Early Childhood Education

views updated May 18 2018


janet s. hansen

preparation of teachers
daniel j. walsh

betty j. liebovich international context
robert g. myers


Early childhood education is concerned with the learning experiences of children below the age when compulsory schooling begins (usually age five or six). In terms of organized educational programs, it generally encompasses kindergartens (enrolling mainly five-year-olds) and prekindergartens and preschools aimed at children starting at about age three.

Mapping American Early Education

Kindergarten, while not compulsory in most states, became over the course of the twentieth century largely the responsibility of public schools. In the process it became accessible and free to most children, and it came to be administered as part of elementary education. By contrast, preschool at the beginning of the twenty-first century is part of a piecemeal and haphazard "nonsystem" of early care and education in which a wide range of providers offer varying mixtures of structured learning and child care to interested parents who either can afford to enroll their children or receive public subsidies, most of which are targeted to lower income families.

Kindergarten. Margarethe Schurz founded the first American kindergarten in her home in 1855; a century later kindergarten education was available as part of public school systems to just over half of children of kindergarten age. By October 2000, 73 percent of five-year-olds were enrolled in kindergarten, along with 4 percent of three- and four-year-olds and 14 percent of six-year-olds. The overwhelming majority of kindergartners (83%) attended public schoolsjust 17 percent attended private kindergartens.

Although most children attend public kindergarten, attendance is not compulsory in most states and not all states require that public schools offer kindergarten. In 2001, eleven states did not require that districts offer kindergarten, though districts could choose to do so. Only eight states set their compulsory school age at five and required children to attend kindergarten. Several others mandated kindergarten attendance and either permitted parents to hold their children out of kindergarten until the children were six years old or allowed the children to skip kindergarten by demonstrating "readiness" for first grade.

State and district policies about the length of the kindergarten day vary enormously, and the absence of data on and common definitions of "full-day" and "part-day" complicate the task of portraying the availability of different kindergarten offerings. A study of a national sample of about 22,000 kindergartners enrolled in 1998 indicated that 55 percent attended full-day programs and 45 percent attended half-day programs. Some states required districts to offer full-day kindergarten but not necessarily to the exclusion of half-day offerings.

States were slower to assist districts with the funding of kindergarten than with elementary and secondary education, but in 2001 all provided some assistance with kindergarten costs of public schools. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia financed full-day kindergarten for all districts or schools or those that chose to provide it. The remaining twenty-five states financed half-day programs or provided partial funds for kindergarten.

Preschool. Characterizing the early education experiences of three-to five-year-olds who have not yet entered kindergarten is made difficult by the absence of clear rules defining the offerings of the myriad providers who serve these children in center-based settings (as distinct from services provided to children by relatives or nonrelatives in home-based settings). What is known is that by the late twentieth century, it had become the norm for these children to spend at least part of a week in a center-based program. In 1999, 59 percent of these prekindergartenage children were enrolled in settings variously labeled day care, nursery school, prekindergarten, preschool, and Head Start. The older the child, the more likely she was to be enrolled in such a program: 46 percent of three-year-olds were so enrolled, 69 percent of four-year-olds, and 76 percent of five-year-olds.

Center providers operate under a variety of auspices. Nonprofit groups, including religious organizations, operate some of the centers. Some centers are profit-making businesses, in the form of both single centers and large corporate chains. In some places the public school system offers prekindergarten classes, often targeted to children who are at risk of not being ready to succeed in school because of poverty, limited ability to speak English, disabilities, or other factors.

It is not known precisely how many centers serve children age three and over who have not yet entered kindergarten, but in 2001 there were well over 100,000 licensed child-care centers. States differ, however, in the extent to which they include or exclude educationally oriented preschool programs in their child-care licensing requirements. Some states, for example, exclude prekindergartens operated by public schools, which may be regulated by different agencies. Some states exclude religiously affiliated centers from licensing requirements.

While precise information on who pays for preschool education is unavailable, it is clear that at the start of the twenty-first century parents bear far more responsibility for preschool costs than they do for kindergarten or elementary and secondary education. Federal and state subsidies supplement parent-paid fees through a variety of programs that differ in the extent to which they emphasize educational purposes or custodial care to help working parents.

Federal preschool initiatives. At the start of the twenty-first century, most of the federal funding that subsidized education and care for children under age five came from two programs: Head Start and the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF). The former had its origins in 1960s' efforts to expand educational opportunity by giving disadvantaged children a "head start" in school. The CCDF was created out of several earlier child-care programs as part of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

Head Start furnishes grants to local agencies to provide comprehensive early childhood developmental, educational, health, nutritional, social, and other services to low-income children and their families. Most participants must be from families whose income is below the poverty level, and in fiscal year 2000, 94 percent of the enrolled children were ages three to five, with a modal age of four. Head Start programs have traditionally been half-day and part-year programs, and local grantees have had wide flexibility in deciding on program structure. They must comply with federal program standards, which have increasingly put more emphasis on school readiness.

The CCDF provides federal grants to states for subsidizing the child-care costs of eligible families and for improving the overall quality and availability of child-care services. Children up to age thirteen who reside with a family whose income does not exceed 85 percent of the state median income are eligible to participate. States are free to set lower eligibility levels and most do. States also set subsidy levels and fee schedules. Parents share responsibility for paying child-care fees, which states may waive for families below the poverty line. In keeping with the CCDF's link to welfare policy, the law requires parents to be working or in education or training.

Although children benefiting from the CCDF may receive care that helps prepare them for school, school readiness and organized educational instruction are not explicit program goals. As of 2002 there were no national performance standards for services or staff other than a basic requirement that states must have and enforce health and safety rules.

In addition to some smaller child-care subsidy programs, federal aid for children with disabilities included educational assistance for children under age five. Some federal aid for supplemental educational and related services to educationally disadvantaged children in low-income areas went to children under age five, though the bulk of it was used for elementary and secondary students.

State preschool initiatives. As of 19981999, forty-one states and the District of Columbia invested in state pre-kindergarten initiatives offering regularly scheduled group experiences to help young children learn and develop before entering elementary school. Only Georgia offered pre-kindergarten to all four-year-olds whose parents wanted them to participate. New York and Oklahoma had launched school-district-based initiatives to open pre-kindergarten to all four-year-olds, regardless of income, but not all districts in these states participated (in New York the state limited district eligibility because of funding constraints). The remaining states tended to target pre-kindergarten services to lower-income children or those considered especially in need of preschool preparation. Some served mainly four-year-olds and others included younger children as well.

Unlike publicly funded elementary and secondary education, which was provided through public schools, pre-kindergarten programs in many states operated in a variety of settings, such as public and private schools, Head Start centers, profit-making and nonprofit child-care centers, and churches. Most state pre-kindergarten programs offered only part-day (two to four hours a day), part-year services, although a few states provided the necessary funding for full-day and/or full-year pre-kindergarten for eligible children and also required that it be offered by at least some percentage of eligible programs. Parental fees were required in these extended programs. Many but not all state pre-kindergarten initiatives required providers to meet quality standards that were higher than the state's child-care licensing standards.

Pressures for Improvement

While educators and other child advocates repeatedly urged the expansion of formal early education opportunities for young children during the twentieth century, what had developed by the dawn of the new century was a fragmented and haphazard early learning "nonsystem" that seemed increasingly inadequate to meet the needs of both children and society.

Changing views of education, work, and welfare. Changing societal perspectives on education, work, and welfare make early education an important public issue and not just a family concern. Efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to improve the quality of elementary and secondary education for all children caused reformers to increasingly realize that student achievement is affected by differences in children's development that are already evident when formal schooling begins.

State courts in New Jersey in 1998 and in North Carolina in 2000 ordered state officials to provide preschool education to children at risk of developing later educational problems. The judicial decisions came in school finance lawsuits challenging the legality of state school funding laws on the grounds that insufficient and inequitable funding denied some students their constitutional rights to an adequate education.

Preschool education also was increasingly seen as a factor helping families balance child-rearing and work responsibilities. Most women are in the labor force; 60 percent of women were working in 2000. This included 73 percent of all women with children under age 17 and 72 percent of women with children aged three to five years.

Reflecting that employment had become the norm for American women, public policy concerning welfare also shifted in its expectations about low-income mothers' participation in the workplace. The major overhaul of welfare policy enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1996 had as key assumptions that all adults, even those with young children, should be self-supporting and that receipt of public income subsidies should be contingent on meeting work or work preparation requirements. This, too, had the effect of shining a brighter spotlight on arrangements for the early care and education of young children.

Untapped capacity for learning. Research provides growing evidence that young children have much greater power to learn than has traditionally been realized or developed. In 2001 the National Research Council (NRC) published a report that claimed to be "the first attempt at a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary examination of the accumulated theory, research, and evaluation literature relevant to early childhood education" (p. 31). The review documented a shift in view about "the major tasks for children during the preschool years" (p. 37). In earlier times, these tasks were seen primarily as ones of "socialization: separating from home, learning how to interact with peers and unfamiliar adults, and experiencing new material in a novel environment. Today we recognize the first five years as a time of enormous growth of linguistic, conceptual, and social competence" as well (p. 37).

