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Lesson 4.1

Yes, Early Childhood Education Matters

America would be more equal, with this one change.

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Some children fall behind in school. But many start behind, especially kids from less-advantaged families.

There are no magic answers in education, but considerable evidence suggests that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Achievement gaps start early. Why not head them off before they happen?

Ed100 Chapter Four explores on the role of time in education. This lesson, the first of the chapter, focuses on the role of timing — specifically preschool and kindergarten education. California struggled for decades to get serious about early learning. There are reasons for optimism.

Today, most babies live

In the early days of public education in America, early education wasn't a top priority for many reasons, starting with the fact that nearly half of children died before age five. As recently as 1920, the childhood mortality rate approached 20%. The institutions of public education took shape at a time when most children were cared for by their family until they had the ability to walk themselves to school.

Today, the vast majority of children live, protected by vaccines against childhood diseases. In most developed countries and US states, about 996 out of every thousand children live to at least age five. It makes sense for early childhood to be about learning, not just survival.

Early learning starts at birth

Children are born learners, and those with the opportunity to attend a good preschool begin their life with significant advantages. According to one Stanford study, a language gap between rich and poor children begins in infancy. Stanford psychologists found that 2-year-old children of lower-income families may already be six months behind in language development. K-12 educators can’t do much about this — for them, California’s large achievement gaps come to them as a pre-existing condition.

To head off gaps from the start, it helps to prepare new parents for their role as their child's first teacher. Nurse-Family Partnership programs begin even before birth, working with new mothers. Nurse home visiting programs support families with medical, parenting and family education to give children a strong start.

Achievement gaps start early

Persistent gaps in academic achievement show up prominently in standardized tests. Researchers have demonstrated that these patterns can be spotted very early. According to a high-profile study by the Getting Down to Facts II research effort (GDTFII), California’s achievement gap, one of the biggest in the nation, is not due to failures in K-12 education. Rather, it exists because of “the disproportionate achievement gap when children enter kindergarten.”

Where did the term kindergarten come from?

The first systematic movement for early childhood education began in Germany, where it was called kindergarten. The term stuck. Elizabeth Peabody is generally credited for establishing America’s first public kindergarten in Boston in the 1860’s. She was inspired by a private German school in Wisconsin led by Margarethe Schurz. As mandatory public education took root throughout the U.S. states in the 1910’s, many included a kindergarten program as an optional extension of elementary school. (See Ed100 Lesson 1.7 for more about the history of public education.)

What does kindergarten mean now?

Kindergarten in California generally refers to education for five-year-old children. Though not mandatory, it is provided for free, and an analysis by the California Kindergarten Association estimated that about 93-97% of children enroll in it, whether in a public or private school. The most recent credible estimate (2017) suggests that about 70% of California's kindergarten students attend a full-day program, about 5.6 hours in duration. The other 30% attend a part-day program, about 3.5 hours in duration, shorter than most pre-school programs. Bills to make kindergarten mandatory for all children at age five and full-length were vetoed in 2022.

Is Pre-K education a good investment?

Every dollar invested in high-quality early learning programs can save $7 later on.

A wealth of evidence supports the value of universal early education. Estimates of the long-term return on investment from preschool programs range from a low of 200%-400% (based on a meta-analysis of multiple studies) to 700% or more. Students provided early education are more likely to graduate from high school and college. They are more likely to attend school consistently and less likely to have to repeat a grade of school. They are better socialized in school and less apt to fail.

In addition to the educational and social benefits for children, early education programs also free up time for parents to earn, learn, or make other choices.

How does America invest in early education?

Education and care for children are not mentioned in the Constitution, so they are a function of the states. Some states invest more in the education and well-being of young children, and others invest less.

The federal government provides some support for early education and child care providers, partly through the Head Start program. Federal funds for early education often are structured as block grants that help coax states to take action. Funding for federal grants must be passed by Congress, which can be fickle. In a 2021 report on the economics of child care, the US Treasury reported on the costs, burdens, and benefits of child care and early child education. (The report was issued in the context of the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better plan.)

