Dialogue on Early Childhood Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education

A Context for Learning

The State of Early Childhood Programs in America: Challenges for the New Millenium

Barbara Day and Tracie Yarbrough

Where Are the Children And Who’s Minding Them?

When ranked among other industrialized countries, America comes in first in many areas. Among these are military technology and exports, Gross Domestic Product, the number of millionaires and billionaires, health technology, and defense expenditures. When ranking the factors related to the welfare of our children, however, America does not rate so high. In the income gap between rich and poor children and in infant mortality, America ranks 18th; 17th in efforts to lift children out of poverty and in its rate of children born with low-birth weights; and 16th in living standards among the poorest one-fifth of children. In addition, America ranks below average in math scores among 41 countries and last in protecting our children against gun violence (Children’s Defense Fund [CDF] 1997). According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rates of American children under 15 as a result of firearms are far higher than the combined rates of 25 other industrialized countries. Three out of every four children murdered in the 26 countries combined were American children (CDF 1997).

There are a variety of circumstances that not only place our youngsters in physical danger, but contribute to the fact that many begin school ill-prepared to learn. According to the National Education Goals Panel (1993), several factors have placed about one-half of our youth at risk of school failure. Among these are insufficient opportunities to develop mentally and physically, as almost 25 percent of all mothers in this country receive little or no prenatal care. In addition, larger numbers of single-parent families have placed strain on the family unit, which translates into some children having problems at school.

In March 1997, the Children’s Defense Fund released 20 key facts about American children (CDF 1997). These statistics are illustrative of the severe problems facing the youth of America, including:

The Children’s Defense Fund urges citizens to take action in light of these staggering facts about America’s youth. Other statistics reported in the CDF Yearbook include the inexcusable fact that an American child drops out of school every eight seconds, is reported neglected or abused every 10 seconds, and is arrested every 15 seconds (CDF 1997).

The Need for Early Childhood Education

These statistics should create concern for all citizens, as the welfare of our children affects the future of us all. Something must be done to protect our youth from such misfortune. In order to combat such problems, large investments in education must be made, particularly at the early childhood level. A strong education in the early years can have a dramatic effect on a child’s life and well-being. Experts in early childhood education tell us that “in the first three years of life, children learn, or fail to learn, how to get along with others, how to resolve disputes peaceably, how to use language as a tool of learning and persuasion, and how to explore the world without fear” (CDF 1997). In addition, brain research reveals that most of the connections that will be maintained throughout life are formed during childhood (Bredekamp and Copple 1997). The Packard Foundation reported that children who participate in high-quality programs in the early years are less likely to need remedial education later on and are less likely to participate in acts of juvenile delinquency (CDF 1997).

Probably the most notable study of the benefits of early childhood education is the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project. This long-term study of 123 disadvantaged black youths began in 1962 and is continuing today. At ages three and four, these children were divided into two groups, one group receiving high-quality preschool education and the other receiving no preschool education at all. A number of variables were studied, including the children’s abilities, attitudes, academic achievement, involvement in criminal behavior, participation in welfare programs, and patterns of employability. The results through age 19 showed that those who received a high-quality preschool education completed high school at a higher rate, attended college or job-training programs more frequently, held down jobs at an increased rate, were arrested fewer times for criminal acts, and needed public assistance less frequently than those who did not receive such education (Weikart 1989). A recent assessment of the students at age 27 concluded that the children who participated in the high-quality preschool program had fewer criminal arrests and earned more money than their disadvantaged counterparts. It is estimated that over these students’ lives, $7.16 is saved for each dollar invested in preschool education (Smith et al. 1995).

The Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes in Childcare Centers study (1995) found that “children in higher quality preschool classrooms display greater receptive language ability and pre-mathematics skills, and have more advanced social skills than those in lower quality classrooms.” The study also revealed that children in high-quality preschool programs “have more positive self-perceptions and attitudes toward their childcare, and their teachers are more likely to have warm, open relationships with them.” These factors all contribute to increased readiness for school (Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes in Childcare Centers 1995).