The NRC review found that there was no one preschool curriculum that was superior to others in terms of effectiveness. The study panel did not find this surprising in light of the evidence that other aspects of learning in addition to curriculum are important to early learning: the adult-child relationship, temperament, social class, and cultural traditions. The panel did, however, find that "children who attend well-planned, high-quality early childhood programs in which curriculum aims are specified and integrated across domains tend to learn more and are better prepared to master the complex demands of formal schooling" (p. 307). It concluded that, among other factors, incorporating more ambitious learning goals into programs for young children requires teachers who are deeply knowledgeable about how children develop in the early years and about how to teach preschool youngsters.

Such expectations about teachers were quite at odds with the training levels of many of the adults who work with young children. Public school kindergarten teachers generally have college degrees and often have additional degrees and certificates common to elementary school teachers, though they may not have specific backgrounds in early childhood education. In 2000, twenty-nine states required their pre-kindergarten teachers to be certified, which required a college degree.

In other pre-kindergarten and preschool settings, however, training levels were significantly lower. In 2000, thirty-one states set no minimum requirements for teachers in child-care centers, and individuals could often be hired with only a high school diploma and little or no experience. Of states with minimum requirements, only Rhode Island and New York City (which has regulations separate from New York State) required teachers in child-care centers to have bachelor's degrees.

In 2002 the most widely held credential among child-care workers (which also qualified holders to teach in pre-kindergarten programs in some states) was the child development associate (CDA). A nationally recognized credential originally developed for Head Start workers, it certifies that high school graduates with experience working with children and 120 hours of formal child-care education have also passed a performance-based assessment of their care-giving knowledge and skills. Efforts to upgrade preschool teacher qualifications are likely to reduce the importance of the CDA: the Georgia Prekindergarten Program removed it from the list of acceptable credentials for lead teachers for the 20022003 school year, and Congress decreed in 1998 that by 2003 half of Head Start teachers must have an associate's degree.

The poor pay of early education teachers makes it difficult to attract a highly qualified and stable workforce. Median annual earnings for those teaching in preschools was $17,310 in 1998, with higher averages for those teachers working in elementary and secondary school systems and lower averages for those classified as working in "child day-care services." Other child-care workers fared even worse. Moreover, preschool teachers and child-care workers frequently do not receive benefits such as paid vacation and health care. Not surprisingly, high levels of turnover have plagued the preschool and child-care industries.

Access to educational opportunities. While kindergarten opportunities are widely available to children from all socioeconomic backgrounds, preschool enrollment patterns in 2000 indicated that children of higher-income and better-educated parents were mostly likely to have the advantage of structured educational programs.

In October 2000 the U.S. Census Bureau found that 52 percent of all three-to five-year-olds not yet enrolled in kindergarten were enrolled in "nursery school"a group or class organized to provide educational experiences for pre-kindergarten children that included instruction as an important and integral phase of its program. Hispanic children were significantly less likely to be enrolled than non-Hispanic white and African-American children, and only 44 percent of children from the poorest families were enrolled as compared to 71 percent of children from families in the top income level ($75,000 and over). An even wider gap was evident between the enrollment rates of children whose mothers had only an elementary school education and those whose mothers had college degrees. Poorer children were mostly enrolled in public nursery schools, whereas children from wealthier families depended mostly on private schools.

Unequal access to early education is worrisome because learning gaps are developing among children in the preschool years, and children who are behind when they enter school are unlikely to catch up with their peers. In 2000 the National Center for Education Statistics reported initial findings from a longitudinal study of 22,000 kindergartners that documented many differences in what children know and can do when they enter kindergarten that are linked to family income and mother's education. Differences were found not only in knowledge and academic skills but also in noncognitive domains that are important for school success (such as physical health) and in learning-related experiences that children have at home (such as being read to frequently).

Unequal access to early education is also disturbing in light of a growing body of research showing that early education offers long-term benefits that can substantially offset the large costs involved. Evidence from model demonstration programs providing intensive, high-quality educational and related services to young children from disadvantaged backgrounds shows that participation increased enrollee's school success on such measures as reduced referral to special education, lower incidence of retention in grade, reduced dropout rates, and improved test scores.

The most persuasive results were produced by the High/Scope Perry Preschool and the Carolina Abecedarian projects, both of which employed "gold standard" research designs using randomized treatment and control groups and follow-up of participants over many years. Analyses of the age twenty-seven follow-up on the Perry Preschool program, for example, found that benefits exceeded costs by ratios ranging from 2:1 to 7:1, depending on whether benefits included just savings to government or benefits to program participants, their families, and other members of society as well.

Because model programs are typically small and more expensive than "scaled-up" programs are likely to be, there have long been questions about whether investments in more typical and less-expensive early education programs, such as Head Start and pre-kindergarten, would have similar payoffs. The first large-scale, random-assignment research study on Head Start was scheduled to begin data collection in the fall of 2002 and continue through 2006. Prior research suggests that childcare, health and nutrition, and educational benefits of Head Start partially or perhaps substantially offset the costs of public investment. Methodological concerns (absence of control or comparison groups, short-term perspectives rather than long-term follow-up, and others) have made findings about the size and sustainability of cognitive gains among Head Start participants controversial.

The most persuasive evidence that large-scale programs that run at lower cost than model pre-school programs can also generate significant benefits comes from the Chicago Child-Parent Center (CPC) program begun in 1967. CPC provides pre-school and other services to three-to five-year-olds as well as extended interventions into the elementary school years to economically disadvantaged minority children. Researchers followed a group of 1,539 children, born in 1980, who received some combination of CPC services or who were enrolled in locally funded full-day kindergarten programs but did not receive preschool services (the comparison group). The follow-up study of participants at age twenty-one showed that each component of CPC had economic benefits that exceeded costs, with the greatest return resulting from the preschool component. Benefits included increased earnings for participants expected from attaining higher education levels, lower crime rates, and reduced need for school remedial services.

Comparatively little research has been done on the costs and benefits of early education programs for children from middle- and upper-income families, because these children historically were not eligible for public subsidies. As early education programs grow through such developments as the adoption by states of universal pre-kindergarten, this situation should change. While the "payoff" to public investments in disadvantaged children will almost certainly be higher, it is reasonable to expect that all children can potentially benefit from early education, especially if findings from research on the learning capacities of young children are translated into high-quality preschool programs.

The need for integrated early education and care. Public policy at the start of the twenty-first century has not caught up with economic and social realities facing parents and society. In fact, "education and care in the early years are two sides of the same coin" (National Research Council, p. 306). Children need early education to develop social competence and exploit their learning potential. Parents, most of whom are employed, need to know that their young children not only are learning but also are being well-cared-for during the working day.

Public programs, however, are not connected by a comprehensive vision that encompasses both the goals of school readiness for children and support of working parents. Programs tend to emphasize one goal or the other. The result is a service delivery system with disparate missions, administrative mechanisms, and objectives. As a consequence, states face a huge challenge in trying to build comprehensive and coordinated systems of services for young children. Service providers must cope with different eligibility requirements for children and families, different methods of delivering federal and state funds, and different requirements and standards for the programs they deliver. Families face barriers trying to understand the public subsidies for which they are eligible and looking for providers who can meet both the educational and child-care needs of their children.

Falling behind internationally. The United States entered the twenty-first century significantly behind other industrialized countries in recognizing the wisdom of investments in young children. European countries in particular have made much progress in providing early learning opportunities available for all with convenient schedules for working parents.

Countries such as Belgium, France, and Italy offer universal, voluntary, and free programs for preschool children age three to six and in 19992000 enrolled 95 to 99 percent of this age group. Preschool in these countries lasted for the normal school day, seven or eight hours, with supplemental services (with costs shared by parents) available before and after school and during school holidays. Denmark, Sweden, and Finland enrolled 73 to 83 percent of their three- to six-year-olds in early education programs that integrated education and care, with government paying most of the costs. Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom also had preschool enrollment rates above 70 percent either for children age three and over or those age four and over.

These figures are especially impressive because they apply to education-oriented programs that are required to recruit staff with specialized qualifications in education and exclude day-care centers and similar facilities. Professional staff in Europe who work with children age three and over are generally required to have completed at least three years of postsecondary education (which is the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in many countries).

Public financing is widely accepted as the appropriate way to pay for preschool in the industrialized countries of Europe. Parents share costs on an ability-to-pay basis in some cases, but their share is small and sometimes limited to the wraparound care needed by those who work.


