Andrews, S. P., & Slate, J. R. (2001, May 17). Prekindergarten programs: a review of the literature. Current Issues in Education [On-line], 4 (5). Available: http://cie.ed.asu.edu/volume4/number5/.
Prekindergarten Programs: A Review of the Literature
With the increased interest in early childhood educational experiences, an examination of early childhood educational experiences such as prekindergarten programs is needed. In this review article, we investigated the following areas: historical background of early childhood education; public and private prekindergarten program development; comparisons of public school and private prekindergarten programs, the public school prekindergarten sponsorship debate; characteristics of quality prekindergarten programs; educational benefits of prekindergarten programs; cost-benefits of prekindergarten programs; and, readiness for kindergarten. Information regarding characteristics of quality early childhood programs is provided as well as evidence concerning the effects of such programs.
Table of Contents
During the past two decades, public interest and investment in quality early childhood education programs have flourished. In 1993, approximately $1 billion in federal funding was authorized by legislation for family support and preservation programs (Gomby, Larner, Stevenson, Lewit, & Behrman, 1995). Funding for Project Head Start, a federally funded preschool program for disadvantaged children, increased from $404 million in 1974 to $3.3 billion in 1994 (Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, Administration for Children and Families, 1995). Additionally, the federal government spent close to $1.8 billion in 1993 to help children from low-income families attend child care programs (U. S. General Accounting Office, 1995) and another $2.5 billion in tax credits to help families of all income levels purchase child care (Gold & Ellwood, 1994).
At the state level, prekindergarten programs in 1987 were subsidized by state or local funds in 27 states. For purposes of this article, the term prekindergarten is used to refer to a program that is an educational program for four-year-old children prior to their entrance in kindergarten (Morrison, 1991). Programs for children considered to be at risk had been implemented in 20 states and 7 states had programs open to all children who met age eligibility requirements (Mitchell, Seligson, & Marx, 1989). Two years later in 1989, 31 states had prekindergarten programs supported by state funds (Mitchell, 1989), and, by the 1991-1992 school year, 32 states had invested approximately $665 million in prekindergarten programs in which approximately 290,000 children received services (Adams & Sandfort, 1994).
Millions of families and children each year are assisted by these programs and other federally and state-funded programs. In fact, organizations such as the National Governors' Association, the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), and the National Commission on Children have asked for additional investment in early childhood programs because researchers have found that early childhood programs provide long-term cognitive and social benefits to children (Gomby et al., 1995). Moreover, members of the National Governors' Association identified preschool education as a key investment by state governments in education (Mitchell et al., 1989).
As part of this identification process, the National Governors' Association, along with then President George Bush, held an Education Summit fall, 1989, during which six national education goals were established. The goals, referred to as America 2000, were: (a) all children in America will start school ready to learn; (b) the high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent; (c) American students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in English, mathematics, science, history, and geography; (d) American students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement; (e) every adult American will be literate; and (f) every school in America will be free of drugs and violence (Reed & Bergemann, 1992). In 1994, these goals, as well as two additional goals relating to teacher education and parental participation, became known as Goals 2000: Educate America Act (Reed, Bergemann, & Olson, 1998). With the school readiness goal being placed first in the list of Goals 2000, renewed interest in and national attention to early childhood programs increased, and the importance of school readiness was established.
Previously, interest in school readiness was evident with the establishment of programs related to the preparation of children for formal schooling and the education of children who were at risk for dropping out of school. For example, during the War on Poverty in the 1960s, programs such as Project Head Start (Spring, 1994) and the Ypsilanti, Michigan Perry Preschool Project (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1993) received national attention. Similar to Project Head Start, the Perry Preschool Project was developed to raise the achievement levels of preschool-age children and to close the achievement and economic gap between children of low-income and middle-income families (Urban Strategies Council, 1988).
Although interest in school readiness was present in the past, the issue has become an important educational topic of much discussion and debate over the last several years (Gredler, 1992). Much of the recent interest in school readiness has been focused on children's readiness levels upon entrance into kindergarten and has been based on an understanding of current circumstances of children's lives (Kagan, 1992; Meisels, 1992). Factors such as poverty, health issues, prenatal care, and access to quality prekindergarten programs are related to children's readiness for school (Southern Regional Education Board [SREB], 1992), with poverty and economic instability being two of the most powerful predictors of children's lack of success in school (National Governors' Association, 1992). In fact, members of the National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC] (1990) believed educators should reject the idea that readiness is something children must possess when they enter school. Instead, a commitment to promote universal school readiness should be made by addressing the inequities in the early life experiences of children so all children have access to opportunities that promote educational success. Here the NAEYC position is that the onus is on schools to be ready for students and not on students to be ready for schools.
Of vital concern to educators is the placement of preschool-age children in healthy and positive learning environments before they begin school (Van Zant & Camozzi, 1992). Paul (1995) purported that quality early childhood programs should be our nation's number one priority. He believed these programs would do more to counteract economic and ethnic group differences relating to student outcomes than any other changes that would occur in American education. Paul's beliefs were supported by findings from a study conducted by Schweinhart, Barnes, and Weikart (1993). They concluded that children who attended a quality prekindergarten program had higher earnings and fewer criminal arrests at age 27 than children with no prekindergarten experience. Barnett (1995) reported that high quality prekindergarten programs have been found to have long-term cognitive benefits for children, as well. For example, children who attended quality prekindergarten programs were less likely to be retained or placed in special education classes than children who had not attended a prekindergarten program (Barnett, 1995; The Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, 1983).
In addition to educational benefits for children who attend quality prekindergarten programs, cost-benefits have also been reported. Lewis (1993) stated that for every dollar invested in a high quality prekindergarten program, $7.16 is saved. For example, dollars invested in quality prekindergarten programs help children succeed later in life; this ends up saving society money by reducing social expenditures for welfare, prison, and unemployment (Futrell, 1987). In relation to these findings, members of the American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth (1993) believed quality prekindergarten programs can play a significant role in preventing violence because the programs can help build the foundation of children's attitudes, knowledge, and behavior related to aggression.
Legislators and business leaders maintain that high quality early education for all children is a needed investment and not an expense (Strother, 1987). Accordingly, Adams and Sandfort (1994) believed the first goal of Goals 2000 concerning school readiness will not be achieved unless all children have access to high quality prekindergarten and child care programs. Such programs are critical in providing a foundation for later learning and in preparing children to enter the future workforce (Smith, Fairchild, & Groginsky, 1995).
With the large increase in the number of prekindergarten programs, concerns about providing quality programs have increased. Criteria for quality prekindergarten programs have been established by the NAEYC (1986), the Southern Association on Children Under Six [SACUS] (1986), and the National Conference of State Legislatures (Smith et al., 1995). Appropriate class size, comprehensive services, low teacher/child ratios, parent involvement, developmentally appropriate practices, and qualified teachers are characteristics considered essential in developing and implementing quality prekindergarten programs (Cummings, 1991; Day & Thomas, 1988; Mitchell, 1989; Morado, 1986; Schweinhart, 1988). In regard to comprehensive services, Weikart (1989) recommended that comprehensive services be clearly linked to health, nutrition, and social support services. Also, Weikart believed administrative support was essential in providing high quality prekindergarten programs.
