Preschool/Prekindergarten Programs - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Preschool/Prekindergarten Programs


Preschool is a broad term that can be used to describe any school enrolling children prior to their entry into formal schooling. However, today in the United States, “preschool” most often refers to educational programs for three- and/or four-year-old children. Often distinguished from “child care,” the term preschool denotes a program with an educational focus, although it is well established that a high-quality child care program provides the same educational and social- emotional curricula as a high-quality preschool program (Bowman, Donovan, and Burns, 2001). Unlike a preschool program, a child care program would likely be offered for more hours per day and more days per year in order to support parents’ employment, as well as promote child development. The child care program would also be more likely to enroll infants and toddlers (i.e., children younger than three years of age). Despite these distinctions, preschool remains a general term applied to a range of early childhood education programs for children in the year or two prior to kindergarten.

Preschool programs may be located in public or private schools, child care centers, churches, synagogues, or other community-based organizations. They may be sponsored by for-profit or nonprofit organizations, and by school districts or other local, state, or federal governments. The services may be paid for through a combination of parent fees, foundation funding, private contributions, and employers, as well as through governmental funds. Some preschool programs enroll children for the full day, five days a week for the full year, while most operate for shorter periods of time (e.g., morning only, school-year only). Although the curriculum and structure of programs vary, they often emphasize social-emotional development (e.g., interpersonal skills, following directions) and early academic skills (e.g., concepts about print, counting).

In the United States, there has been a dramatic growth in preschool enrollment over the last half-century. Prior to the 1960s, enrollment in preschool never exceeded 10 percent of the total population of children aged three and four. By 1980, more than a third of children enrolled and attended preschool; and by 2000, more than half of three- and four-year old children attended preschool (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). Increased enrollment has been fueled by greater interest among parents in enrolling their children in preschool, combined with efforts by the government to promote preschool enrollment through funding at the federal, state, and local levels. Since 1965, the federal Head Start program has provided comprehensive preschool programs for low-income children in an effort to increase their healthy development and school readiness. In 2004, this $6.7 billion program enrolled over 900,000 children (Head Start Bureau, 2005). In addition to Head Start, many states have also created state prekindergarten programs that use state funds to provide preschool in public schools and/or community-based organizations (e.g., child care centers, nonprofits). Additional governmental funding of preschool programs can also occur at the local level, where many school districts fund preschool programs in their schools using local funds—or opting to use federal (e.g., Title I) or state (e.g., funding formula) dollars to provide preschool programs. In fact, approximately 35 percent of all public elementary schools offer preschool classes—most often targeted to low-income children, children with special needs and/or four-year-old children (Wirt et al., 2004).

Data from the National Household Education Survey (NHES) highlight differences in preschool enrollment among diverse groups (as shown in the figures). Defining preschool attendance as any form of center- or school-based early care and education for three- and/or four-year-old children, NHES estimated that 56 percent of children were enrolled in 2001. However, four-year-old children were much more likely to participate (66%) than three-year-old children (43%), and children with working mothers were more likely to be in preschool (63%) than those with mothers not in the labor force (47%). Of particular concern from an educational equity perspective, children in families living in poverty were less likely to attend preschool (47%), as were Hispanic children (40%) and children with less-educated mothers (only 38% of children with mothers with less than high school degree were enrolled).

Since early childhood education programs such as preschool have been found to promote greater school achievement—particularly among at-risk children (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000)—these discrepancies in preschool enrollment are troubling. Because poor and minority children are both less likely to attend preschool and less likely to come to school with basic readiness skills, increasing their preschool enrollment may be an important intervention to improve their school readiness and later school achievement. In fact, rigorous estimates of the effect of providing universal preschool enrollment for three- and four-year-old children in poverty suggest that this intervention could close up to 20 percent of the Black-White school readiness gap and up to 36 percent of the Hispanic-white gap (Magnuson and Waldfogel, 2005). Yet these researchers also note the need to improve the educational quality of preschool programs to see these impressive impacts. Because preschool is such a broad term, applied to a wide range of programs, it should be noted that the quality of the early education services provided is much more important for children’s development, learning, and health, than the program’s label, whether preschool, nursery school, or child care. See also Academics; Curriculum, Emotional Development; Development, Emotional; Development, Social.


Enrollment in Preschool Programs in 2001 by Children’s Age and Mothers’ Employment Status.

Notes: Data from 2001 U.S. Department of Education, NCES, National Household Education Survey (NHES) Parent Interview; Preschool enrollment is assumed if the parent indicated that their three- or four-year-old child attended a “center-based program,” which includes day care centers, Head Start, preschool, nursery school, prekindergarten, and other early childhood programs; Full-time work is defined as at least 35 hours a week.



Enrollment in Preschool Programs among Population Sub-Groups.

Notes: Data from 2001 U.S. Department of Education, NCES, National Household Education Survey (NHES) Parent Interview; Preschool enrollment is assumed if the parent indicated that their three- or four-year-old child attended a “center-based program,” which includes day care centers, Head Start, preschool, nursery school, prekindergarten, and other early childhood programs.


Further Readings: Bowman, B. T., M. S. Donovan, and M. S. Burns, eds. (2001). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Children’s Defense Fund (2004). Key facts in child care, early education, and school-age care. Washington, DC: Author. Head Start Bureau (2005). Head Start program fact sheet. Available online at Magnuson, K., and J. Waldfogel (2005). Early childhood care and education: Effects on ethnic and racial gaps in school readiness. The Future of Children 15(1), 169-196. Shonkoff, J., and D. Phillips (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. U.S. Census Bureau (2000). 2000 census—current population survey. Washington, DC: Author. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statstics (2002). Enrollment in early childhood education programs—the condition of education 2002, NCES 2002-025. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Wirt, J., et al. (2004). Prekindergarten in U. S. public schools, the condition of education 2004 (NCES 2004-077). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. 

Elizabeth Rigby