Public investment in education in the United States appears seriously unbalanced. In 2001 governments spent roughly $20 billion to $25 billion annually on early education for children from birth to age five, compared to roughly $400 billion on elementary and secondary education and at least $100 billion on postsecondary education, including student aid. Nobel laureate economist James Heckman argued that at these levels of investment devoting additional funds to improving the basic learning and socialization skills of the very young is the best way to improve the skill levels of American workers. Early education is as vital to both individual and society well-being as the education of older children and young adults and equally worthy of public support.

See also: Child Care; Compensatory Education; Elementary Education, subentries on Current Trends, History of; Froebel, Friedrich.


Barnett, W. Steven. 1996. Lives in the Balance: Age-Twenty-Seven Benefit-Cost Analysis of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.

Committee for Economic Development. 2002. Preschool for All: Investing in a Productive and Just Society. New York: Committee for Economic Development.

Currie, Janet. 2001. "Early Childhood Education Programs." Journal of Economic Perspectives 15:213238.

Heckman, James J. 2000. "Policies to Foster Human Capital." Research in Economics 54:356.

Karoly, Lynn A., et al. 1998. Investing in Our Children: What We Know and Don't Know about the Costs and Benefits of Early Childhood Interventions. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Mitchell, Anne. 2001. Education for All Young Children: The Role of States and the Federal Government ernment in Promoting Prekindergarten and Kindergarten. New York: Foundation for Child Development.

National Research Council. 2001. Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

"Quality Counts 2002: Building Blocks for Success." 2002. Education Week 21 (17).

Reynolds, Arthur J.; Temple, Judy A.; Robinson, Dylan L.; and Mann, Emily A. 2001. "Long-Term Effects of an Early Childhood Intervention on Educational Achievement and Juvenile Arrest: A Fifteen-Year Follow-Up on Low-Income Children in Public Schools." Journal of the American Medical Association 285:2,3392,346.

Schulman, Karen; Blank, Helen; and Ewen, Danielle. 1999. Seeds of Success: State Prekindergarten Initiatives, 19981999. Washington, DC: Children's Defense Fund.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 2001. Digest of Education Statistics, 2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

U.S. Department of Labor. 2001. Report on the American Workforce. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor.

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2001. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 20002001 Edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

West, Jerry; Denton, Kristin; and Germino-Hausken, Elvira. 2000. America's Kindergartners. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

internet resources

Center for Career Development in Early Care and Education. 2001. "Child Care Licensing: Qualifications and Training for Roles in Child Care Centers and Family Child Care Homes: 2000 Summary Sheet." <www.nccic.org/cctopics/cclicensing00.pdf>.

Children's Foundation. 2002. "Child Care Center Licensing Study Summary Data." <www.childrensfoundation.net/centerssum.htm>.

Education Commission of the States. 2001. "StateNotes: Kindergarten." <www.ecs.org>.

Reynolds, Arthur J.; Temple, Judy A.; Robinson, Dylan L.; and Mann, Emily A. 2001. "Age Twenty-One Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Title I Chicago Child-Parent Center Program, Executive Summary, June 2001." Waismann Center. <www.waisman.wisc.edu/index.htmlx>.

Janet S. Hansen


A major theme endures through the history of early childhood education: Because young children learn differently than older children, their schooling must be different. Thus, their teachers require specialized training.


The kindergarten became the first large-scale early childhood program in the United States. With it came the first formal training for teachers of young children.

Kindergartens. Private kindergarten training schools, usually connected to a kindergarten, spread as the kindergarten spread. The first kindergarten training school was begun in Boston in 1868 by German kindergartners Matilda Kriege and her daughter Alma (the term "kindergartner" is used both for a child attending a kindergarten and for a teacher at a kindergarten). Matilda Kriege studied with Baroness von Marenholtz-Buelow, a patroness and disciple of the German educator Friedrich Froebel (17821852), the founder of the kindergarten.

Initially kindergartens were German-speaking and were started by German immigrants, many fleeing the failed 1848 Prussian Revolution. Margarethe Schurz started the first in the United States in her home in Watertown, Wisconsin, in 1855. Schurz had worked in the London kindergarten run by her sister Bertha Ronge, immigrating to the United States in 1852. In 1859 Schurz and her young daughter Agathe met Elizabeth Peabody by chance in Boston. Impressed by Agathe, Peabody pressed Schurz to describe the kindergarten. In 1860 Peabody began the first English-language kindergarten in Boston. In 1867, dissatisfied with her kindergarten, Peabody traveled to Europe. She visited many kindergartens, including the training class in Hamburg run by Luise Froebel, Friedrich Froebel's widow. On her return, Peabody advocated tirelessly for kindergartens and for normal-school training for kindergarten teachers.

In 1873 William Torrey Harris, superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, opened the first public kindergarten in the United States, with Susan Blow as head teacher. The kindergarten had twenty children and twelve kindergartners in training, who, for a year, assisted Blow in the mornings and studied Froebelian theory in the afternoons. The second year, Blow taught an advanced class on Saturdays. Blow studied in New York with Maria Kraus-Boelte, who had trained in Hamburg for two years with Luise Froebel and then worked at Ronge's London kindergarten. In 1873 Kraus-Boelte opened the New York Seminary for Kindergartners with her husband, John Kraus, a friend of Froebel. The training consisted of one year of course work and one year of practice teaching. She trained kindergartners until her retirement in 1913.

Alice Putnam, an early Chicago kindergartner, studied with Kraus-Boelte and Blow. From 1876 she ran kindergarten-training classes at Hull-House and later at the University of Chicago and Cook County Normal School. Putnam was instrumental in founding the Chicago Free Kindergarten Association and the Chicago Froebel Association, where many kindergartners trained. In 1887 Elizabeth Harrison, a Putnam student, founded the Chicago Kindergarten and Training School, which evolved through many name changes to become National-Louis University. Another Putnam student, Anna Bryan, founded the Louisville Kindergarten and Training School in 1887. Patty Smith Hill, the dominant figure in early childhood education in the early 1900s, was her first student.

Emma Marwedel, a student of Froebel's, came to the United States at Peabody's urging. She ran a training school in Washington, DC, from 1872 to 1876, then founded a training school in Los Angeles. Her first graduate, Kate Douglas Wiggin, began the Silver Street Kindergarten Training School in San Francisco in 1880. Wiggin's student Caroline Dunlap began the first Kindergarten Training School in Oregon in 1881.

As training schools proliferated, educational publications warned of spurious training schools. In 1894 the president of the National Education Association's (NEA) Department of Kindergarten Education decried "'so-called trainers' who were turning out all graduates with enough money to pay for a course" (Hewes, p. 10).

Kindergartens spread rapidly. By 1880, 7,800 children were enrolled in kindergartens in St. Louis. Milwaukee included kindergartens in the public schools in 1882. In 1884 the NEA established the Department of Kindergarten Education. One year later, the NEA recommended kindergartens in all public schools. In 1892, in Sarasota Springs, New York, the International Kindergarten Union was founded. By 1890, 150 local kindergarten associations had been formed. By 1900, 189 cities had kindergartens, with 250,000 children attending; by 1910, the latter number had increased to 360,000. In 1912 there were 7,557 kindergartens and 8,856 teachers. By 1933 public kindergartens enrolled 723,000 children and private kindergartens, 54,000.

As the kindergarten became part of the public schools, administrators pressed for kindergarten teachers to meet the same licensure standards as other teachers. Training began to move from private kindergarten-training schools to normal schools. The New York Normal School began a short-lived training program in 1870, reopening it in 1874 with a Kraus-Boelte-trained supervisor. By 1880 some kindergarten training was available at the Milwaukee Normal School. In 1892 the Wisconsin State Normal School of Milwaukee added a Department of Kindergarten Education, which required two years of normal school. Students received a kindergarten assistant certificate after one year and a kindergarten director diploma after two.

Between 1880 and 1895 kindergarten training was incorporated into state normal schools in Oshkosh, Wisconsin; Winona, Minnesota; Oswego and Fredonia, New York; Emporia, Kansas; Connecticut; and Michigan; as well as into the city normal schools in New York and Boston, the Cook County (Illinois) Normal School, and the Philadelphia Girls Normal School.

By 1913, 147 institutions offered kindergarten training. As more normal schools offered kindergarten training, kindergarten-training schools declineda 1916 report of 126 teacher-training programs showed only twenty-four freestanding kindergarten-training schools. During the 1900s normal schools slowly transformed into colleges and universities. As normal schools became colleges, training for kindergarten teachers became four-year degree programs.

Nursery schools. With the nursery school movement, early childhood education became increasingly identified with preschool (prekindergarten) education. The nursery school was founded in England by Margaret and Rachel McMillan in 1911. The first American nursery teachers went to England for training, many with the McMillans.