Early childhood education, prekindergarten programs, and school readiness are areas of concern in education that have been important to the educational community for a number of years. However, not since the 1960s and the creation of Project Head Start has so much emphasis been placed on these educational issues (Kagan, 1987). With the introduction of America 2000 in 1989 and Goals 2000 in 1994, which included eight national education goals, increased emphasis has been placed on the topic of early childhood education.
The first of the national goals, that all children in America will start school ready to learn by the year 2000 (Parkay & Stanford, 1995), focused public attention on the quality of our nation's educational system and early childhood education programs for four- and five-year-old children. As evidence of the first goal's importance, in a survey conducted by Elam, Rose, and Gallup (1993), respondents were asked how high a priority the first national education goal should have for the remainder of the decade. Of the respondents, 41% assigned very high priority and 48% assigned high priority to the first national education goal. Within this review of literature, the following topics will be discussed: history of early childhood education in America, public and private prekindergarten program development, comparisons of public school and private prekindergarten programs, the public school prekindergarten sponsorship debate, characteristics of quality prekindergarten programs, educational benefits of prekindergarten programs, cost-benefits of prekindergarten programs, and readiness for kindergarten. A summary will conclude this section.
History of Early Childhood Education in America
Historically, young children in America have always been provided opportunities to participate in educational programs. During the colonial era, 1620-1750, families sent their very young children to school if schools were available. The Puritans believed children should learn to read the Bible as soon as possible; therefore, children were taught to read when they were three or four years of age (Spodek, 1988). Young children often attended dame schools where women would teach reading and writing in their homes. Readers should note that typically children from more affluent circumstances were more likely to attend these dame schools than were children from less affluent circumstances. When district schools were established for older children, many parents sent their younger children to these schools along with their older children (McGill-Franzen, 1993). In fact, differences in the education of young children and the education of older children did not exist during this time (Spodek & Saracho, 1994).
Changes regarding differences in how younger and older children were educated were made at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the development of teaching methods appropriate for children in their early years. Public and private schooling were offered to very young children during this time. Primary schools, also known as common schools, were public schools established to provide instruction in the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Young children were often enrolled in primary schools, learned to read at age three or four, and began Latin instruction at age five or six. Interestingly, in 1826, 5% of all children enrolled in public schools were below four years of age (Spodek & Saracho, 1994). Readers should again note that the children who went to these schools were typically from more affluent circumstances than children who did not attend these schools.
According to Mitchell et al. (1989), the history of early childhood education in the United States is generally believed to have begun in Boston in 1828 with the opening of the Boston Infant School, considered the country's first day care center. This day care center accepted children between the ages of 18 months and 4 years of age. Two purposes of the Boston Infant School were to enable mothers to work and to provide a more appropriate setting for children other than their home setting with emphasis being placed on the importance of children's early years before the age of 6. The Boston Infant School, as well as other infant schools, was modeled after infant schools in Scotland developed by Robert Owen, a Welsh educator. Infant schools established in Scotland were for children 2 to 6 years of age whose mothers worked in factories. While the mothers were working, children received moral and literary instruction (Spodek & Saracho, 1994).
Another type of school for young children was the day nursery. The first day nursery for children ages six weeks to six years opened in New York in 1854 and was affiliated with New York Hospital. This day nursery was established for children of poor women and the focus of the program was hygiene and custodial care of the children who attended the program. In addition to providing custodial care for young children, in most day nurseries, mothers of children enrolled in the program were taught parenting skills and were provided employment services. Eventually, the day nursery at New York Hospital became the model on which today's nursery schools are based (Mitchell et al., 1989).
Expansion of day nurseries took place throughout the nineteenth century, especially during the 1880s and 1890s when many European immigrants were arriving in America. By 1898, 175 day nurseries were in existence. However, around 1900, the number of day nurseries began to decline due to changes in societal perceptions of the appropriate maternal role, poverty, and the role of government in social welfare (Mitchell et al., 1989).
During the time day nurseries were being established, the first kindergartens were established with the first kindergarten for English speaking children opening in Boston in 1860. Tuition for kindergarten was high compared to fees for the day nurseries, resulting in kindergarten programs being geared to children of educated, well-to-do families. However, in 1870, the Boston, Massachusetts school board opened a tuition-free, experimental kindergarten for children between four and six years of age in one of the public schools. A second, tuition-free public kindergarten opened in Brighton, Massachusetts in 1873 (Mitchell et al., 1989).
Kindergarten programs were based on the works of Friedrich Froebel, a philosopher and educator, who developed kindergarten programs in Germany. The educational philosophy of kindergarten programs, based upon a religious philosophy of the unity of nature, God, and humanity, distinguished it from other programs for young children (Spodek & Saracho, 1994). Froebel's philosophical ideas were that childhood was not just a transition toward adulthood and a child's play was not merely a preparation for adult life. Thus, kindergarten programs included activities for self-development and socialization of children conducted through songs, stories, and games (Reed & Bergemann, 1992).
The initial expansion of kindergarten in the Massachusetts region continued in the St. Louis Public school system with the opening of experimental classrooms in 1873 (Mitchell et al., 1989). By 1880, 400 kindergartens had been established in 30 states. Although advocates of kindergartens were divided on the issue of whether preparation for the academic work of first grade should be stressed or whether an emphasis should be placed on the moral, emotional, physical, and social development of children (a continuing debate today), kindergartens had become a major force in American education by 1900 (Parkay & Stanford, 1995). By the turn of the century, over half of all kindergartens in the United States were operated by public school systems (Kahn & Kamerman, 1987).
In addition to kindergartens, during the latter part of the nineteenth century other educational programs were being offered to young children. John Dewey established a Laboratory School at the University of Chicago in 1896. This school opened with 2 instructors and 16 students. By 1902, 140 students ranging in age from 4 to 14 were enrolled in the program. The philosophy of the Chicago Laboratory School was based on the idea that children learned from their experiences and acquired skills as they were needed. Therefore, the curriculum at the Chicago Laboratory School was child-centered and was organized to correspond with each child's experiences (Parkay & Stanford, 1995).
A second type of educational program offered to young children at the turn of the century was the nursery school. The first nursery school was organized by a group of faculty wives at the University of Chicago in 1915 to provide socialization and play activities for their children (Mitchell et al., 1989). Other nursery school programs were established during the nursery school movement in the 1920s and were directed toward the cognitive enrichment of upper- and middle-class children. Children attended nursery schools because experiences were considered beneficial for their social and educational development (Condry, 1983; McGill-Franzen, 1993). Most nursery school programs differed from previously existing programs for young children because they were half-day programs rather than full-day programs (Grubb, 1991).
For the next two decades the nursery school movement spread throughout the United States. By 1931, 203 nursery schools were in existence. Approximately half of these nursery schools were affiliated with colleges and universities, a third of the nursery schools were private, and a fifth of the nursery schools were part of child welfare agencies (Spodek & Saracho, 1994). Some earlier nursery schools were established at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Merrill Palmer School of Motherhood and Home Training. Also, a small number of nursery schools were established within public school systems (Condry, 1983). All nursery schools were concerned with educating children (Spodek & Saracho, 1994) and similar to kindergartens, nursery schools became associated with the American education system (McGill-Franzen, 1993).
