Who Goes to Preschooland Why Does it Matter?
by W. Steven Barnett and Donald J.Yarosz
In a world shaped by global competition, preschool educationprograms play an increasingly vital role in child developmentand school readiness. There is growing awareness that early learning’s impacts persist across children’s life spans, affectingeducational achievement, adult earning and even crime anddelinquency.Preschool education is increasingly seen as a middle-income essential.
In 2005, two-thirds of 4-year-olds andmore than 40 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in apreschool education program. This represents a substantialincrease over earlier decades, particularly at age 4. Theevidence indicates the increase in enrollment has not reachedall segments of the population equally and there are variationsin participation rates regionally within the U.S. This reportseeks to identify these important differences and shed lighton how income, education, ethnicity, family structure,maternal employment and geography relate to preschooleducation program participation.
What We Know:
• The preschool participation picture iscomplex and dynamic, with childrenattending a patchwork quilt of publicand private programs.• Long-term increases in pre-K participationowe as much to increased demand for edu-cation as increased demand for child care.• Pre-K attendance rates remain highly unequal and many of those who mightbenefit most from pre-K participationdo not attend.• Targeted programs appear to haveimproved access to preschool educationfor children from lower-income families,but fall short of their intended goals.• Families with modest incomes (under$60,000) have the least access to preschooleducation.• Existing data sources on preschool educa-tion do not provide an unduplicated countof participation by program.
• Federal and state programs will requireexpansion and greater coordination tofinish the job of reaching disadvantagedchildren with high-quality preschooleducation.• Strategies need to build upon and movebeyond targeting to increase access tomiddle-income families who find itdifficult to access high-quality pre-K.• Policy initiatives should address regionalimbalances in preschool education access.• As access is increased, quality must beraised.Yet, there are limits to how fast thesupply of good teachers and good facilitiescan be increased and policies may need toincrease capacity gradually.• Accurate data on participation by type of program, child’s age and length of enroll-ment are needed. Coordination is neededamong researchers, and local, state andfederal agencies responsible for pre-Kprograms.
Revised November 2007Issue 15
P r e s c h o o l P o l i c y B r i e f
Policy Brief series edited byEllen C. Frede, Ph.D., andW. Steven Barnett, Ph.D.National Institute forEarly Education Researchwww.nieer.org