Early education has received sporadic federal funding in times of crisis. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Congress provided significant funding for early education on a temporary basis, with bipartisan support. In 2023, this consensus was insufficient to overcome partisan filibusters over the national debt ceiling, leaving thousands of early education providers underfunded.

How does California compare to other states in early education?

Lacking clear federal leadership, states vary widely in their implementation of public education for children prior to kindergarten:

California has struggled for a policy consensus about the best approach to providing more supervised time for children. Is it better to fund more time for early learning or more after-school program time? In California, this choice was personified by two successive governors. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who served 2003-2011, won the office after successfully campaigning for an initiative that funded after-school programs. Under his successor, Jerry Brown, the state pivoted toward early learning. During Brown's administration, California took significant steps toward making education for four-year-olds part of the state's public education system under the name Transitional Kindergarten (TK).

Gavin Newsom, who succeeded Brown, committed to expand and accelerate the rollout of TK:

“California is making a big commitment, and that’s making Transitional Kindergarten accessible and free to all 4 year old kids. That means every child can learn in a nurturing environment with small class sizes to give our young learners the attention they deserve. And when we’re finished with this expansion, California will have the single largest free preschool program in the country, serving nearly 400,000 children.”
Governor Gavin Newsom, Jan 4, 2023

A big little increase

To implement a TK program safely and effectively requires staffing, facilities, transportation arrangements, community confidence and leadership. It doesn't just happen. To make transitional kindergarten universally available in California will probably take years, with gaps in availabity and quality. Inevitably, some will complain about the expense of adding a year to the school system. It's useful to keep the context in mind: extending the 13-year K-12 system to a 14th year is an increase of less than 8%.

When fully implemented, it is reasonable to expect that TK will bring California's education system a bit closer to matching the best practices of the world's developed nations, which are way ahead in this area.

Which countries invest in early education?

Virtually all developed nations provide universal preschool for 4 year olds. Most provide it for 3 year olds, too.

The short answer: virtually all of them.

Because the benefits of universal early education are massive, most of the world’s developed economies provide universal public education starting by age three. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD): “Once children reach the age of 3, early childhood education and care is the norm in the vast majority of OECD countries, with an average enrollment rate of 74%.”

Is preschool a magic answer?

Of course not. Preschool belongs on the long list of things-that-are-not-magic. Educating kids is hard, and there are always ways to mess it up in implementation.

But the cumulative evidence is awfully persuasive. For example, it would make sense for the academic benefits of preschool to kind of wash out over time, making it hard to detect by, say, seventh grade. It isn't. More than a generation's worth of skeptical research on early education suggests that learning is cumulative. Like a snowball on a roll, knowledge and skills tend to grow faster than they melt.

Early education isn't magic — but investing in it is good policy. Failing to provide universal early education is harmful, and tends to have unequal impacts.

Pre-TK teachers in poverty

The quality of early learning programs depends on the support and preparation of the people who work in them. But early childhood care workers are among the lowest-paid workforce in the country. Nearly half of child care workers are in households that participate in at least one public assistance program, such as Medicaid or CalFresh (food stamps). The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley finds that policies in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. “shortchange the two million early educators who are shaping the future of 12 million children in childcare and preschool…” California is not an exception.

Updated November 2023


Which ONE of the following statements is TRUE?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 6, 2023 at 3:40 pm
Assessing Transitional Kindergarten’s Impact on Elementary School Trajectories
Public Policy Institute Report Oct. 2023
Pre-expansion TK led to earlier identification of English Learner (EL) students and students with special education needs.

Evidence suggests positive social-emotional learning (SEL) outcomes, but only for English- only students

TK does not appear to improve grade 3 and 4 test scores more than other pre-kindergarten options.

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 13, 2023 at 12:21 pm
Writing for the LA Times, Jenny Gold examines the voucher system that pays for the care of more than 290,000 California kids in low-income families. An estimated 19% of child care workers live below the poverty line. Gold's reporting draws significantly on a report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 4, 2022 at 1:35 pm
Early Education/Kindergarten Facilities

The state 2022-23 Budget includes $100 million one-time General Fund with 2021-22 funds and $550 million in 2023-24 to support the California Preschool, Transitional Kindergarten and Full-Day Kindergarten Facilities Grant Program.