The Montessori program was another educational program offered to young children during the time of the nursery school movement. Development of Montessori schools began in the United States in the 1920s and was based on the works of Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician. Dr. Montessori began her career working primarily with children with mental disabilities. Eventually, she moved from working with children with mental retardation to the development of an education program for children who lived in the slums of Rome. She emphasized sensory education for young children and identified sensitive periods of instruction in the development of children. The sensitive periods were seen as periods in the development of children when children are more receptive to particular kinds of learning than they are at other times (Spodek & Saracho, 1994).
Montessori schools were established in several communities in the United States in the 1920s and were for children between three and five years of age. During the 1930s and 1940s, most Montessori schools either closed or became nursery schools. A resurgence of Montessori education occurred in the 1960s when Montessori schools were reestablished, and Montessori training programs for teachers were developed (Spodek & Saracho, 1994).
During the 1950s, another type of nursery school, known as parent-cooperative nursery schools, was established. The development of parent-cooperative nursery schools was supported by parents who wanted to have access to a high quality nursery school education at a reasonable cost for their preschool-age children. Adult classes and parent meetings relating to child development and child-rearing practices were also part of the program. Parents owned the parent-cooperative nursery schools and participated in the administration of the program (Spodek & Saracho, 1994).
According to Spodek and Saracho (1994), the nursery school movement continued to develop slowly until the mid-1960s when the federal government became involved in providing preschool education for children from low-income families. Prekindergarten programs for disadvantaged children were provided through the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 which were part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. The acts were designed to bridge the gap between poverty and prosperity and provide individuals with opportunities for education and training for work. Project Head Start began at this time and signaled a major change in early childhood education in the United States (Spodek & Saracho, 1994). Head Start, which evolved as a result of the Community Action Programs of EOA, was a comprehensive child development program for four- and five-year-old children from low-income families. With this program, the mental, physical, and intellectual development of children in poverty was addressed (Reed & Bergemann, 1992).
In addition to these influences, special education legislation has strongly affected early childhood education. In 1986 with the passage of Public Law 99-457, a mandate existed for free and appropriate public education for preschool children, ages 3 through 5, with disabilities. In 1991 this law was reauthorized and extended through Public Law 102-119. Through these legislative acts, states were now required to provide services to young children with disabilities.
In summary, early childhood education in America today has been influenced by all of the previously mentioned early childhood programs. Kindergarten has become part of the normal school experience for the vast majority of children with 98% of all children attending kindergarten prior to first grade (Zill, Collins, West, & Hausken, 1995). Also, early childhood programs for children below kindergarten age have increased substantially. The greatest growth of the programs has occurred in child care programs for children who need full-day care services. In fact, over the last three decades the percentage of children three and four years of age enrolled in nursery schools increased from approximately 11% to 48% (Robinson, 1997). Furthermore, an increasing number of preschool-age children who are considered at risk and children from diverse language and cultural backgrounds are being served by prekindergarten programs (Spodek & Saracho, 1994).
Public and Private Prekindergarten Program Development
Historically, prekindergarten programs in America have been supported by both private and federal funds. Federally supported prekindergarten programs were established to help poor families, unemployed parents, working parents, and disadvantaged children (Karweit, 1988). According to Zigler and Styfco (1994), federal funds for prekindergarten programs increased in 1964 when the EOA was passed, the War on Poverty began, and Project Head Start was developed. The federal cost for each child enrolled in a Head Start program in 1994 was $4,345 with appropriated funds for the 1995 fiscal year of $3.5 billion. Federal funds appropriated for Head Start programs were used for 80% of the cost of operations and the other 20% of costs were provided by state and local funding (The Future of Children, 1995). Head Start programs have been provided for 14,594,000 children since the program began in 1965 (Zigler & Styfco, 1994).
Although federal funding of prekindergarten programs increased with the passing of the EOA, the majority of prekindergarten programs were operated by private agencies. These private prekindergarten programs, which have been in existence since 1922 (Hymes, 1988), were established for Caucasian children from high-income families whose mothers were not in the workforce (Karweit, 1988). The purposes of private programs were to provide educational enrichment and socialization for children, not to free mothers to enter the workforce (McGill-Franzen, 1993; Williams & Fromberg, 1992).
Enrollment for both public and private prekindergarten programs has increased substantially over the last three decades. In 1964, approximately 15% of all four-year-old children attended prekindergarten programs. From 1970 to 1983, public and private prekindergarten enrollment increased from approximately 4.3 million children to 5.7 million children despite a decline in the population of three- to five-year-old children during this time period (Karweit, 1988). Prekindergarten enrollment for children three and four years of age increased from 10.6% in 1965 to 48.7% in 1995 (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 1996).
Nationally, almost half of all four-year-old children were enrolled in a prekindergarten program in 1986 (Stern & Williams, 1986). In 1995, approximately 61% of the nation's four-year-old children were enrolled in public and private prekindergarten programs (NCES, 1997). The greatest attendance growth of prekindergarten programs occurred between 1975 and 1984 in private programs (Karweit, 1988). Mitchell et al. (1989) believed the growth in private prekindergarten enrollment may have been related to family income; the higher the income of the family, the more likely the child attended a private prekindergarten program. Also, Mitchell et al. reported that more children from high-income families may have been enrolled in private programs than children from low-income families because during this time public school program enrollment was limited to children from low-income families.
Attendance for public school prekindergarten programs increased, as well. The number of children enrolled in public school prekindergarten programs increased from 25% in 1965 to 37% in 1988 (Karweit, 1988). Increase in enrollment in public school settings resulted from the development of state-supported public school programs created for at risk children and for children who were not enrolled in Head Start (Karweit, 1988; Zigler & Styfco, 1994).
With the increase in the number of prekindergarten programs and because approximately twice as many prekindergarten programs in the late 1980s were private programs rather than public programs, regulation to determine quality of the private programs became a problem. One of the problems concerned staffing. A majority of teachers in private programs lacked the early childhood training required of public school teachers. In fact, the majority of prekindergarten teachers in private programs were considered to be child care givers rather than educators. This role perception affected the quality of the programs at many sites (Reed & Bergemann, 1992).
As interest in education for preschool-age children and public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs has increased, the number of states that have invested in programs to help preschool-age children succeed in school has increased, as well. States that provided education related services to preschool-age children almost tripled between 1979 and 1992. For example, in 1979, seven states had appropriated funds for prekindergarten programs in their public school systems (Mitchell, 1989). Ten states had state-funded prekindergarten programs in 1984 (Mitchell & Modigliani, 1989). In 1991-1992, 32 states had well established prekindergarten initiatives (Adams & Sandfort, 1994). Most of the states used their funding from the initiatives to either expand Head Start programs and other federally funded prekindergarten programs or to support new state prekindergarten programs. Related services, as well as prekindergarten programs, were provided for three- and four-year-old children through some of the state initiatives. Approximately half of the programs implemented had a comprehensive services component designed for at risk children and their families (Adams & Sandfort, 1994).
By the end of 1992, states were investing a total of approximately $665 million in prekindergarten programs in which services were provided to approximately 290,000 children (Adams & Sandfort, 1994). The investment in state funding initiatives for prekindergarten programs may have increased due to the support of various educational organizations. For example, organizations, such as the NAEYC, the Task Force on Early Childhood Education for the NASBE, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Committee for Economic Development (CED), and the National Governors' Association, had taken an active role in promoting prekindergarten funding initiatives (Reed & Bergemann, 1992).