Nursery schools spread rapidly. In 1924 there were twenty-eight nurseries in eleven states; by 1933 the number grew to 1,700. In 1926 Patty Smith Hill invited a select group of early educators to New York. This group formed the National Committee on Nursery Schools, which later became the National Association for Nursery Education, and still later the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Nursery schools also became part of many universities. Between 1924 and 1930, Lawrence Frank, at the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund, directed funding toward the establishment of many university laboratory nursery schools, most often in home economics departments, at, for example, Iowa State University, the Ohio State University, Cornell University, the University of Georgia, Spelman College, and Michigan State University.

The Merrill-Palmer Nursery School in Detroit and the Ruggles Street Nursery in Boston were early nursery-teacher-training institutes. By the mid-1920s teacher training was occurring at nursery laboratory schools at the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station, the University of CaliforniaLos Angeles, the University of Minnesota, Columbia University, Yale University, National Kindergarten and Elementary College, Cleveland KindergartenPrimary Training School of Western Reserve University, and normal schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Milwaukee. In 1927 the National Committee on Nursery Schools Second Conference recommended a four-year college degree for nursery teachers to better enable them to deal with specialists from such fields as nutrition and psychology.

The primary focus at many laboratory schools, however, was research on child development. The training was seen as important for women in general. Edna Noble White, who founded Merrill-Palmer, stated in a letter to Lawrence Frank in 1924 that a "laboratory for training young women in child care should be made part of the training of every young woman since they come in contact with children in many capacitiesmothers, teachers, social workers etc." (Braun and Edwards, p. 149).

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) set up emergency nursery schools to provide work for unemployed teachers. As many as 2,500 nursery schools appeared in the public and private sector by 1940. WPA nursery funding ended in 1942, the year that the Lanham Act set up about 2,000 day-care centers to enable mothers to enter the work force to support the war effort. Both programs required rapid and large-scale training, often of teachers without experience with young children. A survey in the second year of the WPA nursery schools found that of 3,775 teachers, 158 had nursery experience, 290 had kindergarten experience, and 64 percent had teaching experience. Many groups were involved in the training, including the National Association of Nursery Educators, the Association for Childhood Education, and the National Committee on Parent Education. The training itself is not well documented.

Following World War II, the Lanham Act day care centers closed down. Early schooling returned to the pre-depression level until the summer of 1965 when Head Start began with 652,000 children in 2,500 centers, employing 41,000 teachers and 250,000 other workers, including volunteers. Head Start spawned more federally funded early intervention programs, such as Child Parent Education Centers, which targeted poor young children. In the 1980s and 1990s individual states began funding preschool programs for young children termed "atrisk." At the same time, the day-care industry grew rapidly as more women worked outside of the home.

Current Structure and Organization

The Council for Professional Development reported that almost 1,400 two- and four-year institutions offered early childhood programs in 2000. More than half of these were two-year institutions offering associate degrees. As early schooling and care expands, many teachers of young children receive their training in other than four-year institutions. The 1985 NAEYC guidelines for an early childhood associate degree specified that at least half the program be professional courses. Programs vary greatly across institutions.

Many early childhood teachers earn the Child Development Associate (CDA) degree, which was initiated in 1971 by the U.S. Office of Child Development. The goal was to identify basic competencies and provide training in them, leading to a national credential. Since 1985, NAEYC has administered the program. The program's competency goals emphasize performance rather than prescribed courses or credits. There is considerable local control in interpreting standards and providing training.

Early childhood programs at four-year institutions also vary greatly depending on how early childhood is defined in a given state. In 1997, sixteen states had licensure for teaching ages zero to eight. Seventeen others and the District of Columbia had licensure for ages three to six. Three states defined early childhood as age five to age nine. Five states had an early childhood endorsement to be added to the elementary license, while ten included kindergarten in the elementary license. Increasingly four-year institutions educate early childhood teachers for public school programs requiring state certification, and two-year programs educate teachers for other early childhood programs.

In-Service and Staff Development Programs

NAEYC, the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI), and Head Start offer guidelines and recommendations for professional development and in-service training. Historically, the goal of in-service and staff development has been to improve weak areas of practice. In the late 1980s the goal shifted to a developmental model that emphasizes growth and collegiality. This model prepares teachers to participate in decision-making and to advance professionally.

NAEYC's 1993 position statement on early childhood professional development specifically addresses "an effective system of early childhood professional development that provides meaningful opportunities for career advancement to ensure a well-qualified and stable work force" (p. 1). NAEYC and ACEI offer publications that support preparation and training, conferences to improve professional preparation and training, and professional preparation and program review. NAEYC stresses the importance of developing a professional development system embedded within the larger system of effective early childhood programs.

Head Start's in-service training approach addresses the needs of teachers, children, and families. From its inception Head Start has been committed to staff development. Educators in Head Start programs have a wide range of early childhood experiences and credentials. Head Start offers a variety of in-service approaches to assist staff in developing their practice and professionalism. Some of the in-service programs include integration of training with exemplary Head Start programs, hands-on participatory activities, mentoring, collaborative learning, training teams, individualized training, goal-setting strategies, and follow-up training.

Trends, Issues, and Controversies

Programs at four-year institutions face the perennial challenges of teacher education: how to balance professional education, general education, and specific areas of academic study; and how to balance university course work and clinical experience. In the 1980s and 1990s, the general trend was to decrease professional education and to increase general education and courses in a noneducation specialization. The amount of clinical experience has generally stayed the same or increased. The tension between the amount of coursework in pedagogy versus child development in the professional education component remains.

The importance of training for early childhood teachers has become increasingly recognized. For example, Head Start has mandated that half of all program staff must have an associate degree by 2003. In 1998 forty-one states and the District of Columbia had early childhood initiatives, many with more stringent requirements for early educators. At least nineteen states require some pre-service training for child-care providers.

Many early childhood educators promote a system of certification by which teachers would move up a career ladder from, for example, a CDA to an AA (Associate in Arts) to a bachelor's degree and state licensure. Although some progress has been made toward such a system, differences in course types and patterns between two-year and four-year institutions remain an obstacle. Arguments for academic credit for work experience further complicate matters.

Both ACEI and NAEYC now define early childhood as birth through age eight (or third grade). It remains to be seen how this shift in emphasis from preschool to preschool through third grade will actually affect teacher training. Early childhood programs in traditional home economics programs and two-year colleges focus on preschools. Preschool education is often regulated by state agencies other than education, usually child-welfare agencies.

A serious teacher shortage is predicted for the first decades of the twenty-first century. A shortage may lead, once again, to abbreviated teacher training and different routes to licensure. It should be noted, however, that discussions of alternative licensure generally focus on high school and elementary teachers, in specified shortage areas, not on early childhood.

The question of who controls teacher credentialing remains. Originally local districts credentialed teachers but soon states took over. Many groups have a stake in credentialing, in particular, state boards of education, professional organizations, teachers unions, and universities; and shifting coalitions across these groups are common. NAEYC's 1996 Guidelines for Preparation of Early Childhood Professionals, for example, cites endorsements by the Association of Teacher Educators, the Division of Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children, and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Given the changing and local nature of teacher licensure, generalizing about credentialing is difficult. Nevertheless, the general historical trend has been as follows. Until the early 1900s teachers were credentialed by examination. They were then credentialed based on professional training. In the 1950s states moved from credentialing based on state-specified courses and hours to approved programs, which meet state requirements but vary across colleges and universities. In most states the approved program is accompanied by some form of state competency examination in one or more of the following areas: basic skills, subject matter, and professional knowledge. By the early twenty-first century, the trend was toward performance-based credentialing, often requiring student-produced portfolios as evidence of successful performance.


The major challenge to education of early childhood teachers is the broad and changing nature of the field. The term teacher-caregiver has become common, giving some sense of this breadth and change. Across teaching in general and in early childhood teaching in particular, the diversity of roles people take in working with young children makes it difficult to identify a single knowledge base. Early childhood education serves an increasingly diverse population and is expected to provide an increasingly wide range of services to these children and their families. The most pressing, and perennial, challenge is the "widespread misconception that work with young children can be carried out effectively without the benefit of specialized knowledge" (Powell and Dunn, p. 63).

See also: Child Care; Teacher Education; Teacher Evaluation.


Abdal-Haqq, Ismat. 1989. "The Influence of Reform on Inservice Teacher Education. " ERIC Clearinghouse on Education. ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED322147.

Beatty, Barbara. 1995. Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Braun, Samuel J., and Edwards, Esther P. 1972. History and Theory of Early Childhood Education. Worthington, OH: Charles A. Jones Publishing.

Deasy, Dennison. 1978. Education under Six. London: Croom Helm.

Epstein, Ann S. 1999. "Pathways to Quality in Head Start, Public School, and Private Nonprofit Early Childhood Programs." Journal of Research in Childhood Education 13:101109.

Hewes, Dorothy W. 1990. "Historical Foundations of Early Childhood Teacher Training: The Evolution of Kindergarten Teacher Preparation." In Early Childhood Teacher Preparation, ed. Bernard Spodek and Olivia Saracho. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lascarides, V. Celia, and Hinitz, Blythe F. 2000. History of Early Childhood Education. New York: Falmer.

