Back to Early Childhood Education

History and Background: Early Childhood Education

Photo credit: Christian Horz/Adobe Stock

Back to 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.

Established in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Head Start provides preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds from the lowest-income families as part of a comprehensive approach that includes health and dental services, parent participation and assistance with housing, employment and other needs. The program serves almost 900,000 preschoolers, but that’s only about half of eligible children.

Critics argue that the benefits of Head Start fade out in the early grades, but looking over the long term, studies link program participation to important positive outcomes, such as educational attainment and positive parenting. Some benefits extend to second and third generations.

Enter State Pre-K

Some state-funded preschool programs, similar to Head Start, date back to the 1980s, but Georgia, in 1992, was the first to create a state-funded program for all 4-year-olds, not just those from low-income homes. Oklahoma and Florida are among the other states with long-running “universal” models, and by 2010, 40 states had some type of state pre-K program.

Enrollment continued to climb in the years leading up to the Great Recession, but since 2014 has remained relatively flat. Many states also still spend less per child than they did before that downturn.


Kindergarten began to emerge in the U.S. in the mid 1800s, but for nearly a century, kindergarten existed largely outside of the public education system. In the 1960s and ‘70s, states began to offer grants to school districts with free kindergarten programs.

As public kindergarten programs spread across the country, most were still half-day. The push to treat kindergarten just like any other grade picked up in the ‘70s and ‘80s as more children began attending center-based preschool programs, and, as a result, were considered more ready for school. By 1999, 60 percent of kindergartners attended full-day programs, also viewed as an important support for working parents.

But kindergarten attendance is still optional in most states, and some don’t require districts to offer full-day programs. Expansion to full-day kindergarten has been a popular campaign and legislative issue in recent years. The Education Commission of the States regularly updates state action on kindergarten policies.

Academics and Whole-Child Curricula

As long as there have been preschool programs, there have been debates about what and how children should be learning. With the growth of state pre-K programs, many of which are in elementary schools, early learning sometimes resembles kindergarten, with defined academic instruction and an emphasis on skills. Child development experts often push back, arguing for a balance — a whole-child approach in which children develop social skills and gain knowledge through creative play, free choice and hands-on activities.

Widely used whole-child programs — often required by state preschool programs as well as Head Start — are linked to higher classroom quality and positive teacher-child interaction. But one study found that well-known models, such as HighScope and Creative Curriculum, might not contribute to early academic skills unless teachers supplement with a specific math- or literacy-focused program.


Breakthroughs in neuroscience began to influence early learning programs in the early 1990s as researchers found ways to effectively communicate the science to the public, including interacting with education reporters. Foundations followed, with reports and funding that focused on improving the environments in which young children learn. Major findings from the research include the importance of secure attachments to and reciprocal interactions with adults as well as the risk of how toxic stress — brought on by conditions such as ongoing abuse, neglect and extreme poverty — can impact healthy brain development.

Sample Programs

Key studies have influenced today’s early-childhood education field and form the basis of arguments in favor of greater public funding. The Perry Preschool Program in Ypsilanti, Michigan, was a half-day demonstration project for 3- and 4-year-olds that included low teacher-child ratios and certified teachers with a bachelor’s degree. The curriculum emphasized active learning and reflection. The latest findings from the long-running study show the benefits have extended to the original participants’ siblings.

The Chicago Public Schools’ Child-Parent Centers is a more real-world example of a program that includes education, health and nutrition services and required parent involvement. At age 35, those in a sample of 1,398 were 48 percent more likely to earn a two- or four- year degree if they participated in at least four years of the program than those who participated less.

Updated April 2021.