Of particular interest for this study was the growth of prekindergarten programs in southern states. According to Creech (1996), a little over a decade ago only a few southern states had well developed prekindergarten programs; however, since 1989, prekindergarten program enrollment in southern states has doubled. In most southern states funding was provided for Head Start to meet the needs of three- and four-year-old disadvantaged children. The number of children enrolled in Head Start programs in southern states has increased 65% since 1991. Some southern states have added prekindergarten programs that serve at risk children and disadvantaged children who were not enrolled in Head Start programs due to limited space.
Twenty-eight southern states had state-funded programs for disadvantaged children in 1995 and in 1996, more than 300,000 children in southern states attended public school prekindergarten programs. The number of children was approximately half the children in the nation who attended state-funded prekindergarten programs in 1996 and reflected an increase of more than 50% of southern children who have attended prekindergarten programs since 1989. Despite these changes, only one child out of every five three- and four-year-old southern children was enrolled in a public school prekindergarten program in 1996 (Creech, 1996).
In a study of early childhood education trends in the United States, Day (1988) concluded that public schools that offered prekindergarten programs were subject to a limited supply of money and most existing programs had a limited number of children. Most states and public school systems with prekindergarten programs had limited enrollment for children who were considered to be at risk for school failure. The availability of programs in some of the states was limited to children of low-income families and other states had limited enrollment for children who were eligible for Head Start but were not enrolled in a Head Start program due to limited space. Also, prekindergarten programs in some states were designed for children from non-English speaking families. Based on the findings, Day indicated additional prekindergarten programs that include all children, not just those children from limited groups, were needed.
Washington (1988) reported information regarding specific states that had funded prekindergarten programs. In South Carolina funding for prekindergarten programs for four-year-old children with deficiencies in readiness for formal schooling was provided by the South Carolina Education Improvement Act of 1984. Legislation was enacted in the state of Illinois in 1985, in which authorization was given to the Illinois State Board of Education to implement and administer prekindergarten educational programs for children who were three to five years of age. Enrollment into the programs was limited to children who were considered to be at risk of school failure due to their home and community environments. Texas and Missouri had public school programs for children four years of age who were developmentally delayed, from low-income families, or had limited English speaking ability.
Other state legislators have invested monies in public schools for four-year-old children. Education commissioners in Connecticut supported public school attendance of four-year-old children by establishing public school prekindergarten programs for four-year-old children in the state. State-funded prekindergarten programs have been in place in California, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey for more than 10 years and Louisiana, Maryland, Oregon, Florida, and Maine have had state-funded prekindergarten programs since 1980 (Morado, 1986).
Funding for public school prekindergarten programs has been provided in other states, as well. State-funded prekindergarten programs in Ohio, Michigan, and Massachusetts were implemented during the 1985-1986 school year. A prekindergarten program for four-year-old children who did not meet Head Start eligibility criteria was implemented in the state of Washington in 1986 (Morado, 1986). In 1992, a voluntary statewide prekindergarten program for Georgia's four-year-old children was implemented (Adams & Sandfort, 1994).
To determine state involvement in prekindergarten programs, Robinson (1987) administered surveys to state education officials responsible for early childhood programs in their state. Robinson concluded that opportunities for four-year-old children in the nation to attend publicly funded programs were unequal. Most states that provided such programs did so only for children who were handicapped, poor, and children at risk for school failure. Respondents from 20 of the 50 states in the survey reported that publically funded programs were not available for preschool-age children in those states.
Another study to determine state and public school involvement in prekindergarten programs was conducted by Mitchell et al. (1989). The Public School Early Childhood Study, which was a two year collaborative effort of Bank Street College and the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, began in 1985 with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ford Foundation. This study was the first attempt to collect national descriptive data of public school programs for prekindergarten children.
Components of the data collection process used in the Public School Early Childhood Study consisted of three parts: state surveys, school district surveys, and case studies. The purpose of the state surveys was to gather information on early childhood programs and child care programs to obtain as complete a picture as possible of early childhood efforts in each state. School district surveys were designed to gather data on the operation of all types of public school prekindergarten programs in the nation. The purpose of the case studies was to gain an understanding of the nature of the practices of public school early childhood programs (Mitchell et al., 1989).
Based on the findings in The Public School Early Childhood Study, Mitchell et al. (1989) reported that in 1979, only seven states had funding for prekindergarten programs in their public school systems and state funds were appropriated for Head Start programs in four states. Between 1984 and 1987, 16 additional states appropriated funding for prekindergarten programs and in 3 states with existing prekindergarten programs, Florida, Michigan, and New Jersey, legislation was passed to provide funding for additional programs. The majority of expansion of public school prekindergarten programs occurred between 1985 and 1987, considered by Mitchell et al. (1989) to be peak years for educational reform.
By 1989, 31 states had appropriated monies for public school prekindergarten programs (Mitchell, 1989). Most of the programs funded were full-day, year-round programs for at risk children in local public school districts and were administered by state departments of education. Enrollment in the state-funded prekindergarten programs was usually limited to four-year-old children who were considered to be at risk of school failure, children with limited English proficiency, and children who were poor. Most states did not have direct operation of the prekindergarten programs in the state; however, state funds were made available through direct and indirect means (Mitchell et al., 1989).
Local school districts in each of the states in The Public School Early Childhood Study operated a variety of prekindergarten programs funded either by federal, state, or local sources or a combination of those sources. At the local level, some of the funding and operation of the prekindergarten programs were provided by local communities. Several cities and counties appropriated only monies for prekindergarten programs, whereas other cities and counties operated programs directly. In most of the communities, local public and private agencies and organizations were the recipients of federal and state funding, as well as local funding. Both funding and operation were provided by some of the local school districts in the communities. Approximately half the states that had state-funded prekindergarten programs required that a comprehensive development approach to instruction be used, with the remaining states either not specifying the instructional approach used or requiring the use of a cognitive approach to instruction (Mitchell et al., 1989).
Despite the increase in the number of prekindergarten programs and the educational benefits provided by such programs, especially for disadvantaged children (Gomby et al., 1995), gaps in prekindergarten participation rates in America between children of high-income families and children of low-income families still exist and have actually widened over time (National Education Goals Panel [NEGP], 1997). Accordingly, poverty is negatively associated with enrollment in early childhood programs (NCES, 1997). For example, in 1996, children from families with incomes of $75,000 or more attended prekindergarten programs at approximately twice the rate of children from families with incomes of $10,000 or less. The following year, approximately 75% of high-income American families sent their children to prekindergarten programs, whereas less than 50% of children from low-income American families were enrolled in prekindergarten programs (NEGP, 1997). Because poverty rates are much higher in the United States than in many other industrialized countries (NCES, 1997), the gap in prekindergarten program participation between high- and low-income children may continue to widen (NEGP, 1997).
In relation to family income, Fuller, Holloway, and Liang (1996) found that middle-class minority children and Caucasian children from low-income families were underrepresented in prekindergarten programs nationwide. According to Fuller et al., only 48% of middle-class African American children and 42% of middle-class Latino children attended prekindergarten programs. Approximately 55% of Caucasian children from low-income families and 75% of African American children from low-income families attended prekindergarten programs. In comparison, the attendance rate of Caucasian middle-class children was 61% and for children from high-income families the attendance rate was 80%. Furthermore, Head Start and other federally funded programs had high enrollments of minority children from low-income families.
