Early childhood education (ECE) is a controversial and contested field. Since the Progressive Era, debate has existed over what role federal, state, and local government agencies should play in providing families and their young children with access to ECE programs. Within the field itself, there are disputes over issues such as what type of care should be provided to children and their families, what type of training early childhood educators should possess, and what type of instruction should take place and at what age.
Even with a majority of mothers within the United States in the workforce and numerous scientific studies demonstrating the importance of the early years of a child’s life on later development and academic performance, society has yet to accept the idea that access to high-quality ECE programs should be a basic right for all children. A key reason for this is the patriarchal norms that dominate the American psyche. In general, society still defines the role of the mother as the primary caregiver of the child, and thus it is her responsibility to ensure that the child is cared for and ready to enter elementary school. Ideally, the mother is married and has husband who is able to support her and her child. While these images have been contested across numerous fronts, the nuclear family is still a key construct in federal policy and is used by many who oppose an expanding role of government into early childhood education.
I. A Definition of Early Childhood Education
II. The Status of Early Childhood Education within the United States
III. Government Support
IV. Making the Case for Further Government Support of ECE
V. Making the Case for Less Government Support of ECE
VI. Early Childhood Education from the Progressive Era to Today
B. Day Nurseries
C. Nursery Schools
D. The Federal Government Becomes Part of Early Childhood Education
E. Project Head Start
F. Standards for Early Childhood Education
A Definition of Early Childhood Education
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the largest professional organization for early childhood educators, defines the early childhood years as those from birth through third grade, and thus this field of practice balances between systems of compulsory and noncompulsory schooling. This entry focuses on early childhood programs that serve children from birth through age five, including kindergarten.
The Status of Early Childhood Education within the United States
For children from birth through age five, early childhood services are offered through a patchwork system of care that includes public and private nonprofit agencies, religious organizations, corporations, for-profit enterprises, family child care providers, and public schools. Programs serve a range of ages, offer various types of services, and instill a range of curricula. For the most part, the early childhood community represents a fractured group of practitioners who are loosely coupled by licensure requirements that emphasize health, safety, and teacher and staff issues rather than academic expectations or curricula.
While the debate over the role of government support for ECE continues, federal, state, and local governments do provide some funding for early childhood services and programs. Federal support for ECE exists through three main funding sources: (1) providing funding for child care services as an incentive to mothers who receive public assistance and are trying to enter the labor force; (2) providing funding for or access to services such as Head Start to children whom governmental agencies deem to be at risk due to factors such as poverty, language status, developmental delays, psychological issues, or a combination of these factors; and (3) providing financial support to families and corporations through tax credits.
The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996 altered previous federal social services by mandating recipients to achieve particular goals and reducing the length of time they could receive support, which increased the need for early childhood services for these families. For instance, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant replaced programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, provides states with funds that they are to use to assist families in taking care of their children at home, and provides child care for parents so that they can participate in job training. The Child Care and Development block grant provides funds to states to subsidize the child care expenses of low-income working parents, parents who are receiving training for work, and parents in school.
The most well known federally funded early childhood program is Head Start, which operates through the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The DHHS directly funds local grantees to provide Head Start programs to promote children’s school readiness by enhancing their social and cognitive development. Head Start grantees are to offer children and their families’ educational, health, nutritional, social, and other services.
Finally, the federal government offers two types of tax credits: (1) the dependent care tax credit for families who use out-of-home ECE services (which began as the child care tax deduction in 1954 and converted to a child care tax credit in 1972) and (2) tax credits for employers who establish or provide access for their employees to child care services (which began in 1962).
At the state and local level, funding is more eclectic. The availability of programs and services that extend beyond federal funding depends on the individual state or local community. Some (but not all) state governments supplement these federal funds, create their own programs for targeted populations, and encourage local participation in the process.
The most common form of state involvement in ECE is kindergarten, and the fastest growing program area among the states is prekindergarten (pre-K) for four- and sometimes three-year-olds. As of 2009, only 8 states require children to attend kindergarten, while the remaining 42 states require school districts to offer kindergarten. Forty states offer some form of pre-K funding to local school districts and community organizations, and three states—Oklahoma, Georgia, and Florida—offer all four-year-old children in their states access to prekindergarten, typically referred to as universal prekindergarten (UPK). Many states, such as New York, Illinois, Louisiana, and Iowa, are taking steps toward UPK. Other states, such as Maine, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and West Virginia, offer pre-K for all through their school funding formulas.
Making the Case for Further Government Support of ECE
Those who support the expansion of federal, state, and local early childhood services typically make their case through two interconnected lines of reasoning. The first frames ECE as an investment. The second sees ECE as a necessary step to ready children for the increasing demands of elementary school.
The investment argument emerges from a collection of longitudinal studies that examine the effects of specific early childhood programs on a child’s life. This research demonstrates that children who participate in high-quality early childhood programs are less likely as students to be retained or to require special education service and are more likely to graduate from high school. As adults, these children are more likely to be employed and not require social services and are less likely to be incarcerated (e.g., Reynolds, Ou, and Topitzes’s 2004 analysis of the effects of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers). As a result, every dollar that is invested in high-quality ECE programs will save taxpayers from having to spend additional monies on supplemental education and social services for children through their lifetimes.
