Early Learning: Frequently Asked Questions

Table of Contents

In tough economic times, why invest in preschool?

High-quality preschool provides the foundation for children's success in school and helps to mitigate educational gaps that exist between children from high- and low-income families before they enter kindergarten. High-quality preschool also is a wise economic investment. Leading economists – including James J. Heckman and Dimitriy V. Masterov in their 2007 report, "The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children" – contend that for every $1 invested in high-quality preschool, taxpayers save an average of $7 in future costs due to reductions in remedial education costs, increased labor productivity, and a reduction in crime. It's smart government. Yet, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, today, less than a third of children in poverty attend a high-quality preschool program. Indeed, the National Institute for Early Education Research has revealed that the quality of existing programs varies widely among providers because of the lack of uniform early learning standards and program requirements within and among the states.

What's the evidence that preschool makes a difference?

There is strong research demonstrating the impact of high-quality preschool programs on child outcomes – both short- and long-term. Multiple studies have shown that children who attend high-quality preschool programs score higher on mathematics and reading assessments in the elementary grades; gain critical non-cognitive, or "soft skills," needed for success in school; are less likely to need special education services; are less likely to be retained; and are more likely to graduate from high school than children who do not attend such programs. The Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development has shown that impacts are particularly powerful for children from low-income families or those at risk for school failure who, on average, start kindergarten 12 to 14 months behind their peers in pre-reading and language skills. According to the National Research Council, high-quality preschool programs also improve children's non-cognitive skills, such as persistence and self-control, which have long-term implications for future success in school and in life. Other key studies include research from Oklahoma, Michigan, New Jersey, and Massachusetts:

See a list of studies about the effectiveness of high-quality early learning.

How would the new program work?

The Obama administration has proposed the creation of a new program that would provide universal access for all 4-year olds whose families are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) to full-day, high-quality preschool. The federal government also would provide incentives to states to offer preschool to children from families above this income threshold using non-federal resources. Funds for the program would be allocated to states and then distributed to local school districts and other early learning providers in partnership with school districts – including child care centers, community-based organizations, and private and faith-based providers – to implement high-quality preschool.

The federal government would make significant initial investments in universal access to high-quality preschool for all 4-year-olds. Over time, states would assume greater financial responsibility for the Preschool for All program in their states, which will build on other state-level early learning reforms such as the development and strengthening of state Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (TQRIS) prioritized by the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) program and supported by the quality funds available through the Child Care Development Fund. States would be eligible for funding, if they are able to meet criteria that are essential for establishing a high-quality preschool program, such as:

  • Early Learning and Development Standards across the Essential Domains of School Readiness
  • High-quality program standards
  • State level requirements for teacher qualifications
  • The ability to link preschool data with K-12 data

The program would also establish a common definition of quality for all preschool programs that includes: a full-day program; high staff qualifications, including a bachelor of arts degree for teachers; low adult-to-child ratios and small class sizes; developmentally-appropriate, evidence-based curricula and learning environments; ongong program evaluation; comprehensive services; and teacher salaries that are comparable to K-12 teaching staff.

How will the partnership with states work?

As part of the program, there would be significant cost sharing with states. The federal government would assume a higher share of the program costs in the initial years with states gradually assuming more responsibility over time. States also would receive an infusion of resources to bring their existing programs up to high-quality standards. This overall cost sharing structure would provide a substantial incentive for states to participate in the program, while allowing for long-term sustainability and scalability by states.

Will children currently enrolled in Head Start move to state preschool programs?

Under the President's plan, over time, most 4-year old children will transition to state public preschool programs. This transition will not happen immediately, as states need time to develop capacity to serve more children. Head Start will continue to serve 4-year-olds until the state is confident that it has the capacity to serve children who would otherwise be eligible to attend Head Start. During this transition period, Head Start would retain the current level of funding and would serve additional 3-year-olds.

Don't the gains made in preschool fade over time?

While some studies see effects decline over time, numerous studies show benefits from preschool education that carry over into the first years of school and even well into adulthood. These benefits include both increased academic achievement and school success as well as improved social-emotional development as demonstrated by such non-cognitive skills as persistence and self-control, which have long-term implications for future success in school and in life.

Do all children need preschool?

All children should have access to high-quality preschool programs that place them in the best position possible for future success. Studies show that children from all income and racial groups benefit from high-quality preschool. The benefits of preschool are particularly powerful among children from low-income families who, on average, start kindergarten 12 to 14 months behind their peers in pre-reading and language skills.

Where will the funds come from? Is this a new funding stream?

The President's fiscal year 2014 budget requests the following new funding:

  • $75 billion in mandatory funding over 10 years for Preschool for All
  • $750 million for competitively awarded Preschool Development Grants to help build state capacity to implement and expand access to high-quality preschool for children from low- and moderate-income families and to support the implementation of local model preschool programs
  • $462.7 million for the Grants for Infants and Families program under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, an increase of $20 million
  • $372.6 million for IDEA Preschool Grants

What will happen to Head Start under the President's plan?

The President's plan will maintain and build on current Head Start investments, to support a greater share of infants, toddlers, and 3-year-olds in Head Start centers, while state preschool settings will serve a greater share of 4-year olds.

Is Head Start going to be a block grant to the states?

No. Head Start will remain a federal program housed in the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, which will serve children from birth through age 3.

Is the President proposing to reduce resources for Head Start?

No. The President remains firmly committed to ensuring the success of the Head Start program. Over time, as more 4-year olds in Head Start move into state-funded preschool programs, Head Start resources would be maintained to serve a greater share of children age 3 and younger.

How will the Department of Education work to ensure high-quality programs?

The Department would require states to commit to implementing the elements of high-quality preschool. States will be charged with montitoring these programs, determining their level of quality, making publicly available information about the quality of programs. States will be required to report data and information on these programs, including child outcome data and measures of quality.

How will parent engagement and family support be ensured?

Family engagement is an important component of high-quality programs. We would expect that a state would include family engagement as part of its high-quality program standards.

What steps will be taken to ensure that children with the greatest needs will be served by these programs?

States will be required to submit data on the children being served in the Preschool for All program. It is the goal of the program to provide access to high-quality preschool for all children beginning with children from low- and moderate-income families. These children would include many children with high needs. These efforts would be coordinated with other federal programs that serve children with disabilities and developmental delays, those who are homeless or from migrant families, and English learners.

How will a high-quality early childhood workforce be defined and what steps are required to attract and retain the workforce needed to meet children's diverse needs?

States will need to demonstrate that they require high qualifications for preschool teachers and staff, how they will ensure that they have a qualified early childhood workforce, and an assurance of comparable pay for teachers. High-quality preschool programs must include, at a minimum, teachers with bachelors degrees and professional development for all teachers and staff.

What incentives will be provided to states for implementing cross-agency collaboration and coordination?

The Departments of Education and Health and Human Services will continue to support states in coordinating their early learning systems through the jointly-administered Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge program and federal technical assistance providers.