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.