McCarthy, Jan; Cruz, Josue; and Ratliff, Nancy. 1998. "Early Childhood Teacher Licensure Patterns: A State by State Analysis." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Toronto.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. 1993. A Conceptual Framework for Early Childhood Professional Development. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. 1996. Guidelines for Preparation of Early Childhood Professionals. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Osborn, D. Keith. 1991. Early Childhood Education in Historical Perspective. Athens, GA: Daye Press.

Ott, Daniel J.; Zeichner, Kenneth M.; and Price, Gary Glen. 1990. "Research Horizons and the Quest for a Knowledge Base in Early Childhood Teacher Education." In Early Childhood Teacher Preparation, ed. Bernard Spodek and Olivia Saracho. New York: Teachers College Press.

Powell, Douglas R., and Dunn, Loraine. 1990. "Non-Baccalaureate Teacher Education in Early Childhood Education." In Early Childhood Teacher Preparation, ed. Bernard Spodek and Olivia Saracho. New York: Teachers College Press.

Schulman, Karen; Blank, Helen; and Ewen, Danielle. 1999. Seeds of Success: State Prekindergarten Initiatives, 19981999. Washington, DC: Children's Defense Fund.

Snyder, Agnes. 1972. Dauntless Women in Childhood Education, 18561931. Washington, DC: Association for Childhood Education International.

Vandewalker, Nina Catharine. 1908. The Kindergarten in American Education. New York: Macmillan.

internet resource

Angus, David L. 1998. "Professionalism and the Public Good: A Brief History of Teacher Certification." Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. <www.edexcellence.net/library/angus/angus.html>.

Daniel J. Walsh

Betty J. Liebovich


Early education, sometimes referred to as early childhood care and development (ECCD), emerged at the 1990 World Conference on Education for All, held in Jomtien, Thailand, as an important extension of the more traditional approach to basic education, in which "education" begins with entrance into school. According to the Jomtien Declaration, "learning begins at birth. This calls for early childhood care and initial education. These can be provided through arrangements involving families, communities or institutional programs, as appropriate." One of the targets for the 1990s of the Jomtien Framework for Action was an "expansion of early childhood care and development activities, including family and community interventions, especially for poor, disadvantaged and disabled children." The Jomtien Declaration and Framework for Action gave international presence and sanction to early childhood care and development, and to "initial education" in a way that it had not enjoyed previously. Expectations were raised at Jomtien in relation to:(a) the well-being of young children; (b) enrollments; (c) conditions favoring improvement in ECCD programs; and (d) shifts in the type and quality of program being provided.

It is difficult to understand changes in the field of early childhood care and development without paying attention to the broader context in which changes occur. Trends that have important effects on ECCD include: industrialization, urbanization, and internal migration; declining birth rates; technological and scientific developments; globalization; changing social values; the mobilization and emancipation of women; internal strife and civil wars; the ecology movement, the HIV/AIDS pandemic; and moves toward greater administrative decentralization. While space does not allow a detailed description and analysis of these changing contexts, or of their effects on childrearing practices, the welfare and quality of life of young children, and the evolution of ECCD programs, it should be noted that conditions and contexts, as well as the rate at which they are changing, vary widely among and within countries, making it likely that changes in ECCD, for good or ill, may be more closely related to local circumstances than to the influence of the World Conference on Education for All and the ensuing activities.

The Well-Being of Young Children

Health and nutritional status. Despite the fact that millions of children in the world still die from preventable diseases, major advances have been made since the 1980s in reducing infant and child mortality. For example, the positive effect of immunization programs on infant mortality has been widely documented, and polio is on the verge of being eradicated. Micronutrient supplementation programs seem to have had important positive effects; particularly notable are advances related to the provision of vitamin A and iodine.

At the same time, it is important to note the dramatic setback in general well-being related to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, particularly in Africa. Major health advances and remaining challenges are documented in the annual reports of the World Health Organization and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Relatively high levels of undernourishment and vitamin deficiencies continue in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Moreover, feeding programs have not always lived up to expectation. For example, two evaluations carried out in Latin America found that there was little or no improvement in the nutritional status of participants in ECCD programs, despite a relatively high cost of feeding children in the programs. Evaluations suggest that broad approaches, directed to the whole family, need to be promoted if health and nutrition components of ECCD programs are to be effective in improving the well-being of young childrensimple supplementary feeding programs are insufficient.

Psychosocial development and learning. Unfortunately, very few countries provide measures of the psychosocial well-being of young children, or of their advances in learning during their early years. It is therefore impossible to judge advances in this area for national populations or to link advances to the many program initiatives that have been undertaken.


The most commonly used indicator for early childhood programs is the percentage of a particular age group who are enrolled in recognized programs, creating a gross enrollment ratio (GER). From the evaluation reports presented by countries prior to the World Education Forum held in Dakar in 2000, it is possible to obtain a rough overview of enrollments and changes over the last decade of the twentieth century. Although the data need to be interpreted with caution, a number of conclusions seem to be valid.

General enrollment trends. The general tendency has been for enrollments to increase since 1990. In Latin America and southern and eastern Asia, all of the countries reporting data showed an increase in enrollments, with the exception of Afghanistan. In the Caribbean, all but one country (Grenada) showed increases (or remained steady at more than 100 percent). Cook Islands in the Pacific showed a decrease, but all other countries in the region increased their enrollments. A summary from the Spanish-, Portuguese-, and French-speaking countries in Africa notes a marginal increase for the region during the 1990s (from 0.7% percent to 3.6%), and specifically mentions a decrease only in Togo. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported in 1999 that "enrollment has grown and access, although small, has improved" (UNESCO 1999b); there is no indication, however, of cases in which there may have been a decrease.

As a major exception to the above, decreases in enrollments were found in all the central Asian countries that were former members of the Soviet Union, and for which data were available. These decreases are a product of the breakup of the former Soviet Union, of economic difficulties associated with independence and the shift to a market-based economy (sometimes accompanied by civil war or territorial battles with neighbors), and of a decentralization process within the countries. With these changes, the centrally supported, extensive, and expensive system of relatively high-quality early-childhood provision broke down. This was particularly significant for rural areas where attention had been provided through rural cooperatives. It appears, however, that enrollments began to recover slightly during the late 1990s, related to somewhat greater stability, financial assistance from abroad, and the emergence of a range of new alternatives.

The most dramatic increases during the 1990s appeared in the Caribbean, where statistics for the tiny Turks and Caicos Islands show a jump from zero coverage at the beginning of the decade to an enrollment of 99 percent. Cuba showed a major increase over the period (from 29% to 98%), a result of having introduced (and having included in their statistics) a massive parental education program. Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay also showed significant advances, but began from a relatively low baseline. The same is true of the Philippines. China, Thailand, and Vietnam also showed important enrollment increases.

In most cases, however, change has been modest, slogging along at one or two per cent per year. UNESCO reported that "ten years after Jomtien, despite efforts of some governments, very little progress has been made to achieve the set goals" (UNESCO 1999b). It can be concluded, therefore, that a great deal of work is still needed if ECCD programs are to have a significant effect on the lives of children, families, and countries.

In 1998, the variation in enrollment rates was enormous, ranging from almost zero to more than 100 percent:

  • In Latin America, Ecuador reported a coverage of 14 percent for children up to age five, contrasting with 98 percent for Cuba.
  • In the Caribbean, Belize reported 26 percent of its children three to five years of age were enrolled, contrasted with 100 percent for the Bahamas and Jamaica.
  • In the Middle East and North Africa, Yemen reported 1 percent, and Bahrain 36 percent, of children ages three to five were enrolled.
  • In southern and eastern Africa, Zambia reported 7 percent of children ages three to six were enrolled, whereas Mauritius report an enrollment of 98 percent for children four and five years of age.
  • In central Asia and eastern Europe, Afghanistan reported 0 percent enrolled, Tajikistan reported 4 percent of children ages one to six were enrolled, and Russia reported an enrollment of 54 percent. Seychelles, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, however, had 107 percent enrollment.
  • Enrollments in the Pacific Islands vary from 15 percent in Fiji to 73 percent in Papua New Guinea and 100 percent in Tuvalu.

These immense disparities across countries, when added to the obvious cultural and economic differences within countries, reinforces the idea that formulas should be avoided.

Preschool trends. Attention to ECCD continues to be very much focused on preschool, and is concentrated on the age just prior to entry into primary school. This preprimary age may be as young as four (because kindergarten is considered part of the primary-school system and the enrollment at age five is virtually 100 percent, a situation found in various Caribbean countries), or as old as age six. Data from the evaluation reports, when broken down by age, shows the greatest enrollments for age five or ages five to six. In Chile, for instance, 83 percent of children five to six are enrolled, as compared with only 35 percent of children three to four. In Japan, the corresponding figures are 97 percent and 58 percent. These figures support the notion of a strong bias towards preschool education as the main strain of ECCD. In Latin America, at least seven countries (Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay) can point to enrollment figures of more than 80 percent for the year prior to entry into primary school. The general point is reinforced when one takes into account that various countries include in their statistics special programs designed specifically to prepare children for primary schooling.