Comparisons of Public School and Private Prekindergarten Programs
The number of studies comparing public school prekindergarten programs to private prekindergarten programs was limited, primarily because prior to 1980 few public school programs existed (Mitchell et al., 1989). In some studies, positive effects were demonstrated for children who attended public prekindergarten programs. For example, Gullo and Burton (1993) found that public school prekindergarten experiences were effective in promoting children's early school adjustment, regardless of their SES.
Results of two other studies of the effects of public school prekindergarten programs were the gains of cognitive, social, and emotional development for children. The first of the studies was of 1,077 children and their parents who participated in Project Giant Step, a half-day comprehensive, public school prekindergarten program for underprivileged children which began in 1986. Large gains in children's cognitive, social, and emotional development were reported (Reed & Bergemann, 1992).
The second study, an evaluation of a public school prekindergarten program, was conducted by Brogan (1990) to assess the merit of the prekindergarten program and to assist in the formative revision of program activities. Evaluation data were provided by classroom observations, telephone interviews with 25 parents, surveys with two elementary school teachers, and interviews with the prekindergarten staff. Results were that the cognitive, social, and emotional development of the children who attended the program was enhanced.
Research was also conducted in which academic gains of public school prekindergarten students were compared to academic gains of students with other types of prekindergarten experiences. In one of the studies, Grafwallner (1994) examined the relationship of achievement for rural students in third grade from low-income families who participated in one of five types of prekindergarten programs. The types of programs included Head Start, public school prekindergarten, private prekindergarten, day care, and family child care. Students who had attended Head Start, private prekindergarten, and public school prekindergarten programs scored consistently higher on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) than did students who had attended day care or family care programs.
Similarly, Carthum (1987) used scores obtained from the Metropolitan Readiness Test (MRT) to conduct a study of four groups of kindergarten students with different prekindergarten experiences. Kindergarten students with no prekindergarten experience were also included in the sample. Students who had attended a private prekindergarten program scored higher on the MRT than did students from the comparison groups.
In addition to studies in which gains of prekindergarten students were compared, the effectiveness of public school prekindergarten programs has been investigated. One example is a study conducted to determine the effectiveness of Oakland, California's early childhood development program. Results were that the early childhood development program was instrumental in fighting poverty and improving lives of at risk Oakland children. The researchers recommended the expansion of the early childhood development program to include all low-income children in Oakland to improve the children's educational and future opportunities. Other recommendations included the coordination of programs offered by the Oakland Unified School District with other local child development and family resources programs, including private programs, and the establishment of a birth-to-school project to provide comprehensive health, education, and social services to parents, infants, and preschool-age children in high-risk neighborhoods (Urban Strategies Council, 1988).
Shipley and Oborn (1996) compared the effectiveness of four types of prekindergarten programs: Head Start, Montessori, public prekindergarten, and private day care programs. The researchers concluded that the development of an effective public school prekindergarten program must include a set of criteria designed to implement the instructional strategies of all four types of prekindergarten programs in the study. Also, Shipley and Oborn developed a model for public school prekindergarten programs which included the following components: (a) connections to service agencies to increase parent involvement; (b) effective teacher training; (c) attachment to existing public school buildings and joining the elementary school routine; and (d) curricular connections between prekindergarten programs and kindergarten programs.
A similar longitudinal study was conducted by Marcon (1996) to determine the effectiveness of three prekindergarten models. Models compared were a child-initiated model, a didactic, academically-directed model, and a model that was a combination of the child-initiated model and the academically-directed model. The didactic, academically-directed model and the combination of the child-initiated model and the academically-directed model were shown to have negative effects on the participants during their transition from third grade to fourth grade. For example, participants who attended the academically-oriented model program and the combination of the child-initiated model and the academically-directed model program performed more poorly in academic achievement and social development than did their peers who had attended the child-initiated model program.
To identify quality indicators of prekindergarten programs, Brandford (1992) compared three types of programs: Head Start, a public school prekindergarten program, and a private prekindergarten program. Brandford concluded that public school prekindergarten programs were more likely to have a greater number of endorsed quality standards for early childhood education than were Head Start programs or private prekindergarten programs. One of the quality indicators related to teachers. Teachers in public school programs were more likely to be certified in an appropriate field and receive continuous in-service training and support services than teachers in Head Start or private prekindergarten programs.
Public School Prekindergarten Sponsorship Debate
According to Morrison (1991), continuing pressure has been placed on state legislators and public school officials to sponsor and fund prekindergarten programs. Several factors have contributed to this growing pressure. One factor is that more mothers of young children are working full time than ever before and are faced with the need to find quality child care for their children. Between 1940 and 1986, the number of working mothers with children under the age of 18 increased from 8.6% to 63%. Moreover, the number of employed mothers with children between 3 years of age and 5 years of age increased from 45% in 1976 to 60% in 1986 (Bridgman, 1989).
As of October 1997, 59.8% of all women in America were part of the workforce (U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1997). Of these working women, 62% had children under six years of age (Robinson, 1997). Hollifield (1989) believed the issue of working mothers' and single parents' need for child care may be the strongest force in the educational system toward offering prekindergarten programs to children.
A second factor that has contributed to the growing pressure of the public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs was the emphasis placed on the possible educational benefits of prekindergarten programs for preschool-age children, especially disadvantaged children (Gomby et al., 1995; Hollifield, 1989; Mitchell, 1989; Williams & Fromberg, 1992). In relation to this factor, Barnett (1995) concluded that prekindergarten programs can have long-term positive effects on improving school achievement, reducing grade retention, reducing placement in special education classes, and facilitating social adjustment for children who attend prekindergarten programs. A third factor that has contributed to the growing pressure of the public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs was the concern for present and future international competitiveness and economic productivity and a desire to provide a better educational start for poor children (Mitchell, 1989).
Rowley (1991) delineated several reasons why public school systems had, in the past, given little consideration to the idea of making prekindergarten programs a permanent component of elementary schools. First, most people in our culture have held the belief that home is the best environment for educating young children, and public schools were generally perceived as large, impersonal institutions that were not equipped to provide the individual attention and physical care required by young children. The second reason is the nature of the American child care system. Child care programs are available for children ranging in age from birth to the age of adolescence. These programs have services that public schools do not usually provide to working parents.
According to Rowley (1991), the takeover of the care and education of children three to five years of age by public schools would create several problems. First, workers in public school sponsored early education programs would be required to have extensive training and certification. The requirements would be necessary for workers to qualify as early childhood specialists within public school systems. Second, additional costs for operating programs would place a financial burden on most public school systems. Finally, educators have continually debated whether developmentally appropriate practices as opposed to the use of a prescribed academic curriculum should be used in working with preschool-age children. The location of an early education program within a public school setting may increase the likelihood that a prescribed academic curriculum will be used in the program.
Presently, educators continue to disagree on the question of whether four-year-old children will benefit from formal instruction in a public school setting. Some educators believe Head Start programs should be expanded and the role public schools have in early education should be minimized (Hayes, Palmer, & Zaslow, 1990). Other educators maintain that public schools are the best option for operating early childhood programs (Zigler, 1987). However, Williams and Fromberg (1992) cautioned if prekindergarten programs are provided, they should meet the health, nutritional, and psychological needs of preschool-age children and promote children's scholastic and social competence.
