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 2001–2002 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.
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, 54–57.
Pascopella, Angela. "Universal Early Education: Point/Counterpoint." District Administration (August 2004): 28–31.
"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
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