Coverage is very low, however, in institutionalized ECCD programs for children under two, and even under four, years of age. In most of the world, the tradition of mothers or other family members caring for very young children at home on a full-time basis continues to be the norm. Accordingly, parental support and education programs that will guide parents in helping their young children not only to survive and grow, but also to develop their full potential, are extraordinarily important. Together with the hope that many people can be reached at a relatively low cost, this has led to a spate of parenting education programs. These are often mentioned in country reports, but are not usually included in statistics.

Although countries in the Third World, and in eastern Europe and central Asia, are likely to provide families with noninstitutionalized support (e.g., maternity and paternity work leave, sick leave, child payments, housing subsidies), this type of support for families with young children is seldom found in developed nations, where responsibility for the first years falls squarely, and even exclusively in some places, on family and community. Sweden has reported a relatively high proportion of children ages one to two in child-care centers.

Urban versus rural education. Urban children are more likely than rural children to be enrolled in some sort of ECCD program, though in a number of countries there is a suggestion that rural enrollments grew more than urban enrollments during the 1990s. The bias towards urban areas is probably greater for daycare programs, which are usually linked to urban work situations, but this information is not available in reports.

Socioeconomic factors. Children from families that are better off economically and socially are more likely to be enrolled than are children from families with few resources or that are part of groups discriminated against socially. Although this statement is logical and comes from a general literature review, in evaluation reports prepared for the World Education Forum almost no attempt was made to present hard data showing how enrollment is related to economic or social status. The main exception is Chile, which reported a direct relationship between enrollment and income based on household survey datain 1996, enrollment for children under six years of age was more than twice as high for children from families in the upper fifth of the income distribution (48%) as it was for children from families in the lowest fifth (22%). In the period from 1990 to 1996, enrollment grew 32 percent for the lowest income group and 49 percent for the highest.

Boys versus girls. In most countries, there is virtual parity between boys and girls, but there are exceptions in which girls lag behind. Nepal, Pakistan, India, Maldives, and Iran are cases in point. Several of the countries in the Middle East and North also show lower enrollments for girls, but there is evidence that the gap is slowly narrowing. Gender inequality tends to be magnified in rural areas.

Political factors. The role of the state, of private-sector institutions, and of communities varies widely from region to region and country to country. In nations with a socialist bent (including former members of the Soviet Union, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Cuba, and Sweden, among others) education has been a major responsibility of the state, including education and care during the preschool years. Accordingly, important efforts were made prior to the 1990s to develop state-funded systems of comprehensive care and early education. During the 1990s, however, the role of the state changed dramatically in many of these countries, sometimes with newfound independence and a shift towards a market economy.

The socialist stance contrasts markedly with that of the United States and the United Kingdom, where ECCD has developed along mixed private and governmental lines, but with a heavy bias towards private and community provision regulated through the market. In Africa, with some exceptions, governments have paid little attention to ECCD, which has been viewed as the responsibility of families and communities. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)which are statistically labeled as private, but might better be considered part of a social sectorhave played an important role in the region.

In Latin America, the percentage of enrollments accounted for by nongovernmental programs runs between 10 percent and 15 percent for most countries. In the Caribbean, heavy emphasis is placed on private and community programs. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia reported 19 percent (1996) and Thailand reported 24 percent (1998) of their enrollments were administered by organizations that are not part of the government.

Changes in Conditions Affecting ECCD Programming

The immediate conditions affecting ECCD are changing, including shifts in: (1) knowledge and its dissemination, including the conceptual and scientific bases available to be drawn upon and the formation of communication networks; (2) attitudes and awareness of political leaders, funders, planners, and the population at large about the importance of ECCD and its potential benefits; (3) policies and legal and legislative frameworks for programming, both internationally and nationally; (4) the availability of resources, both financial and human; and (5) organizational bases, both governmental and nongovernmental.

Changes in the knowledge base and conceptual shifts. In a survey carried out by Robert Myers, the most frequently mentioned advance in knowledge related to ECCD during the 1990s was an advance in understanding how the brain develops and functions. To many survey respondents, it was clear that new discoveries in neuroscienceand their dissemination through scientific, professional, and popular channelshave had an important influence on the demand for, and the willingness to consider support for, early childhood education and development programs. An example is the finding that there are "windows of opportunity" for learning during the early years when learning particular practices is most efficient and which, if missed, make subsequent learning very difficult.

Also mentioned with some frequency was a growing body of knowledge from research studies and program evaluations showing long-term benefits of early intervention programs for children at risk. It is now possible to point to longitudinal studies in various countries showing clearly that ECCD programs can have effects on children in primary school. A prime example is the excellent work done in Turkey, in which children cared for in different settings, and whose mothers participated in a parent education program, were shown to benefit in later life from such programs. These studies have helped to convince policymakers and programs of the value of investing in ECCD. They reinforce the Jomtien commitment to including early education within basic education.

These studies, together with the few cases where there has been some agreement on an indicator of psychosocial development and where consistent measurement has occurred over time (e.g., Chile), show that:

  • Programs of reasonable quality do have important positive effects on early development, often with longer-term effects.
  • The effects can favor rural children who are at a social disadvantage.
  • An important improvement in the nutritional status of children does not automatically bring about the anticipated improvement in various dimensions of psychosocial development.
  • The area of language development seems to show a consistent lag in development related to socioeconomic conditions, as well as to first-language differences.

Other new avenues of research that are beginning to influence practice include studies of resilience; conditions under which programs can have a negative effect on child development (for example, when the quality of a center is very low); and child-rearing practices and patterns.

A range of conceptual shifts was also noted by survey respondents. For example, although a behaviorist model that is not very "child friendly" still holds sway in some countries, there has been a shift towards active learning and the constructivist ideas of Jean Piaget (18961980). Although Piaget has had a strong influence on early childhood curricula and practices, particularly in the developed world and in Latin America, even more of a shift has been noted towards programs based on the thinking of Lev Vygotsky (18961934). While not contradicting Piaget, Vygotsky places greater emphasis on social and cultural influences that affect all aspects of children's development (as contrasted with emphasis on individual discovery) giving renewed importance to the role of the teacher and to the place of language in the teaching/learning process.

The influence of ecological and transactional models that gained prominence in the 1980s continues to provide a basis for complementary approaches to ECCD that work towards changing the family, community, and broader institutional and cultural environments with which a child interacts in the process of developing and learning.

The search for best practices, which took off in the 1980s, continues, but the chorus of those who question the search for universals and the base for best practices in developmental psychology has grown ever louder. Additional importance is being attached to discovering, respecting, and incorporating cultural differences into thinking about how early childhood education and care should occur. Viewpoints grounded in anthropology, sociology, ethics, and other fields are being brought to bear on ECCD, highlighting the need to begin with the cultural and social definitions of childhood and education held by those who are the participants in early childhood programs rather than with a predetermined set of definitions and models imposed from outside. This tendency is consistent with a strand of thinking about social and economic development that is grounded in local participation, and in "putting the first last," as Robert Chambers aptly subtitles his study.

To try to overcome inevitable tensions between international and local expressions of what "should be," a third path is evolving in which the search for best practices begins by looking for and supporting those practices valued both in terms of traditional wisdom based on experience and their scientific value. Points of difference are handled through dialogue in which underlying values are made explicit.

There are also shifts in the way planning, programming, and implementing organizations are going about moving knowledge into action. For instance, there is a tendency for ECCD programming to be set within broader frameworks such as poverty alleviation. There have also been calls for a "new citizenry" as transitions to democracy occur, and for moderating problems of street children and criminal behavior. Incipient is a tendency to think more in preventive, rather than compensatory, terms.

Related to globalization, there appears to be a conceptual shift in how governments see their role in the provision of ECCD services, with a tendency toward privatization.

Changes in attitudes, awareness, policies, and legal frameworks. The 1980s and 1990s saw an important increase in awareness of the importance of ECCD, sometimes linked to research findings, sometimes to evaluations and the perceived effectiveness of particular programs, and sometimes to discussions of children's rights. In some circles, awareness has grown of the importance of the very early years, not only linked to research on the brain, but also to a new appreciation for the effects of bonding and attachment.

In some cases, this new awareness has been translated into policies and/or legal and legislative frameworks. Some countries have lowered the age of entrance into primary school, thereby giving what had been one year of preschool a new obligatory status; others have declared one or more years of preschool education to be obligatory. New policy statements have been issued in several countries, India being a prime example. In Africa, new policies appeared in at least ten countries during the 1990s. In the Caribbean, a regional plan of action has been jointly approved and is moving into an operational phase. However, new awareness and new laws do not necessarily translate into greater financial commitment to ECCD, or to major advances in enrollment or quality.