Public school personnel continue to face challenges when developing and implementing prekindergarten programs. Concerns regarding public school sponsored programs have been related to the administration and supervision of programs, the training and hiring of qualified prekindergarten teachers, and the curricula used in the programs (Lasko, 1995). Critics of the public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs have stated the following reasons against the concept of prekindergarten programs located in public schools: (a) the failure of public schools to do a good job of teaching young children; (b) public school teachers are not properly trained to teach preschool-age children; and (c) taxpayers would not be willing to support public sponsorship of prekindergarten programs because of the expense in operating such programs (Morrison, 1991).
Zigler (1987) argued against formal public prekindergarten programs for children because he believed, when possible, preschool-age children should remain at home with parents until they reach the age for formal schooling. He suggested formal schooling for children four years of age may be an inappropriate solution to the current need for quality child care for children with working parents. In addition, the benefits of early schooling for middle-class children, who constitute the majority of four-year-old children, were not supported by findings from research in the area of early education. However, Zigler added that developmentally appropriate programs in public school settings with teachers who are specialists in early childhood development may meet the needs for quality child care for working parents.
Concerns regarding the public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs have been raised by other researchers and educators. Elkind (1988), Hollifield (1989), and Kozol (1991) purported if prekindergarten programs were part of public school settings, formal, teacher-directed academic instruction and didactic teaching methods would be used as opposed to the use of developmentally appropriate practices. Similarly, if performance on academic tests is considered the primary measure of success of the prekindergarten program, teachers would have to provide academic instruction to help their students pass the tests (Hollifield, 1989; Karweit, 1988). Elkind (1981) also noted if parents' expectations are for their children to learn to read, write, and perform mathematical computations, then formal teacher-directed academic instruction would become part of the prekindergarten program. Furthermore, Elkind was concerned that if excessive demands of early education were placed on young children, the children would become frustrated and inevitably fail.
Another disadvantage to the public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs was the concept of the push down curriculum. In relation to this concept, Elkind (1988) indicated that some administrators believe early childhood programs, such as prekindergarten programs, should become a downward extension of formal education. Kagan (1989) and Morado (1986) were also concerned that the emphasis of public school prekindergarten programs would be school readiness rather than developmentally appropriate practices, extending the curricula of kindergartens and first grades into the prekindergarten programs.
The concerns of Kagan (1989) and Morado (1986) were supported by results of the Public School Early Childhood Study conducted by Mitchell et al. (1989). As part of this study, 13 public school and private, community-based prekindergarten programs in 12 states were examined using case studies. The researchers found that some programs had child-centered curricula and interesting activities for children, whereas other programs had activities that were rigid and boring. Some of the programs had a written philosophy that was developmentally appropriate; however, actual classroom practices of the programs were not developmentally appropriate. The private community-based programs had practices very similar to practices of the public school programs.
Kozol (1991) depicted another reason public schools should not sponsor prekindergarten programs. He noted that the potential disadvantages of the public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs are the same as problems that have been identified by the critics of public schools as educators for older children. These disadvantages include variations in quality of programs and services, high cost of programs, lack of parent involvement and choice, and inequalities of services and outcomes in relation to race and income of students' families.
The previously mentioned concerns for the public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs are concerns that educators and parents still have today. Careful consideration of the concerns should be made when educational programs for four-year-old children are being developed and implemented. Hymes (1988) emphasized the importance of the concerns and the issue of public schooling for four-year-old children:
Fours will be in trouble unless there is consensus on the basic reason for having schools for them. It must be understood that the goal of their school is to help them live their four-year-old life with richness and vigor - not to housebreak them for becoming Five or Six. Fours will be in trouble unless there is appreciation and enjoyment of their energy, their imagination, their curiosity, their sociability, their creativity. It must be understood that the goal of their school is to nourish these strengths, not to dampen them. (pp. 106-107)
Proponents of public school prekindergarten programs believe the establishment of prekindergarten programs in public school settings is long overdue. According to Hymes (1988), in the past, almost all four-year-old children who attended prekindergarten programs were from families who were caring and conscientious and could afford to pay for their children's prekindergarten experiences. Additionally, some four-year-old children were able to attend prekindergarten programs because their families were poor. The children benefitted from publically funded programs such as Emergency Nursery Schools established during the depression years, Head Start, New York State's Experimental Prekindergartens, and California's Preschool Program. Hymes proposed that public school prekindergarten programs be provided for all children, not just children from families who could afford to pay for prekindergarten programs or children from poor families.
Other proponents of public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs have delineated reasons they believe justify having four-year-old children in public school settings. For example, Hauser-Cram, Pierson, Walker, and Tivnan (1991) reported that advocates for school-based prekindergarten programs have viewed the public school as the most appropriate setting for operating early childhood programs. Arguments by advocates for public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs were centered around the themes of equity and continuity. The arguments were based on the following reasons: (a) access to public schools are available to all citizens and access to equal opportunities for children are provided through public schools; (b) the primary mission of public schools is education; (c) public schools have met the needs of exceptional children and have programs that allow the children to use their different skills and abilities; (d) a continuity of programs and services for families is provided through public school systems; (e) public schools are in a position to provide a coordination of services of other programs for children and their families; and (f) public schools are able to maintain a more stable and better qualified teaching staff due to higher salaries for teachers in public school systems as opposed to teacher salaries in private prekindergarten programs.
Rowley (1991) also stated that prekindergarten programs for four-year-old children should be included in public school settings. His belief was based on the following reasons: (a) by the year 2000, an estimated 80% to 90% of American women will be employed outside the home; the need for suitable child care and early childhood programs will increase; (b) uniform practices and standards for existing early childhood programs in the private sector are lacking; (c) children of parents with low-income levels have limited access to quality programs; (d) prekindergarten programs that are located in public school settings would be convenient for working parents in terms of transportation and child care arrangements; (e) children who are at risk for school failure could be identified at an earlier age; and (f) young children in public school settings are able to observe older, successful children who can serve as role models. In addition, school personnel in public school districts with prekindergarten programs have been pleased with program outcomes. For example, in Phoenix, Arizona's Washington School District, prekindergarten children who lacked fundamental language ability were identified during their prekindergarten year and provided with special assistance through kindergarten.
Shanker (1987) stated several advantages of public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs. First, the public school education system already has personnel who are experienced at administering large and complex programs. Second, with cooperation from agencies and groups that provide services to young children, public school systems that operate prekindergarten programs could provide not only prekindergarten experiences but child care services, as well. Third, public school prekindergarten programs could become available to all four-year-old children, not just those children with special needs.
The fourth advantage Shanker (1987) listed for having public school prekindergarten programs was that public school system personnel are more ready and willing than private program providers to respond to the unique needs of children with special needs and non-English speaking children in regular classroom settings, as well as through special services. Fifth, public school systems have the capability of being able to offer a variety of in-service training programs to personnel; information about current child development trends, theories, and practices can be readily disseminated. Sixth, public school prekindergarten programs have personnel with more training in early childhood education than personnel in private prekindergarten programs. Finally, the public education system is equipped to coordinate a variety of services, such as health and nutritional services, that support children's development. In relation to Shanker's beliefs, Hauser-Cram et al. (1991) found that early childhood programs operated outside of public school settings often lacked equity and continuity of services provided through programs sponsored by public school systems. Also, public school teachers were more qualified in terms of their education and years of teaching experience than were teachers in private educational settings (NCES, 1997).
