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The Pre-K Gap

Our lack of quality schools for small children has big consequences.

By Steven Barnett

Photo by Tom Gilbert

Walking into a preschool in Shanghai, I saw more small Legos and unit blocks than I’ve ever seen in my life. But in a Japanese preschool, I saw no small building toys—everything was designed to be used by at least two children working together.

Around the world, a visitor can see many different ways to organize, fund, and run preschools.

Developed countries differ markedly in the way they care for and educate young children, and in the extent of government support.

These national policies have a significant impact on children’s later success in school.

A 2006 analysis of data from the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMMS) found that increased government spending for preschool pays off in higher fourth grade test scores in math and science. (Waldfogel, 2010) Another study found that as preschool participation moves toward being universal, middle school test scores go up and inequality in test scores goes down. (Wossman, 2007) 

These findings are consistent with a large body of research, here and abroad, indicating that high-quality early care and education can improve children’s long-term cognitive development and school success. (Camilli, 2010)

But a recent United States study of Head Start makes clear that not all preschool programs are created equal. One year in a part-time program staffed by inadequately paid teachers with widely varying qualifications has little permanent impact on children’s learning.

The best programs around the world offer every child a preschool education taught by well-prepared teachers. Few American states even come close.

Many countries, including France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, provide universal preschool beginning at age three, and support quality childcare for children under three. England provides universal access to pre-K at age four.

The Nordic countries have some of the most extensive public supports for early care and education. Finland provides an unconditional right to full-day, full-year childcare from the end of paid parental leave through entry to elementary school. Finnish parents pay fees that cover about 15 percent of the cost. Fees are paid on a sliding scale with income, with the maximum payment for the highest income families at about $250 per month. Sweden has a similarly extensive system.

Other countries also recognize the importance of a child’s life outside school. In Finland, for example, social welfare programs reduce the child poverty rate from nearly 20 percent to just three percent. Government policies in the United States reduce child poverty much less, from about 26 percent to 22 percent.

The United States has fallen behind world-leading standards for early education. If we are to catch up, we must invest in high-quality educational programs for all our young children. The United States invests far too little, and the teaching standards set by the federal and many state governments are far too low. The federal Head Start program was a wonderful idea in 1965, but it needs to be revamped. Head Start teachers earn only about half of what teachers earn in the public schools. In some classrooms, excellent teachers skillfully weave explicit instruction, exploration, dramatic play, and games into complex activities that enhance children’s learning and development. In others, children are overly regimented, bored, or aimless much of the time.

Increasingly, public education starts at age four (in a few places even at age three). Yet Head Start remains completely independent of public education. Imagine if the federal government ran independent first grades for children in poverty—what a mess that would be! Well, that is essentially today’s Head Start problem. Fortunately, all but four states now have early–learning advisory committees that will be federally funded to take on this and other issues of early childhood coordination and improvement.

We can fix the Head Start problem and improve childcare if we are willing to learn from the best that the rest of the world has to offer to increase access, quality, and effectiveness.

Studies cited in this article:

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S., & Barnett, W. S. (2010). Meta-analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record, 112(3). Retrieved February 12, 2010 from\

Waldfogel, J. & Zhai, F. (2008).  Effects of public preschool expenditures on the test scores of fourth graders: evidence from TIMMS.  Educational Research and Evaluation, 14(1), 9-28.

Wossmann, L., Ludemann, E., Schutz, G., & West, M.R. (2007). School accountability, autonomy, choice, and the level of student achievement: International evidence from PISA 2003. (Education Working Paper No. 13). Paris: OECD Directorate for Education.

Steven Barnett is a professor and Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. Visit for more on the Institute and and its extensive research, which includes an annual report on preschool in every state in America.

Photo by R. C. Peters

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  • anc_dyn_linksOctober | November 2010
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