To better understand the landscape surrounding early childhood education, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the most timely research and data sources.
The National Household Education Survey provides data and trends on children’s care and education before they enter school. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study also provides insight into young children’s skills and development. A cohort of young children who experienced the COVID-19 pandemic will enter the study in the 2022-23 school year.
Play experiences support relationships and build language and other core skills. Early experiences can build resilience in young children, but stress, neglect and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) threaten learning and development. Some states, such as California, recommend ACEs screening for children before they enter school, while others argue such policies are premature.
Executive functioning — such as following multi-step directions, learning self-control and staying focused on a task — contributes to young children’s success in school. Efforts to support executive functioning overlap with those aiming to reduce high rates of preschool suspension and expulsion, especially among boys and children of color.
Policymakers have largely shown bipartisan support for public pre-K programs. While some programs are universal — meaning any 4-year-old can attend if there’s space — the majority still target services to children from lower-income homes.
The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) publishes an annual State of Preschool Yearbook, providing detailed profiles of the more than 40 states with public programs. Ratings focus on enrollment of 3- and 4-year-olds, spending per-child and whether programs meet specific quality benchmarks.
Oklahoma’s state pre-K has shown benefits that continue through middle school, including higher math scores, less grade retention and higher participation in honors. An analysis of New York City’s universal pre-K program explores issues related to whether school districts or nonprofit providers are running pre-K programs, and finds lower quality in classrooms that are more segregated by race.
The federal Preschool Development Grant program began under the Obama administration and has boosted states’ efforts to expand and improve early learning efforts, including preschool.
Several cities have established and expanded locally funded programs, supporting them through a variety of revenue sources, such as a soda tax in Philadelphia and a sales tax in San Antonio.
Far more 3- and 4-year-olds are in the nation’s child care system than in public preschool programs, but high-quality programs are unaffordable for many families. The federal Child Care and Development Block Grant subsidizes costs for low-income families, but not all who are eligible for the assistance can get it.
Many state-funded pre-K programs are located within child care centers, which can help improve quality. Classrooms for older children, in which group sizes are larger, also help centers stay afloat financially since staff costs for serving infants and toddlers are much higher.
The Child Development Associate credential is often the first formal step into the early-childhood profession, but an influential 2015 report from the National Research Council recommended that teachers working with young children earn a four-year degree.
A persistent challenge is that many early educators don’t make a living wage — and can earn a third of what pre-K teachers in public schools make. The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment publishes an index that tracks state policies in areas such as qualifications, working conditions and compensation.
Updated April 2021.