According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Early Childhood Education Policy Panel (1988), public schools have the capacity to develop high quality prekindergarten programs. One example is school systems already have resources that are needed to operate effective programs, such as a knowledge base about children, physical facilities, administrative systems, and professional staffing procedures. Public schools also have the advantage of credibility in the community and connections with local governments, community agencies, and parents. Additional advantages are public schools are universally available, are safe, preschool-age children could attend school with siblings and friends from their neighborhood, public school prekindergarten programs would have a steady source of funding, and program standards could be set and monitored (Lubeck, 1989).
Parents and members of community groups have also supported the public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs. Morrison (1991) expressed the following reasons for this support: (a) working parents may have difficulty finding quality child care for their children and believe public school systems could meet these needs; (b) because children are our nation's future and greatest wealth, services should be provided to young children to prevent learning problems and future school failure; (c) many people believe early public schooling, especially for children from poor families, is necessary if our nation is to provide equal opportunities for all children; (d) poor parents cannot afford quality child care for their children and access to public school prekindergarten programs for these parents and their children is a cost-effective way to meet their child care needs; (e) parents want academic progress for their children at an early age so their children will become competent members of society; and (f) parents who were born during the baby boom era are a more educated group of people than any other group of people in American history. These parents are calling for earlier, more comprehensive education for their children.
In addition to parents and community groups, the public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs has been supported by education organizations such as the NASBE (1988), the National School Boards Association [NSBA] (Copple, 1990), and the National Education Association [NEA] (1990) for several reasons. First, high quality prekindergarten programs can help public school systems in educating children successfully. Second, early education can be cost-effective. Third, children may become successful when they have a positive first experience with school. Finally, preventing school problems by increasing the likelihood that children will have a successful start is easier than trying to solve problems later.
Characteristics of Quality Prekindergarten Programs
Because of the large increases in the number of prekindergarten programs, concerns about providing quality programs and using developmentally appropriate curricula have been heightened. Legislators and business leaders have maintained that high quality early education for all children is a needed investment and not an expense (Research and Policy Committee of the CED, 1989; Strother, 1987). Moreover, Adams and Sandfort (1994) indicated the first goal of Goals 2000 concerning school readiness will not be achieved unless children have access to high quality prekindergarten and child care programs.
Views regarding the importance of providing high quality prekindergarten programs for children have been expressed by other researchers and educators. Smith et al. (1995) depicted two reasons for offering high quality programs. First, high quality programs are critical in preparing children to enter the future workforce. Second, at risk children who have prekindergarten experience in high quality programs have higher levels of success in school, greater achievement motivation, higher vocation aspirations, and higher employments rates than at risk children with no prekindergarten experience.
Dodge (1995) suggested children's social competence, such as developing a positive sense of identity, learning to trust others, and acquiring the characteristics that enable them to be successful learners, is promoted by quality prekindergarten programs. Similarly, Zill and Wolpow (1991) stated that high quality programs with developmentally appropriate curricula help to nurture young children's social, emotional, and cognitive development. Therefore, quality programs should be provided for all disadvantaged three- and four-year-old children (Research and Policy Committee of the CED, 1989).
Members of the Carnegie Task Force on Learning in the Primary Grades (1996) recommended that high quality public and private early care and education programs be provided for children three to five years of age because during the preschool years children make development gains that form the basis for their later achievement. Accordingly, the years from 3 to 10 are considered a crucial time in a child's life when the foundation is laid for healthy development and lifelong learning. The importance of developing and implementing quality programs was defined by the Carnegie Task Force on Learning in the Primary Grades in the following statement:
For most children, the long-term success of their learning and development depends to a great extent on what happens to them during these years of promise. Children fortunate enough to attend a high-quality preschool or child care program and who enter the primary grades with adequate preparation have a better chance of achieving to high levels than those who do not. (p. vii)
Criteria for quality prekindergarten programs have been developed by professional organizations such as the NAEYC (1986), SACUS (1986), and the National Conference of State Legislatures (Smith et al., 1995). Small class size, low teacher/child ratios, comprehensive services, teacher qualification, parent involvement, and developmentally appropriate curricula are characteristics considered important in developing and implementing prekindergarten programs (Cummings, 1991; Day & Thomas, 1988; Mitchell, 1989; Morado, 1986; Schweinhart, 1988). Furthermore, Weikart (1989) determined that comprehensive services clearly linked to health, nutrition, and social support services and administrative support were essential components in high quality prekindergarten programs.
Regarding teacher qualification, one way to increase the quality of prekindergarten programs is to hire highly educated teachers (Barnett, Frede, Mobasher, & Mohr, 1987; National Association of Elementary School Principals [NAESP], 1990; SACUS, 1986; Smyser, 1990). According to the NAEYC (1991), the quality of the staff was the most important determinant of the quality of any early childhood program. In relation to this concept, two criteria for the qualifications of staff positions in early childhood programs were developed by the NAEYC. First, staff members who are in charge of a group of children in an early childhood setting should have at least a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential or an associate degree in early childhood education or child development. Second, early childhood specialists with either a baccalaureate degree and/or graduate degree in early childhood education or child development and at least three years of full-time teaching experience with young children should be hired to direct the education program in early childhood settings.
Researchers and educators have developed other criteria for quality programs. For example, Dodge (1995) listed five components of quality prekindergarten programs. First, quality programs are based on an understanding of child development and on a recognition that each child is an individual with unique needs, learning styles, and interests. Second, in quality programs children's safety and well-being are of paramount importance. Third, the physical environment of quality programs is well-organized and has a variety of age-appropriate and culturally relevant materials. Fourth, in quality programs relationships between staff members and families are positive and supportive. Finally, staff members in quality programs receive ongoing training and support from the administration.
Members of The Consortium for Longitudinal Studies (1983) noted several characteristics associated with high quality programs. The characteristics include intervention for children with special needs, services for parents (including home visits), low teacher/child ratios, and involvement of parents in their children's instruction. Additionally, use of an appropriate curriculum, implementation of staff training, and frequent assessment and monitoring of the program were seen as necessary components of high quality programs.
In summarizing the major findings from early education intervention research, Ramey and Ramey (1992) identified six principles that were characteristics of quality programs. First, young children benefit from intervention programs that begin earlier in their lives and continue longer than intervention programs that begin later in their lives and do not last as long. Second, programs that are more intensive in terms of hours per day, days per week, and weeks per year are more beneficial to children than programs that are less intensive in relation to time. Third, intervention programs that have direct daily learning experiences for children are more beneficial in producing positive and long lasting results for children than programs that lack direct daily learning experiences. Fourth, programs with comprehensive services are more beneficial to children than programs that lack comprehensive services. Fifth, greater benefits for children are provided through programs that match children's learning styles and risk conditions than programs that lack these components. Finally, initial effects of intervention programs for children will diminish unless the changes that are made are supported and maintained in each child's family, community, and school environments.
To determine characteristics of quality prekindergarten programs, Frede (1995) reviewed studies designed to define and measure the effects of quality in early care and education. Frede concluded that quality prekindergarten programs have small class sizes with low teacher/child ratios, teachers who receive support from the administration, an intervention component, and ongoing communication between parents and teachers. Interestingly, Frede determined quality prekindergarten programs used some curricula content and classroom practices similar to practices used in traditional schooling.