Changes in the availability of financial resources. During the 1990s the availability of financing from international banks and donors for ECCD programs increased significantly, particularly from the World Bank, with important new initiatives financed also by the Inter-American Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The picture is less clear, however, with respect to national budgets. Little specific information is available about national financing of ECCD programs, but the general impression is that very small proportions of educational budgets are devoted to early childhood programs. According to a UNESCO report, "governments in general have neither the financial nor administrative capacity to engage in early childhood education in the way they are involved in the provision of primary universal education" (UNESCO 1999b).

Estimates are not available for the financial support that is provided by the private and social sectors. Despite laws in some countries that mandate employers to provide child care, the contributions of the private sector to ECCD seem to be minimal. The low allocations by governments and the private sector suggest that the major burden of financing ECCD continues to fall on families and communities, as well as on civic and religious organizations.

Changes in program strategies and quality. Shifts appear to be occurring, albeit slowly, in the strategies used to foster early childhood development and to improve learning and education during the preschool years. For example:

  • Although most attention in the field continues to be focused on the immediate preschool years, there is more attention being given to children under four years of agenot only through health programs, but also through programs of parental education that include attention to psychosocial development.
  • Although fractured and uncoordinated sectoral and monofocal programs still predominate, more attention is being given to multidimensional strategies that seek convergence, coordination, or integration.
  • Strategies more often provide for a variety of service models, using a range of different agents, as contrasted with the still prominent strategy that extends the same service and the same model to all families and children, regardless of their culture and circumstances.
  • Somewhat greater attention is being given to adjusting curricula to culture, as the idea of "beginning where people are" is gaining ground.
  • The presence of nonformal programs has grown.

Unfortunately, very little is known, in a systematic way, about the quality of ECCD programs in the developed world, whether defined in terms of inputs, processes, or results. It has been difficult to arrive at an agreement about the instruments and methods that should be used for measuring quality. Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that program expansion has outrun attention to quality.

Problems and Proposals

Weak political will. In many, even most, countries, the need continues to convince politicians, policy-makers, programmers, and education officials of the importance of ECCD. To do so, better strategies of communication, lobbying, and advocacy are needed, together with a better information base related to systematic monitoring efforts.

Weak policy and legal frameworks. In order to formulate and strengthen policy there is a need to: (1) undertake analytical studies of existing policies affecting children, looking beyond narrowly conceived educational policies to (for example) social welfare, health, and labor policies; (2) seek conformity with the Convention on the Rights of the Child; (3) establish norms and standards that are not so rigid or high as to be unworkable, but which will assure positive attention to children; and (4) clarify the roles of the family, state, civil society, and the private sectoras well as forms of partnerships among them.

Lack of, or poor use of, financial resources. ECCD programs generally command a small portion of government budgets. There is a need to increase, and make more permanent allocations to, ECCD in national budgets; strengthen the capacity of states and municipalities to obtain resources for ECCD; and seek cost-effective approaches, including quality community-based nonformal programs. In addition, alternative avenues of funding, such as debt swaps, philanthropic contributions, and private-sector involvement, need to be explored, and local organizations should have access to central pools of money in order to better respond to the needs of local communities.

Uniformity (lack of options). The bureaucratically convenient tendency to extend the same program to all children conflicts with the need to tailor ECCD programs to cultural, geographic, economic, and age differences. There is therefore a need to: (1) think in terms of complementary and varied approaches to ECCD that include family and community-based programs; (2) involve NGOs more actively as partners; (3) decentralize; and (4) construct culturally relevant programs with local communities.

Poor quality. There is a pressing need to reexamine training and supervision, and provide sound training (both pre-service and in-service) at all levels, with respect to a diversity of ECCD approaches, and to reduce the number of children (or families) per education/care agent. Curricula must be improved and reformulated, taking into account local definitions of what constitutes best practices. In addition, existing experience can be drawn upon in a more systematic way, and better systems for monitoring and evaluating children and programs need to be established.

Lack of attention to particular populations. The following "disadvantaged" populations need to be given greater attention: low-income, rural, and indigenous populations; girls; HIV/AIDS patients; children up to three years of age; pregnant and lactating mothers; working mothers; and fathers.

Lack of coordination. If a holistic and integrated notion of learning and development is to be honored, and if resources are to be used more effectively, greater coordination is needed among governmental programs, within the education sector (especially between ECCD and primary schooling), and between governmental and nongovernmental organizations. There is a need to create intersectoral, interorganizational coordinating bodies; to construct joint programs crossing bureaucratic boundaries; to strengthen the ability of families and communities to call upon and bring together services that are currently offered in an uncoordinated fashion; and to seek agreement on the populations that are most in need of attention, and then direct services to those populations in a converging manner.

Narrow conceptualization. The conceptual frameworks guiding programs intended to improve early childhood care and development and early learning have come primarily from developmental psychology and formal education. There is a need to go beyond the knowledge that these fields provide to incorporate broader views, with cultural, social, and ethical dimensions brought to bear. There is also a need to relate ECCD programming, conceptually and operationally, to other program lines that begin from (for example) analyses of children's rights, poverty, working mothers, rural development, special needs, refugees, adolescents, and gender.

See also: Child Care; Early Childhood Education, subentries on Overview, Preparation of Teachers; Health and Education; Froebel, Friedrich.


Barnett, W. Steven, and Boocock, Sarane S. 1998. Early Care and Education for Children in Poverty: Promises, Programs, and Long-Term Results. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Bekman, Sevda. 1998. A Fair Chance: An Evaluation of the Mother-Child Education Program. Istanbul, Turkey: Mother-Child Foundation.

Berk, L. E., and Winsler, A. 1995. Scaffolding Children's Learning: Vygotsky and Early Childhood Education. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Chambers, Robert. 1997. Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.

Coa Clemente, Ramiro. 1996. Proyecto integral de desarrollo infantil: desnutrición infantil. La Paz, Bolivia: Unidad de Analisis de Politicas Sociales UDAPSO.

Cochrane, Moncrieff. 1993. "Public Child Care, Culture and Society: Crosscutting Themes." In International Handbook of Child Care Policies and Programs, ed. Moncrieff Cochrane. West-port, CT: Greenwood Press.

Colectivo Mexicano de Apoyo a la Niñez. 1998. IV Informe sobre los derechos y la situación de la infancia en México 19941997. Mexico: D.F., Impretei.

Colletta, Nicolas, and Reinhold, Amy Jo. 1997. Review of Early Childhood Policy and Programs in Sub-Saharan Africa. Washington, DC: WorldBank.

Consultative Group on Early Childhood Care and Development. 1994. Child Rearing (IssueNo. 15).

Dahlberg, Gunilla; Moss, Peter; and Pence, Alan. 1999. Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care: Post-Modern Perspectives. London: Falmer.

European Commission Network on Childcare. 1996. A Review of Services for Young Children in the European Union, 19901995. London: European Commission Network on Childcare.

Evans, Judith; Karwowska-Struczyk, Malgorzata; Korintus, Marta; Herseni, Ioana; and Kornazheva, Boyanka. 1996. Who Is Caring for the Children? An Exploratory Survey Conducted in Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. Main Report and Country Reports. Haydensville, MA: Consultative Group on Early Childhood Care and Development.

Hunt, Joseph, and Quibria, M. G. 1999. Investing in Child Nutrition in Asia. Metro Manila, Philippines: Asian Development Bank.

Inter-American Development Bank. 1999. Breaking the Poverty Cycle: Investing in Early Childhood. Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank.

International Journal of Educational Re-search. 2000. "Early Childhood Education and Care." Special Issue. International Journal of Education Research 33 (1).

Kagan, Sharon, and Cohen, Nancy. 1997. Not By Chance: Creating an Early Care and Education System for America's Children. New Haven, CT: Bush Center, Quality 2000 Initiative.

Kagitçibasi, çigdem. 1996. Family and Human Development Across Cultures: A View from the Other Side. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kahn, Alfred, and Kamerman, Sheila. 1994. Social Policy and the Under-3s: Six Country Case Studies. A Resource for Policy Makers, Advocates, and Scholars. New York: Colombia University School of Social Work.

Karoly, Lynn A.; Greenwood, Peter W; Everingham, Susan S.; Houbé, Jill; Kilburn, M. Rebecca; Rydell, C. Peter; Sanders, Matthew; and Chiesa, James. 1998. Investing in Our Children: What We Know and Don't Know about the Costs and Benefits of Early Childhood Interventions. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.

Kaul, Venita. 1999. "Early Childhood Care and Education in the Context of EFA." Paper prepared for the World Bank.

