Early Childhood Education Overview

Last Updated Jan 26, 2023

This overview is intended to help donors gain a deeper understanding of the U.S. education system and identify opportunities to address the root causes of inequitable outcomes for students. See the entire series. By Jocelyn Harmon

Did you know?
  •  Children who experience high-quality early childhood education are 25% more likely to graduate high school.
  • Only 1% of Latino children and 4% of Black children in 26 states are enrolled in high quality state preschool programs.
  •  Only 36% of eligible children ages three to five had access to Head Start in 2018-2019.

What is Early Childhood Education?

Every day, young children are cared for and, if they are lucky, educated in a variety of settings, including private schools, federally and state-funded programs, and by family members and neighbors. This is the state of the private and publicly-funded system of Early Childhood Education (ECE) in the U.S. ECE programs vary considerably in the skills and subjects taught and unfortunately there is no agreed upon standard for high-quality early childhood education in the U.S. However, according to the National Education Association:

A high-quality early childhood program should include well-rounded curriculum that supports all areas of development; address child health, nutrition, and family needs as part of a comprehensive service network; assess children to enhance student learning and identify concerns; employ well-educated, adequately paid teachers; and, provide small class sizes and low teacher-child ratios.

Why Donors Should Care About Early Childhood Education

The early years of a child’s life are critical to the health and wellbeing of our children, families, and society. Ninety percent of brain development occurs before kindergarten. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “in the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second.”

High-quality caregiving and education during this powerful stage of life enables children to acquire the cognitive and social emotional skills they need for a lifetime of success.

For example, studies have shown that children who experience high-quality early childhood education are 25% more likely to graduate high school, four times more likely to have completed a bachelor’s degree or more, and earn up to 25% more as adults. Providing high quality early childhood education to all of our children is good for the economy too! Nobel Prize-winning Economist James Heckman has shown that for every dollar invested in early childhood programs, society yields a $6.30 return.

Who Is Missing Out?

There are nearly 20 million children aged zero to four in the U.S. The majority of young children in the U.S. are Black and Brown.

Children, Ages 0-4, by Race/Ethnicity

Early Childhood Education - Ages:Races

Nine million children under the age of eight live in an immigrant family with one or more members who is foreign born.

Across the board, very few American children are enrolled in Pre-K, especially 3-year-olds. But Black and Latino children, children living in poverty, and the growing number of U.S. citizens, who are children of immigrants, are most at risk of missing out on a high-quality early childhood education.

Early Childhood Education - Latino and Black Children

What Is Causing These Disparities?

Publicly-funded Pre-K is Not Available

Children are missing out on Pre-K because too few states provide comprehensive Pre-K coverage, especially for 3-year-olds. Only 32 states fund enrollment of 3-year-olds in state-funded preschool.

Percent of 3-Year Olds Served in State Preschool

Early Childhood Education - 3 Year Old Preschool

In states where publicly-funded Pre-K is available, there still aren’t enough seats. This has led to a situation where only 6% of 3-year-olds and 34% of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschool.

Percent of U.S. Population Enrolled in State-funded Preschool

Early Childhood Education - US Preschool Population

And federally funded Pre-K programs like Head Start and Early Head Start reach a fraction of the children they could serve. Specifically, only 36% of eligible children ages three to five had access to Head Start in 2018-2019.

Public Spending for ECE is Inadequate

Young children don’t receive their fair share of the federal budget. Underspending on Pre-K is foolish based on what we know about the enormous developmental and educational potential of young children and the high return on investment we can achieve as a nation by increasing investment in ECE.

Infants and Toddlers as a Share of Total Federal Spending

Early Childhood Education - Federal Spending

Pre-K Quality Varies Considerably

In addition to lack of availability of ECE programs, especially for young children who will benefit most, the quality of ECE programming varies considerably. NIEER has established minimum standards for a state preschool program. According to NIEER, a state preschool program must offer a group learning experience to children at least two days per week, must serve 3- and/or 4-year--olds, may offer services for children with disabilities, and more. In 2019, “Mississippi joined Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island as the only states to meet all 10 of NIEER’s benchmarks for minimum state preschool quality standards.”

National organizations are working to increase the quality of ECE by increasing educational standards for pre-school educators and their compensation. Specifically, National Association for the Education of Young Children is working with a coalition of more than 15 organizations representing educators, researchers, and more to advance a Framework for Early Childhood Education Profession. Through this effort, they hope to increase state funding for ECE.

Get Involved

You can make a difference for young children. To get involved in increasing the availability, affordability, and quality of early childhood education, read The State of Preschool 2019 and see how your state ranks on these measures. Next get educated, advocate for, and invest in ECE.

  • The Education Trust is a national nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income families.
  • Start Early (formerly known as the Ounce) has been a champion for quality early learning and care, focused on closing opportunity gaps for our youngest learners.
  • First Five Years Fund ensures that all children from birth through age five have equal access to affordable, comprehensive, high-quality care and education to support their healthy development and help them achieve their full potential in school and life.
  • Zero to Three ensures that all babies and toddlers have a strong start in life.
  • National Association for the Education of Young Children is a professional membership organization that works to promote high-quality early learning for all young children, birth through age 8, by connecting early childhood practice, policy, and research.

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