Aside from preparing children for future school years, well-documented research indicates that a number of other benefits can be reaped from high-quality early educational experiences (Bridgman 1989; Smith et al. 1995):

A strong educational beginning for young children is not only of concern to educators and parents, but to those in business and politics as well. Research indicates that “early childhood education is critical to the nation’s future economic position because it provides members of the next generation of workers with a solid foundation of skills, competencies, attitudes and behaviors that will ensure their success in a more technology-based and competitive future economic environment” (Smith et. al 1995). In his 1992 address to the Nation’s Governors, President Bush stated that “by the year 2000, all children in America will start to school ready to learn.” In fact, one initiative that was central to the Goals for America’s Children issued by the National Education Goals Panel was identifying the need to increase this country’s investment in high-quality early childhood education (Seefeldt and Galper 1998).

Barriers to High-Quality Experiences

Poverty

Many of the problems facing today’s children are a result of poverty. In 1994 it was reported that approximately 15 million U.S. children lived in poverty, at that time the largest number then in almost three decades. It is estimated that each year of poverty for these children costs society between $36 million and $177 billion dollars in lower productivity and employment (Sherman 1994).

Children who are born poor are at a greater risk of educational failure. According to Bowman (1994), most poor and minority children are at risk for developmental failure. This problem is exacerbated by the conflict that exists between the behaviors valued at home and those valued by the school, she contends.

Children born to poor families are burdened with inadequate resources as well as the many other problems associated with poverty. It is estimated that a year of childcare for just one young child can cost a family $4,000 (CDF 1997). The childcare that poor parents can obtain is inadequate at best. Many of the childcare centers serving the poor function as babysitting services rather than instructional institutions.

Participation Rates

As if low quality among educational programs during these very impressionable years is not troublesome enough, some youth never have the opportunity to participate in early childhood programs at all. If the lack of money does not prohibit them from attending, long waiting lists do. In general, students who need the help the most are the ones who cannot afford it. Consequently, studies showed that only 45 percent of three- to five-year-olds from low-income families were enrolled in early childhood programs, compared with 71 percent from their high-income counterparts (CDF 1997).

Table 1 shows the percentage of three- to five-year-olds enrolled in nursery school or kindergarten in 1993, as determined by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (1997). These statistics reveal that a large portion of children do not participate in early childhood programs.

Table 1. Three- to Five-year-old Children Enrolled in Nursery School or Kindergarten (in percent)
Region Three- to Five-year-old Children Enrolled in Nursery School or Kindergarten (in percent)
Pacific Northwest: Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, Washington 56%
Southwest: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas 58%
Northwest: Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming 56%
Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin 60%
Southeast: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee 59%
Northeast: Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia 62%
New England: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont 66%

All 50 states seem to be fairly comparable in the number of children receiving childcare services. The range from the smallest percentage to the largest is 22 points, and all but four states have between 50 percent and 69 percent of these children enrolled in such programs. This phenomenon may be due in part to the passage of the Family Support Act and At-Risk Childcare Legislation, which requires that states match funds in order to receive federal money for subsidized childcare (Seefeldt and Galper 1998). Before this legislation, the range of financial investment in early childhood education varied greatly from state to state. According to Adams and Sandfort in Seefeldt and Galper, state expenditures ranged from $0.24 per child in Idaho to more than $70 per child in Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont in fiscal year 1990 (Seefeldt and Galper 1998).

While particular regions have similar percentages of students participating in early childhood programs, many areas of the country have few or no programs available to their youth. One study reported by the Children’s Defense Fund (1997) indicated that nine out of 55 counties in West Virginia had no childcare centers. Other studies have shown that childcare is particularly scarce in low-income communities. The U.S. Department of Education has found that public schools in low-income communities were less likely (16 percent) to offer preschool programs than their wealthier counterparts (approximately 33 percent). Similarly, only 33 percent of schools in low-income communities offered extended-day or enrichment programs, compared to 52 percent of wealthier schools (CDF 1997).

