Early Childhood Education


Early Childhood Education

The education beat doesn’t begin when 5-year-olds enter kindergarten. Expanding knowledge on how young children learn, combined with an array of early education models, means reporters also cover the different settings in which children spend their earliest years.

The education beat doesn’t begin when 5-year-olds enter kindergarten. Expanding knowledge on how young children learn, combined with an array of early education models, means reporters also cover the different settings in which children spend their earliest years.

Developmental — or opportunity — gaps by race and family income emerge long before kindergarten. Research shows that quality programs for children in poverty can narrow some of those gaps and lead to positive, long-term outcomes, including higher earnings, better health and less involvement with crime. But teacher and staff preparation in those programs, and the instructional approaches they use, can determine whether children enter kindergarten on an equal footing with peers from more advantaged families.

A Diverse Sector 

Preschoolers spend their days in a variety of formal and informal programs. In fact, some experts suggest that policies aimed to improve early learning programs often ignore models that aren’t regulated by the government, such as friend and neighbor care. The landscape also includes public and private pre-K, the federal Head Start program, licensed home- and center-based child care centers, parent-run co-ops — and more. 

Access and Quality

There are scholars who refer to early education as a “non-system” in which working parents sometimes patch together a mix of formal and informal arrangements for their children until kindergarten. Overall, early-childhood education is a market-based system — the quality of care and education for young children often depends on how much parents are able to spend. Publicly funded programs, including state pre-K, Head Start and child care, provide access to quality early education for low-income families. But rarely is there enough supply to meet the demand.

Quality standards vary from state to state and program to program. Some researchers stress that the interaction between children and adults is the most important factor in children’s future success in school. But low pay and poor working conditions in the field are a threat to quality and contribute to teacher turnover. 

Updated April 2021.


History and Background: Early Childhood Education

Early Models

Settlement houses — social organizations that were established in the Progressive Era of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century — played an important role in social policies involving early-childhood education, and continue to be among the mix of providers running child care and preschool programs for disadvantaged children. 


Head Start and Other Federal Programs

One of the best-known federal programs for early childhood education is Head Start. Started in 1965, Head Start programs serve children from birth to age 5 as well as pregnant women. More than 80 percent of the children served are 3 or 4 years old. Most of the children meet poverty guidelines. Children who are in foster care, are homeless, or are in families receiving public assistance are eligible regardless of income level.


What Are Signs of Quality in Early Learning Settings?

There are numerous ways to judge the quality of early childhood education settings.

Some programs voluntarily seek accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. NAEYC sets standards in 10 areas, such as staff qualifications, curriculum, physical environment and relationships with children and families.

Key Coverage

Lessons in Waste

Reporters often write about new funding for early-childhood programs, but this four-part investigative series looked at how funding for preschool in New Jersey was being misspent.

Key Coverage

Swamp Nurse

This article features the Nurse-Family Partnership, an effective intervention program developed by psychologist David Olds, which aims to improve outcomes among very poor mothers with young children. Home-visiting programs are one model used to support development of infants and toddlers, and many states spend money on home visiting, so it’s important for reporters to have an understanding of the research in this area.


Lifetime Effects: The HighScope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40

No study has been used to back up the lasting social and economic benefits of high-quality preschool for low-income children more than the HighScope Perry Preschool Study. Launched in 1962, the longitudinal study involved 123 African-American Ypsilanti preschoolers from Ypsilanti, Mich. The children, all of them from families living below the poverty line, were assigned to “treatment” and control groups.

At age 40, those who attended the small demonstration program in the 1960s were found to have higher rates of employment and homeownership, and lower rates of illicit drug use and arrests for selling illegal drugs, when compared with the sample of adults who did not attend the classes. Critics have said the sample size was too small and that it’s unrealistic to expect similar results from large-scale preschool programs without the same level of support.

Key Coverage

Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers

This 2000 report outlined the elements of well-designed preschool programs, including instruction in the four core content areas, and recommended bachelor’s degrees for teachers. It emphasized that young children are far more capable learners that previously thought.

Key Coverage

Neurons to Neighborhoods

This report analyzed some of the findings from brain research and urged early-learning programs to focus on children’s emotional growth and development as well as their academic progress.


Chicago Longitudinal Study

A federally funded investigation of Chicago’s Child Parent Centers, which provide educational and family support services to children from preschool to 3rd grade. The centers are funded by Title I and have operated in the Chicago Public Schools since 1967. The study began in 1986 to investigate the effects of government-funded early-childhood education programs for 1,539 children in the Chicago Public Schools.

Led by University of Minnesota researcher Arthur Reynolds, the study has found that those who participated in the program beginning at age 3 showed higher levels of educational attainment, socioeconomic status, job skills, and health insurance coverage as well as lower rates of substance abuse, felony arrest, and incarceration than those who received the usual early childhood services. Many preschool advocates have said the results show it’s possible for public schools—not just small demonstration programs—to deliver early learning services that have lasting benefits.


The Promise of Preschool

“The Promise of Preschool” is a documentary by education reporter John Merrow, the president of Learning Matters. The report followed the experiences of four families in New York, Atlanta, Bridgeport, CT and Paris, France, as they considered the range of early-childhood education options available to them. Merrow asked whether it was possible for families to find a consistent level of service in America when even public schools are struggling to maintain programs.