This program’s grant funds may be used to construct new school facilities or retrofit existing school facilities for the purpose of providing transitional kindergarten, full-day kindergarten, or preschool classrooms.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 3, 2022 at 9:08 pm
Transitional Kindergarten

The state 2022-23 Budget provides $614 million beginning in the 2022-23 school year to support the first year of expanded eligibility for transitional kindergarten, shifting from all children turning five-years-old between September 2 and December 2 to all children turning five-years-old between September 2 and February 2.

Additionally, the Budget provides $383 million to add one additional certificated or classified staff person to every transitional kindergarten class, reducing student-to-adult ratios to more closely align with the State Preschool Program.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 3, 2022 at 9:04 pm
The 2022-23 state Budget invests $475 million for students with disabilities, dual language learners, and childhood mental health

It also invests in Inclusive Early Education Expansion Program and State Preschool Family Fee Waivers.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 19, 2021 at 12:59 pm
Starting in 2022-23, funding will incrementally establish universal transitional kindergarten with full implementation by 2025-26.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 1, 2021 at 11:11 pm
Not all of California’s offer TK. The irony is that some of the gaps are in the state’s best-funded districts.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder May 3, 2021 at 10:33 am
California State PTA supports 2021 SB70 (Rubio) which would require kindergarten for all students. At present, there is no such requirement. Which means that the "all kids must go to school" enforcement process doesn't start until kids aren't showing up to first grade.
user avatar
DerekandRebeccasDad November 21, 2019 at 10:57 pm
Good lesson on reinforcing the importance of early childhood learning.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 2, 2019 at 9:07 pm
“If your school still operates an abbreviated kindergarten program, you should be concerned.”
I disagree, perhaps because I also do not agree with the definition of readiness. How are we to tell that readiness does not simply mean readiness to pass standardized tests? From a developmental standpoint, I do not believe that most kindergartners are ready for a full day program. We all want to improve schools and students’ abilities, but I fear that emotional readiness and the value of play are being lost in this race to satisfy standardized tests.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 17, 2019 at 12:11 pm
This is a sobering statement and one we should be ashamed to have to live with: "As usual, a good shortcut for figuring out what constitutes good education is to look at what happens in wealthy communities: they send their kids to enriching preschools."
user avatar
Caryn January 17, 2019 at 12:39 pm
I agree Susannah, it is sobering. The good news is, it's definitely not an endorsement of the status quo. The big point is that every child deserves a quality preschool education and California legislators (and voters!) have the power to make that happen. Which is why readers like you are incredibly important and have the ability to advocate for real change.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 17, 2019 at 12:07 pm
The ounce of prevention approach (also good for health coverage!) seems such a no-brainer but obviously in so many arenas, people including legislators and educators are short-sighted. As I was reading the snowball analogy for the cumulative effects of learning (an effective analogy I think), I wondered how the seeming loss of knowledge at the end of a long summer fits into this; I suspect the seeming loss is really loss in immediate memory as opposed to more deeply buried accumulated knowledge.
user avatar
Caryn January 17, 2019 at 12:23 pm
Hi Susannah, thanks for your comment. This is a great question you'll see addressed in Lesson 4.6. Spoiler alert--summer learning loss disproportionally affects low income children and the effects are cumulative.
user avatar
Jeff Camp August 16, 2018 at 12:25 pm
The education commission of the states (ECS) collected data about kindergarten policies in each state. California is not alone in having weak policies to provide kids in poverty with a decent start to their learning.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 8, 2018 at 1:17 pm
Scientific America reports the largest study to date of publicly funded early education program shows a major, sustained educational boost.