Not only do financial burdens prohibit children from participating in preschool programs, many students are denied such education because the waiting lists are simply too long. In 1995, 38 states and the District of Columbia had waiting lists of low-income working families who needed childcare assistance. In 1995 Texas had more than 35,000 children on its waiting list, constituting a wait as long as two years. Florida’s waiting list recently reached almost 28,000, the highest it has been since 1991. Illinois had approximately 20,000 students waiting in 1995, many of whom will never come off the waiting list because priority is given to students needing protective services and those with special needs (CDF 1997).

Quality of Care

According to Seefeldt and Galper (1998), most children are likely to be in satisfactory childcare situations. Even so, research indicates that the childcare offered to far too many children is, at best, inadequate and may even be harmful. All states fall short of providing high-quality childcare and education to all preschool students. In a study of 50 non-profit and 50 for-profit, randomly chosen childcare centers in California, Colorado, Connecticut, and North Carolina, researchers found that “only 1 in 7 centers provides a level of childcare quality that promotes healthy development and learning” (Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes in Childcare Centers 1995). Consequently, 86 percent of the centers received ratings of poor or mediocre.

These findings are supported by data from Who Cares? Childcare Teachers and the Quality of Care in America, which indicates that many states are not truly committed to providing high-quality childcare and education for young children (Whitebook et al. 1989). The report’s conclusions follow.

In order to achieve gains for students and consequently for society as a whole, states must commit more money to these programs. This means, among other things, that students from low-income families should have access to services that address not only educational issues, but social-service concerns as well. Because children’s health has a tremendous impact on their development and readiness to learn, a complete education must also include health and nutrition services.

Research also shows that high-quality childcare is related to the staff-to-student ratio, the level of education of staff members, and teacher wages (Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes in Childcare Centers 1995; Smith et al. 1995). The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends that an acceptable adult-to-child ratio for four- and five-year-olds is two adults with no more than 20 children (Bredekamp and Copple 1997). NAEYC also recommends in its 1993 Compensation Guidelines that programs offer staff salaries and benefits commensurate with the skills and qualifications required for specific roles. Doing so would ensure the provision of high-quality services and the effective recruitment and retention of qualified, competent staff (Bredekamp and Copple 1997).

Challenges for the Future: Providing A Safe and Caring Environment for Our Children

The importance of a quality preschool education must become a priority. Research has shown that the quality of early childhood education affects children’s development and family relationships. The ultimate consequences of poor-quality childcare services are too great. If we do not pay now, we will pay later in the building of prisons and the loss of human capital (Seefeldt and Galper 1998). In order to rise above the mediocre childcare that is prevalent in most of America, we must insist on increased standards of quality.

Preschool children have different needs from older children, and these needs should be considered if preschool programs are going to be superior. Koralek, Colker, and Dodge discuss several key indicators of high-quality programs in their book, The What, Why, and How of High-Quality Early Childhood Education: A Guide for On-Site Supervision (1995). First, the program should be based on practice that is “developmentally appropriate.” Although the primary role of education is the child’s intellectual development, such growth cannot occur without fostering the child’s social, emotional, and physical development. NAEYC identifies two dimensions of developmentally appropriate practice (Day 1994):

  1. Age appropriateness. A predictable sequence of growth and development characterizes young children, and developmentally appropriate learning environments attend to what we know about how young children grow, develop, and learn.
  2. Individual appropriateness. Developmentally appropriate practice affirms that each child is unique, with individual differences. Appropriate learning environments not only recognize the uniqueness of each child, but also reflect differences in the curriculum and experiential learning experiences offered to each child.