The readiness argument, which follows a similar line of reasoning as the investment argument, states that, in order to have students ready for the increasing demands of elementary school, government agencies need to provide families with access to high-quality early education services to ensure that their children are ready to learn.
Making the Case for Less Government Support of ECE
Those who oppose expanding the role of government also frame their argument through two lines of reasoning. The first, which takes a libertarian approach, contends that the government should limit its social responsibilities in taking care of children, except in the direst circumstances, and allow the market to deem the need and role of ECE (e.g., the Cato Institute). The second, which takes a more conservative approach, argues that the government should implement policies that encourage family members to stay home and care for their children, such as tax credits for stay-at-home family members or incentives for corporations to encourage part-time employment.
Early Childhood Education from the Progressive Era to Today
As the Progressive Era took shape, ECE emerged along two streams of care: the kindergarten movement and the day nursery movement. Within these two movements, issues of gender, class, and cultural affiliation not only affected the goals of each program but also which children and their families had access to these care and education services.
The U.S. kindergarten movement began in 1854, when Margarethe Meyer Schurz founded the first kindergarten in Watertown, Wisconsin. These early kindergartens were supplemental programs that were designed to foster a child’s growth and development and to provide mothers with a break from their children. (See Beatty 1995 for a detailed history of the development of kindergarten in the United States.)
Public kindergarten emerged in the 1870s through the work of individuals such as Susan Blow in St. Louis and spread across numerous cities. As these programs became part of education systems across the United States, stakeholders implemented them to achieve many goals—all of which framed kindergarten as a necessary and not supplemental service. For instance, some supporters saw these programs as a form of child rescue; others saw it as means to Americanize the influx of immigrants who were arriving in the United States; and many viewed these programs as form of preparation for elementary school. These programs steadily grew, because education and community stakeholders began to see more children as being unprepared for elementary school, and, thus, this construct of the deficient child infuses itself within the need for an expansion of early childhood services.
The idea of children following a normal developmental path emerged out of the work of child psychologists such as G. Stanley Hall, who began his child study experiments in Pauline Shaw’s charity kindergartens in Boston. Hall’s studies led him as well as many other psychologists to question what type of experiences should be taking place in kindergarten as well as in the home to prepare children for a successful life.
Prior to kindergarten or elementary school entry, the dominant understanding of children’s early childhood experiences was that their mothers were to raise them in their homes. The day nursery movement emerged as an intervention for mothers who had to seek employment to take care of their families so that they would not have to institutionalize their children. These nurseries emerged as the philanthropic projects of wealthy women who wanted to assist working poor and immigrant mothers in getting back on their feet so that they could take their rightful place in the home. Day nurseries emphasized patriotism and hygiene as part of their instruction and only sought governmental assistance for regulatory purposes to improve nursery program conditions. Even though these programs had less-than-appealing reputations, the need for their services far outstripped their availability. In most instances—particularly in the South, rural areas, and for African American families—kith and kin provided the majority of care for these families. Ironically, many of these working mothers struggled to find care for their own children while working for wealthier families as the caretakers of their children. (See Michel 1999 for a detailed history of the day nursery movement and the positioning of mothers and women in general within this and other debates over the role of government in child rearing and education.)
Academically, the increased interest in understanding child development by the work of theorists and researchers such as Hall, Gesell, Freud, Piaget, and others led to the growing child study movement among universities. For instance, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Foundation awarded significant sums of money to several colleges and universities to establish child study institutes. The institutes’ lab schools began the nursery school movement, and middle-class families became attracted to the notion that science can enhance their child’s development. Furthermore, this scientific emphasis on child development extended the view of ECE beyond the traditional academic notion of cognitive development that dominates elementary education. Early education included the child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. This expanded view of learning caused conflict between early childhood educators and their elementary school colleagues as these programs became part of the elementary school environment.
The Federal Government Becomes Part of Early Childhood Education
The onset of the Great Depression resulted in a collapse of the day nursery movement for working mothers, and a majority of the ECE programs that remained were supplemental nursery programs used by middle-class families. In 1933, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) changed this by starting a federally funded nursery school program as a means of employing schoolteachers and school staff . The custodial care of children was a secondary goal. The program was incorporated into the Works Progress Administration in 1934, when FERA was terminated.
As the Great Depression ended and World War II began, the funding for this program dwindled. However, the need for women’s labor to support the war industry led to the Lanham Act, which funded over 3,000 child care centers to care for children whose mothers worked in defense-related industries.
When the Depression and the war ended, federal support for these custodial programs subsided, and mothers were to return home to care for their children. However, the kindergarten movement had come to be seen by education stakeholders as a muchneeded vehicle for preparing children for school. Kindergarten survived these two national crises, and, by the 1940s, it became a permanent fixture of many school systems across the United States.
Project Head Start
For the next 20 years, the federal government abstained from funding ECE programs until the implementation of Project Head Start in 1965. This project emerged from the Economic Opportunity Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as a part of the Johnson Administration’s war on poverty.