Read the report.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 7, 2017 at 10:48 am
A new report from RAND finds even more evidence of the importance of early learning.
"Investing Early: Taking Stock of Outcomes and Economic Returns from Early Childhood Programs "

"With this expanded evidence base, policymakers can be highly confident that well-designed and -implemented early childhood programs can improve the lives of children and their families."
user avatar
Lisette October 3, 2017 at 4:23 pm
I definitely believe Preschool is important for our children to develop the social skills necessary as they embark in school the following year.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 19, 2017 at 3:02 pm
What choice should you make if you don't have enough money for universal pre-K? A 2017 study from Brookings suggests "that if limited resources rule out a universal program, then the best strategy may be to target pre-K services to disadvantaged communities rather than to disadvantaged children."

Weighing the benefits and costs of universal versus targeted pre-k programs
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 1, 2017 at 11:28 am
A new study on transitional kindergarten contains good news.
It found that TK Improves academic skills and engagement at kindergarten entry. More specifically, "The study found that TK gives students an advantage at kindergarten entry on all academic skills assessed. TK students outperformed comparison students on early literacy and language skills, including letter and word identification, phonological awareness, and expressive vocabulary, as well as mathematics skills such as problem solving and knowledge of mathematical concepts and symbols."

Read the report:

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 28, 2017 at 3:54 pm
California's school finance system creates a financial disincentive for school districts to offer a full Kindergarten program, so many schools still offer Kindergarteners a program of only three hours' duration. As EdSource documents, it's a money issue.
user avatar
rbrooks January 31, 2017 at 3:13 pm
There is a HUGE difference in the kids who have been in preschool and those who have not, thus making the Kinder teacher's job that much harder as she is almost teaching two different grade levels.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 27, 2016 at 3:57 pm
New research shows more benefits from investing in high quality early childhood education for at risk children: boosting long term upward mobility. You can find more from Edsource:
Read the report:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 28, 2016 at 12:28 pm
A 2016 study finds that school "readiness gaps" for new kindergarteners have narrowed modestly between high- and low-income students and between White and Hispanic students. Among the factors:
* Information campaigns about the importance of early learning
* Pre-school enrollment
* Publicly funder health insurance.