Developmentally appropriate learning environments are based on the following principles (Day 1994):

ChildAnother indicator of a high-quality preschool program is the degree to which the environment is safe and orderly. From making sure that play areas are free from hazardous materials to tending to the health and nutrition of the student, high-quality preschools concern themselves with issues of safety.

In their list of recommendations, Koralek, Colker, and Dodge (1995) also include the need for students to feel respected by their adult caretakers. In addition, parental involvement helps to facilitate quality in the preschool program.

Extensive research into how young children learn dictates that the following elements should be fundamental to a preschool program (Day 1994):

  1. Throughout the preschool years, the curriculum should be presented in an integrated format rather than in 10- or 20-minute segments for each content area. Instruction should be planned around themes, with the themes being developed through learning centers in which the children are free to plan and select activities that support their individual learning experience.
  2. Children in preschool should be engaged in active, rather than passive, learning activities. The curriculum must be seen as more than a program purchased from a publisher. This program should not dictate what learning is appropriate for a given child. The teacher should serve as a facilitator who informs instruction for each individual.
  3. Spontaneous play, either alone or with other children, is a natural way for young children to learn to deal with one another and to understand their environment. Play should be valued and included in the program plan.
  4. Because children come to school with different knowledge, concepts, and experiences, it is important that new learning be connected to something that is known and relevant to them (National Association of Elementary School Principals as cited in Day 1994).

If we are to change the state of affairs for children in America, we must begin with high-quality, developmentally appropriate educational opportunities. While all students should reap the benefits of such programs, special care should be given to those who are financially burdened. If we are to take students into the new millenium equipped to be successful in school, changes will have to be made in the number of students who receive early childhood educational services and in the quality of the programs in which they participate. This goal will only become a reality through the implementation of programs that meet the criteria outlined in this paper.

References and Bibliography

American Psychological Association. (1993). Violence and youth: Psychology’s response, Vol. 1: Summary report of the American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth. Washington, DC: Author.

Annie E. Casey Foundation. (1997). Kids Count: State profiles. Available online at: http://www.aecf.org/cig-bin

Bowman, B. (1994). The challenge of diversity. Phi Delta Kappan, 76(3).

Bredekamp, S., and Copple, C. (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Bridgman, A. (1989). Early childhood education and childcare: Challenges and opportunities for America’s public schools. Arlington,VA: American Association of School Administrators.

Children’s Defense Fund. (1997). The state of America’s children yearbook. Washington DC: Author.

Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes in Childcare Centers. (1995). Executive summary. Denver, CO: University of Colorado at Denver.

Day, B. (1994). Early childhood education: Developmental/ experiential teaching and learning (4th ed.). New York: Macmillan College Publishing Company.

Koralek, D.G., Colker, L.J., and Dodge, D.T. (1995). The what, why, and how of high-quality early childhood education: A guide for on-site supervision. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

National Education Goals Panel. (1993). Building a nation of learners: The national education goals report: Executive summary. Washington, DC: Author.

Seefeldt, C., and Galper, A. (1998). Continuing issues in early childhood education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Sherman, A. (1994). Wasting America’s future: The Children’s Defense Fund report on the costs of child poverty. Boston, MA: Beacon Press Books.

Smith, S.L., Fairchild, M., and Groginsky, S. (1995). Early childhood care and education: An investment that works. Washington, DC: National Conference of State Legislatures.

Weikart, D.P. (1989). Quality preschool programs: A long-term social investment. New York: Ford Foundation Project on Social Welfare and the American Future, Occasional Paper Number Five.

Whitebook, M., Howes, C., and Phillips, D. (1989). Who cares? Childcare teachers and the quality of care in America: Final report, National Childcare Staffing Study. Oakland, CA: Childcare Employee Project.

Willer, B., and Bredekamp, S. (1990). Redefining readiness: An essential requisite for educational reform. Young Children, 5: 22–24.


Barbara Day is professor and chair, curriculum and instruction, at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. Tracie Yarbrough is a doctoral assistant in curriculum and instruction at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.

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Copyright 1999 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)