Khattab, Mohammad Sailb. 1995. A Comprehensive Review of the Status of Early Childhood Development in the Middle East and North Africa. Study prepared for the Education Section of UNICEF/Middle East and North Africa Regional Office, Amman, Jordan.

Luthar, Suniya; Cicchetti, Dante; and Becker, Bronwyn. 2000. "The Construct of Resilience: A Critical Evaluation and Guidelines for Future Work." Child Development 71:543562.

Malawi, Republic of. Ministry of Women, Youth and Community Service. 1998. National Early Childhood Development Policy. (Mimeo.)

Myers, Robert G. 1995. The Twelve Who Survive: Strengthening Programs of Early Childhood Development in the Third World. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Educational Research Foundation.

Myers, Robert G. 2000. "Early Childhood Care and Development." A thematic study prepared for the World Education Forum, Dakar, Senegal, 2628 April 2000. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Ortiz, Nelson, et al. 1992. Evaluación de los hogares comunitarios de bienestar. Informe técnico final. SANTAFé DE BOGOTá, COLOMBIA: INSTITUTO COLOMBIANO DE BIENESTAR FAMILIAR.

Penn, Helen. 1999. "Researching in the Majority World: Is It Feasible or Ethical?" Paper presented to the Thomas Coram Research Institute, Institute of Education, University of London.

Peralta, Maria Victoria, and Fujimoto, Gaby. 1998. La atención integral de la primera infancia en América Latina: Ejes centrales y los desafíos para el siglo XXI. Washington, DC: Organización de Estados Americanos.

Schweinhart, Lawrence, et al. 1993. Significant Benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study through Age 27. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Educational Research Foundation.

Shore, Rima. 1997. Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development. New York: Families and Work Institute.

Sylva, Kathy. 1995. "Research on Quality in Early Childhood Centres." Paper presented at the Mother-Child Education Foundation Conference, Istanbul, 1920 October 1995. London: Institute of Education, University of London.

United Nations Children's Fund. 2002. The State of the World's Children. New York: United Nations Children's Fund.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 1997. Educating the Young Child in Europe. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 1999a. General Tendencies in Basic Education in Spanish, Portuguese and French Speaking Countries: Insufficient Performances. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 1999b. Report of Commission One: Early Childhood Care and Education (Report on African Regional Meeting on Education for All, Johannesburg, 610 December 1999). Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Woodhead, Martin. 1996. In Search of the Rainbow: Pathways to Quality in Large Scale Programs for Young Disadvantaged Children. The Hague, Netherlands: Bernard van Leer Foundation.

Robert G. Myers

Early Childhood Education

views updated May 14 2018

Early childhood education


Early childhood education consists of activities and/or experiences that are intended to effect developmental changes in children prior to their entry into elementary school.


Early childhood education (ECE) programs include any type of educational program that serves children in the preschool years and is designed to improve later school performance. In the second half of the twentieth century, the early education system in the United States grew substantially. This trend allowed the majority of American children to have access to some form of early childhood education.

There are several types of programs that represent early childhood education. They are also known by a variety of names, including preschool and pre-kindergarten (pre-K). One of the first early childhood education initiatives in the United States was the Head Start program, started in 1965. Head Start is a federal government education initiative that has provided children from low-income families free access to early education. It targets children of low socioeconomic status or those who qualify in some at-risk category. Head Start programs are funded by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Many early childhood education programs operate under the auspices of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Under Title I, local educational agencies apply to state agencies for approval of their program, and when approved, the programs are then funded with federal money. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 encourages the use of Title I, Part A funds for preschool programs, recognizing the importance of preparing children for entering school with the language, cognitive, and early reading skills that help them meet later academic challenges. In the school year of 20012002 approximately 300,000 children benefiting from Title I services were enrolled in preschool.

Other early childhood education programs may be run by private for-profit companies, churches, or as part of a private school curriculum. These programs are normally tuition-based.

Since the early 1990s, many states have developed options for children from middle- and upper-income families for receiving free preschool education. Georgia introduced the first statewide universal pre-K program, offering free early childhood education to all four-year-old children. New York and Oklahoma have also developed universal pre-K programs, and Florida voters have approved a constitutional amendment for a free pre-school program to be available for all four-year-olds by 2005.

Nearly three-fourths of young children in the United States are involved in some sort of early childhood education. Some groups of children have higher rates of participation in early childhood education programs than others. Children living in low-income households are less likely to be enrolled in ECE than those children in families living above the poverty line. Black and white children enroll in these programs in higher numbers than Hispanic American children. Children with better-educated mothers are more likely than other children to participate.

Benefits of early childhood education

Early childhood education can produce significant gains in children's learning and development. High quality early childhood education assists many at-risk children in avoiding poor outcomes, such as dropping out of school. Although the benefits seem to cross all economic and social lines, the most significant gains are almost always noted among children from families with the lowest income levels and the least amount of formal education. However, whether these benefits are long lasting is disputed. Some studies focused on the IQ score gains of disadvantaged children in Head Start programs, but these gains seemed to be short-term. However, studies also indicate that ECE produces persistent gains on achievement test scores, along with fewer occurrences of being held back a grade and being placed in special education programs. Other long-term benefits include decreased crime and delinquency rates and increased high school graduation. One extensive study found that people who participated in ECE were less likely to be on welfare as adults compared to those who had not received any early childhood education.

All programs in early childhood education are not equally effective in promoting the learning and development of young children. Long-term benefits are usually seen only in high-quality early childhood education programs. A significant problem with early childhood education is that most programs available cannot be considered high quality. In addition, the most effective ones are unaffordable for most American families. The overall effectiveness of an early childhood program is dependent upon several factors: quality staff, an appropriate environment, proper grouping practices, consistent scheduling, and parental involvement. According to the U.S. Department of Education, some additional characteristics of a high-quality early education program are as follows:

  • Children have a safe, nurturing and stimulating environment, with the supervision and guidance of competent, caring adults.
  • Teachers plan a balanced schedule in which the children do not feel rushed or fatigued.
  • The school provides nutritious meals and snacks.
  • The program includes a strong foundation in language development , early literacy, and early math.
  • The program contains a clear statement of goals and philosophy that is comprehensive and addresses all areas of child development.
  • The program engages children in purposeful learning activities and play , instructed by teachers who work from lesson and activity plans.
  • Balance exists between individual, small-group, and large-group activities.
  • Teachers frequently check children's progress.
  • The staff regularly communicate with parents and caregivers so that caregivers are active participants in their children's education.
  • Preschools that operate for a full day on a year-round basis, thus providing children with two years of pre-school, achieve better results than those that offer less intense services.

In high-quality preschool programs, observers should see children working on the following:

  • learning the letters of the alphabet
  • learning to hear the individual sounds in words
  • learning new words and how to use them
  • learning early writing skills
  • learning about written language by looking at books and by listening to stories
  • becoming familiar with math and science

Because of the potential benefits to children, some people support the idea of government-sponsored universal early childhood education programs. Those who support this movement do so for the following reasons:

  • The private and social costs of failing children early in their lives can be high. The lifetime social costs associated with one high school dropout may be as high as $350,000. Even modest improvements may justify the costs of ECE.
  • Some studies show that for every dollar invested in quality ECE citizens save about $7 or more on investment later on.
  • There is a potential for less reliance on welfare and other social services. Government receives more tax revenue because there are more taxpaying adults.
  • People should rethink the value of early childhood education because of increasing needs for a more highly educated workforce in the twenty-first century.
  • Early intervention may prevent intergenerational poverty.

Opponents of universal government early childhood education give the following reasons for objecting to it:

  • Evidence indicates that the positive effects from the fairly expensive and intensive pre-K programs tend to be short-term.
  • The public schools are already fraught with problems, and providing a downward extension to three- and four-year-olds is ill conceived.
  • Some studies show that premature schooling may potentially slow or reduce a child's overall development by reducing valuable play time.
  • Additional studies show that quality early education could as of 2004 cost more than $5,800 per year. The government would be taxing many people who may not wish to pay for preschool for another family's children.

In spite of the controversies, demographic trends in the early 2000s indicate that early childhood education has become, and will continue to be, an important aspect of the U.S. educational system.

Parental concerns

Parents are often understandably concerned about the quality of the early childhood education programs available to them. By taking the time to investigate several schools, most parents find a program with which they and their child are comfortable.



Barnett, W. Steven, and Jason T. Hustedt. "Preschool: The Most Important Grade." Educational Leadership 60 (April 2003): 7, 5457.

Pascopella, Angela. "Universal Early Education: Point/Counterpoint." District Administration (August 2004): 2831.


"Enrollment in Early Childhood Education Programs." National Center for Education Statistics, 2002. Available online at <http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/2002/section1/indicator01.asp> (accessed January 5, 2005).

Deanna M. Swartout-Corbeil, RN

About this article

Early Childhood Education

All Sources -
Updated Aug 08 2016 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic


Early Childhood Education