Read the article:
Link to the full study:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 20, 2016 at 9:41 am
Report on Early Childhood Learning:
High-Quality Early Learning Settings Depend on a High-Quality Workforce
Low Compensation Undermines Quality
"According to the National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE), 97 percent of center-based early childhood teaching staff are women – many of whom earn such low wages that they qualify for public benefits. (Center-based care includes school- based care, Head Start programs, and child care centers).
These low wages undermine their ability to provide for their own families, as well as their ability to provide children with the high-quality early learning experiences they need to excel in school and in life."
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 12, 2016 at 5:02 pm
A national study comparing early learning throughout the nation finds that California is behind other states.
Read the the highlights in EdSource:
Read the report:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 10, 2016 at 2:25 pm
New Efforts to Support Early Learning
There is a lot of support for expanding early learning. Read our blog to find out more...
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 10, 2016 at 2:22 pm
A Good Beginning–Growing Public Support for Early Education
A recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California indicates an overwhelming majority (68%) of Californians see pre-school as important to K-12 success.
Read more in our blog about efforts to increase support for early learning.
user avatar
Albert Stroberg May 1, 2016 at 7:09 pm
Parents. Why don't we teach the parents how to educate their kids?
Starting Day 1 , engage the kids in speech, conversation, activities, shared experiences. We know kids from parents with graduate degrees have thousands of more words by the start of school than HS grad parents and that gap is rarely closed. And after the first kid through the parent ed system, the second & others are "free"- requiring no further cost by the public sector. Pre School is too late.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 23, 2016 at 3:56 pm
More than 33,000 California 4 year olds from low-income families are not enrolled in any of the publicly-funded school readiness program for which they are eligible, according to new policy brief Unmet Need for Preschool Services in California: Statewide and Local Analysis by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).
AIR’s findings show that approximately 137,000 3 year olds are not enrolled. The report also includes a snapshot at the county and zip code level from 2014 showing where the unmet need for preschool is most acute.
The policy brief follows the introduction of the Quality Early Education and Development Act of 2016 – AB 2660 (McCarty), which aims to establish a plan and a timeline for California to provide quality preschool opportunities to all children from low-income families.
Find out more:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 23, 2016 at 3:05 pm
The Right Start Commission's new report, "Rebuilding the California Dream", recommends ways to address the challenges facing California's youngest kids.
Read it here:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 16, 2016 at 12:31 pm
What Makes a Good Early Childhood Education Program?
Ten Building Blocks that Matter
Drawing on a substantial body of research, the Learning Policy Institute recently published The Building Blocks of High-Quality Early Childhood Education Programs. This brief identifies 10 important elements, or building blocks, of high-quality early childhood education programs as indicated by research and professional standards.
Here is the link:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 8, 2016 at 4:36 pm
Finally...early education is a hot education topic in Sacramento.
Catch this video seminar on Improving Quality in California's Early Childhood Education System: New Research and Implications for Policy.
The conference was co-sponsored by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) and Early Edge California
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 5, 2015 at 10:56 am
What is the impact of Transitional Kindergarten (TK)?
Here is some research from the American Institutes for Research (AIR):
Their study found that students who attended TK were significantly better able to identify letters and words at the start of kindergarten compared to their peers who did not attend. TK graduates also outperformed their peers on measures of mathematics knowledge and skills, including mathematics problem-solving skills such as counting objects and understanding measurement.
Link to full report:
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 13, 2015 at 12:59 pm
In October 2015 Gov. Brown vetoed a bill that would have set a date to expand access to preschool to all four-year-olds in low-income households. Context for the veto and response from Early Edge California: Additional context in reporting from Deepa Fernandez of KPCC
user avatar
aimeef23 April 27, 2015 at 4:18 pm
Our district offers Preppy-K classes (their term for Pre-K) at 5 of their elementary schools. You must be 5 to enroll and for those students it is like a 2 year kinder program. In working in multiple kinder classrooms I have noticed how the students who went through this Preppy-K class are much more ahead then the those students that did not. Preschool is an amazing starting block for children and should be a part of all children's education.
user avatar
Janet L. April 20, 2015 at 6:27 pm
8 of the 17 schools in our district have preschool on campus. The cost is significantly reduced (I believe in some cases free) for low-income families. If we had more affordable preschool options, our low-income families would be able to take advantage. My own children have attended one of the most affordable preschools in the area and even with a "six figure income" in our family, we struggle to afford it. Early education is essential to *preventing* the achievement gap we try so hard to close.
Another important factor though is educating parents on WHY early education is so important. Just telling the families that it's free or affordable is not necessarily going to motivate them to enroll.
user avatar
ms April 11, 2015 at 11:58 pm
Thought provoking article!
user avatar
Tara Massengill February 8, 2015 at 11:56 am
My husband is in the Navy, and I am a homemaker. When I went to register our son for pre-K, I was told that we make too much money for him to go to the state-funded pre-K here in San Diego. Our son has an IEP for speech therapy, but that didn't matter. California needs to make public pre-K more accessible. We made too much money to qualify for free pre-K, but not enough to pay for the wildly expensive private pre-K. Our daughter got to go to pre-K for free in Plano, Texas simply because her dad is an active duty service member.
user avatar
Paul Muench January 14, 2015 at 9:03 pm
Is what wealthy people do really such a good indicator of what's good for children? Maybe they are too busy to take care of their own children. And out of guilt they overspend on things that don't really help children. Is anything known about this?
user avatar
Carol Kocivar - Ed100 December 4, 2014 at 12:10 pm
With greater discussion at the state and national level on the importance of early childhood education, a new report highlights how we pay those who work in this field.
"... (A)s was true in 1989, childcare workers still earn less than adults who take care of animals,and barely more than fast food cooks."
Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages: The Childhood Workforce 25 Years after the National Child Care Staffing Study
user avatar
ted lempert April 5, 2011 at 4:13 pm
Increasing access to high-quality preschool is an essential element of education reform. We must also focus on early learning and development opportunities for California's infants and toddlers, as research shows gaps in learning as early as 9 months. Connecting children's early education experiences to their K-12 education is critical to supporting their long-term sucess. One example of how we can better align early learning and K-12 systems: utilizing data from kindergarten readiness observation assessments (KROA) to support children as they transition into kindergarten and move through the early elementary years.
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