This legislation shifted the role of the federal government in developing ECE and K–12 policy within the United States. Federal policymakers created legislation that defined the role of the federal government in ECE as a provider of intervention services that could alter the academic trajectory of particular populations of children. These policies identified the root cause of academic failure, which leads to economic failure, in the child’s home environment. By identifying educational attainment as the means by which this cycle of poverty can be broken, policymakers defined the central role of ECE as readying students for school. ECE became a tool for intervention.
As soon as the federal government took on these roles in ECE and K–12 education, controversy arose. For instance, the Nixon administration responded to Johnson’s Great Society education policies by creating the National Institute of Education, which investigated the return that society received for its investment in education. Furthermore, Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, which was to expand the federal government’s funding of child care and education while creating a framework for child services. Additionally, studies such as the Westinghouse Learning House’s evaluation of Head Start in 1969 suggested that any gains in the IQs of students who participated in the program quickly faded, which raised concerns over the effectiveness of these government-funded programs.
Researchers responded to these critiques of Head Start by arguing that, while increases in IQ might not be sustainable, students who participated in such programs were more successful academically and socially as they continued through school than those students who did not receive these services. These longitudinal studies, which examined a number of early childhood programs other than Head Start, spawned the investment argument, which is outlined above.
This argument shifts the premise for funding ECE programs slightly. Rather than break the cycle of poverty for others, funding programs will save taxpayers money. Thus, this argument for ECE deemphasizes assisting families to be able to take care of their children at home, and, rather, it contends that experts in ECE can design and implement programs that prepare the child, and in some cases the family, for success in compulsory schooling and later life.
Standards for Early Childhood Education
The emphasis on student performance that emerged during the Reagan administration put pressure on early childhood educators to align their practices with K–12 education. While such pressure on ECE programs has been around since the 1920s, particularly for kindergarten programs (see Beatty 1995), organizations such as NAEYC began to produce position statements and documents that defined what empirical research identified to be appropriate teaching, learning, and assessment experiences for young children.
Although these empirically based responses deflected the pressures of accountability for children until later in their academic careers, recent federal and state standards-based accountability reforms have caused education stakeholders to again scrutinize what types of experiences students are having prior to their entry to elementary school. For instance, policymakers and early childhood stakeholders are debating the role of early learning standards, readiness assessments, and literacy and math instruction in early childhood programs.
Additional reforms that stakeholders are considering to improve children’s preparation for elementary schooling include requiring student participation in full-day kindergarten programs, expanding prekindergarten services, improving the quality of early childhood programs, increasing training requirements for ECE teachers, and aligning early childhood programs across the field as well as with the K–12 education system. (See Cryer and Clifford 2003 for discussions surrounding ECE policy.)
Whatever policies emerge, the recent history of education reform demonstrates that these reforms will be linked to increased accountability expectations, making the expansion of the field dependent on the ability of ECE programs to improve student performance.
An added question that is somewhat unique to ECE is who should be providing these services. For-profit centers have a long history in ECE and provide care for a significant population of children and their families. These providers include national and international companies (e.g., the Australian-based publicly traded for-profit child care corporation ABC Learning, which is the world’s largest provider of child care services and operates over 1,100 centers in the United States). Additionally, nonprofit and church-based centers provide a large portion of infant and toddler care for families. Thus, expanding or reforming early childhood services involves numerous stakeholders, and simply adding programs to the nation’s public schools or implementing unfunded mandates has the ability to upset many who support as well as provide care for young children and their families.
ECE has a long and unique history in the United States. Those who support the field have framed its need in numerous ways. Current advocates argue that ECE is a necessity for families in which the primary caregiver works outside the home, is a smart investment of public resources, or is a basic right for all children. Those who oppose its expansion contend that the government agencies should not be involved in child rearing, should not pay for additional social services, or should implement policies that encourage families to stay at home and take care of their children. Either way, the battle over ECE boils down to how stakeholders perceive the role of government agencies in financing the care and education of young children, and thus the debate will continue as long as there are children and families who need or desire out-of-home care.
Christopher P. Brown
- Beatty, Barbara, Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
- Cryer, Debby, and Richard M. Cliff ord, eds., Early Education and Care in the USA. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing, 2003.
- Farquhar, Sandy, and Peter Fitzsimmons, eds., Philosophy of Early Childhood Education: Transforming Narratives. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
- Fuller, Bruce, et al., Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle over Early Education. Stanford. CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.
- Goffi n, Stacie G., and Valora Washington, Ready or Not: Leadership Choices in Early Care and Education. New York: Teachers College Press, 2007.
- Michel, Sonya, Children’s Interests/Mothers’ Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child Care Policy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.
- Reynolds, A. J., S. Ou, and J. Topitzes, “Paths of Effects of Early Childhood Intervention on Educational Attainment and Delinquency: A Confirmatory Analysis of the Chicago Child-Parent Centers.” Child Development 75 (2004): 1299–1328.
- Siegel, Charles, What’s Wrong with Day Care? Freeing Parents To Raise Their Own Children. New York: Teachers College Press, 2000.