing number of young English-language learners (ELLs) in our schools is dismal. We need to invest in systematic studies of different strategies for promoting academic skills in young children, including ELL children, and particularly in math and science, areas that have been studied far less extensively than literacy.
The federal government is pushing for increased attention to young children’s academic skills, but there is cause for concern about the direction in which national efforts are leading early childhood education. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation signed in 2002 has put enormous pressure on elementary school teachers to improve students’ literacy and math skills. Testing under NCLB does not begin until third grade, but teachers in the earlier grades, including kindergarten, are being pressured to focus more on basic academic skill acquisition. Even preschool teachers are beginning to feel the heat, which is likely to be turned up when Head Start is reauthorized. Both the House and Senate versions of the reauthorization bill require that new educational performance standards be developed, based on recommendations of a National Academy of Sciences panel. Like K–12 schools under NCLB, Head Start programs would be held accountable for making progress toward these goals, and their funding would eventually be withdrawn if they failed to do so.
Increased attention to academic skills is not a problem as long as it does not come at the expense of attention to social skills, emotional well-being, and other resources (such as dental care) that Head Start centers traditionally have provided. There are serious questions, however, about how such an increased focus on academic achievement will actually play out.
Testing and Curriculum
The first reason to be wary of the new focus on academic skills is that the accountability “stick” in the legislation (make progress toward your goals or lose funding) is going to give the instrument used to assess these skills considerable influence over curriculum and instructional practices. If the National Reporting System, administered recently to more than 400,000 Head Start children, is any indication of what is to come, this influence will not be positive. The test assesses recognition and knowledge completely decontextualized from meaningful activities. (See “Testing Goes to Preschool”
by Robert Rothman, Harvard Education Letter
, March/April 2005.)
Second, teaching reading and math, even to four-year-olds, requires considerable skill. But since preschool teachers are typically neither well paid nor well trained, many will likely feel the need to resort to scripted instructional packages for teaching these subjects. These prepackaged curricula typically focus on only a few of the many important skills and understandings children need to become proficient learners in these subjects.
Third, if experience with the federal Reading First initiative is prognostic, the administration may promote rigidly paced, curriculum-driven, scripted instruction that is not developmentally appropriate. This kind of instruction also will not promote many of the academic skills that are listed in the bills before Congress and are likely to be endorsed and expanded on by the National Academy of Sciences panel. Moreover, many studies have shown that this kind of instruction can undermine young children’s motivation to learn. Effective teaching cannot be delivered through a one-size-fits-all or scripted instructional program. Good teachers know well what each child knows and understands, and they use that knowledge to plan appropriate and varied learning opportunities that are embedded in contexts and activities that make sense to young children.
Alignment—In Which Direction?
If we continue on the path along which current federal policies are leading us, the transition from preschool to elementary school may become more continuous—which is in keeping with what most early childhood experts recommend—but the alignment may be in the wrong direction. Instead of the early elementary grades becoming more child centered and family friendly (more like preschool), preschools are likely to become more like elementary school, with formal, scripted instruction and less emphasis on student-centered approaches and family involvement. Educators, researchers, and policymakers also need to make sure that efforts to improve academic skills in young children do not result in the neglect of other important dimensions of children’s development—or in educational practices that are well known to undermine children’s confidence and enthusiasm for learning.
We need to continue to develop and apply
new knowledge about the most effective strategies for teaching subject matter to young children. We need to train teachers to use these strategies, support their professional development, and pay them a competitive wage so that the best and most experienced early childhood educators stay in the profession. We need to develop meaningful assessments of young children’s academic skills. And we need to encourage teachers in the early elementary grades to promote continuity with preschool by using approaches that research has shown maintain students’ enthusiasm and promote deep learning.
Deborah Stipek is the I. James Quillen Endowed Dean of the Stanford University School of Education. A researcher in early childhood development and education, she is the former director of the Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School at the University of California, Los Angeles, which enrolls children in preschool through grade six.
This article is part of an ongoing series on the education of children from preK through grade 3, made possible through the support of the Foundation for Child Development.