Developmentally appropriate curricula have also been found to be a critical factor in providing high quality prekindergarten experiences for young children (Dodge, 1995; NAEYC, 1986). Frede and Barnett (1992) reported that young children who were exposed to developmentally appropriate curricula had increased academic skills in first grade. Moreover, developmentally appropriate experiences were well suited for diverse backgrounds of students (Schweinhart & Hohmann, 1992).
Other components for high quality prekindergarten programs have been noted by researchers and educators. Adams and Sandfort (1994) and Mitchell (1989) considered a comprehensive family service program a necessary component of a high quality program. Also, the following 10 signs of characteristics of quality prekindergarten programs were developed by the NAEYC (1997):
- Children have access to various activities throughout the day.
- Children have an opportunity to play outside everyday.
- The teachers work with individual children, small groups, and the whole group at different times throughout the day.
- Children spend most of their time playing and working with materials or other children.
- Classrooms are decorated with children's original artwork.
- Children work on projects but also have long periods of time to play.
- Teachers read books to children individually or in small groups.
- Children learn letters and numbers in the context of their everyday experiences.
- The curriculum is adapted for those children who are advanced academically, as well as those children who need additional help.
- Children and their parents look forward to school.
Although children have benefitted by attending quality prekindergarten programs (Carnegie Task Force on Learning in the Primary Grades, 1996), a number of factors have impeded the achievement of developing quality programs. According to Dodge (1995), low wages for teachers, high staff turnover, minimum state regulations for health and safety, the cost of appropriate teacher/child ratios, inadequate facilities, and inappropriate curricula have had an effect on the quality of some programs. Regarding teachers, Howes, Phillips, and Whitebook (1992) concluded that when teachers teach in programs meeting reasonable high standards of quality, they are more likely to provide appropriate care and developmentally appropriate activities than teachers who teach in programs that fail to meet quality standards.
Educational Benefits of Prekindergarten Programs
Because children's experiences from birth to the age of five have been determined to be crucial in the development of general intelligence and 50% of intelligence development occurs by age four (Bloom, 1964), attention must be given to providing quality, effective prekindergarten programs for young children (NAEYC, 1986). Comer (1989) purported that unless children are prepared to function adequately in society, the quality of life in the nation will be lowered and democratic ideals will never be realized. Similarly, Paul (1995) believed early childhood programs should be our nation's number one priority because the programs would do more to counteract economic class and ethnic group differences relating to student outcomes than any other changes that would occur in American education.
Of vital concern to educators is the placement of preschool-age children in a healthy and positive atmosphere before they begin school so they will come to school ready to learn. In fact, according to Van Zant and Camozzi (1992), the exposure of young children to a prekindergarten program before first grade has been found to help children develop the social skills and acquire the knowledge needed to be ready for school. Prekindergarten experience has also been shown to have a direct effect on early school outcomes such as motor, language, and social skill development and higher academic achievement (Casto & Mastropieri, 1986; Chafel, 1990; Howes, 1988; Osterlind, 1980-81; Reynolds, 1991). Morever, children with prekindergarten experience are less likely to be retained or placed in special education programs and are more likely to graduate from high school than children with no prekindergarten experience (Barnett, 1995).
In regard to school outcomes, Zill et al. (1995) surveyed parents of a representative sample of 4,423 children, three to five years of age, who had not yet attended kindergarten. The researchers found that young children who attended prekindergarten programs attained significantly more preliteracy skills and numeracy skills than did a comparative group of children who had not attended such programs. Reynolds, Mavrogenes, Bezruczko, and Hagemann (1996) concluded that students' prekindergarten participation at age four was significantly associated with higher reading and math achievement and with lower incidence of grade retention than their counterparts when the students were in sixth grade.
To determine lasting effects of prekindergarten programs, 11 research studies were developed by The Consortium for Longitudinal Studies (1983) in which prekindergarten experiences of approximately 1,000 disadvantaged children were investigated. Children who participated in prekindergarten programs were compared to children with no prekindergarten experiences. Findings were children who participated in prekindergarten programs: (a) had significant increases in IQ scores; (b) maintained gains in IQ scores for three to four years; (c) scored higher on reading achievement tests through third grade than did children with no prekindergarten experience; (d) scored higher on mathematics tests through the fifth grade than children with no prekindergarten experience; (e) were placed less frequently in special education classes than were children with no prekindergarten experience; (f) were more likely to be promoted than children with no prekindergarten experience; and (g) were more likely to earn a high school diploma than children without prekindergarten experience.
Schweinhart et al. (1993) conducted a study of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project. Findings of the study were disadvantaged children who participated in the prekindergarten program had higher earnings, higher rates of home ownership, higher levels of schooling, greater commitments to marriage, and fewer criminal arrests and interventions by social service agencies at the age of 27 than those participants with no prekindergarten experience. Additionally, Day and Thomas (1988) concluded that disadvantaged children who participated in high quality programs were more likely to complete school, enter college or receive vocational training, and be more self-supporting than children who did not participate in a prekindergarten program.
Eckroade (1991) conducted a study of Maryland's Extended Elementary Education Program (EEEP), a prekindergarten program for disadvantaged children. Results were that children who participated in the EEEP acquired the personal, social, physical, and intellectual skills necessary to enter first grade ready to learn. Other findings from the study included a significant reduction in the number of special education placements and grade level retentions for children who had attended the EEEP. Also, the EEEP participants scored higher on the reading, language, and mathematics subtests of the California Achievement Test (CAT) in third, fifth, and eighth grades than did the comparison group who had not attended the EEEP.
Regarding school readiness, Frede and Barnett (1992) reported that disadvantaged children who participated in high quality prekindergarten programs had increased academic skills in first grade. In a similar study, Cates (1995) compared at risk students who participated in an early intervention prekindergarten program to at risk students who received no intervention. The at risk prekindergarten group scored higher on the Preschool Language Scale and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test Revised than did the at risk group with no intervention.
Studies of other prekindergarten intervention programs have been conducted. Benasich, Brooks-Gunn, and Clewell (1992) found that disadvantaged children benefitted from an early intervention prekindergarten program in regard to cognitive development, and mothers of children enrolled in the program benefitted, as well. The benefits for mothers included enhancement of maternal education and occupational status, as well as maternal knowledge and attitudes about child rearing. In a study of the Abecedarian Project, Campbell and Ramey (1995) found that economically disadvantaged African American children who attended a high quality prekindergarten program scored higher in mathematics, reading, and general IQ at age 15 than did children with no prekindergarten experience. Also, the children with prekindergarten experience had fewer instances of grade retention and assignments to special education classes at age 15 than did their counterparts who had not attended a prekindergarten program.
In relation to the benefits of prekindergarten experience for disadvantaged children, Kagan (1995) delineated several advantages for children who participate in prekindergarten programs. First, young children learn many language, social, and practical skills in a prekindergarten program and benefit from learning the skills because these skills are needed for future success. Second, the social, emotional, physical, and cognitive burdens resulting from disadvantaged children's living situations are offset by participation in prekindergarten programs. Finally, for children who speak little or no English, a valuable bilingual education can be provided through a prekindergarten program.
Benefits of prekindergarten participation were found not only for disadvantaged or at risk children but for advantaged children, as well. In a longitudinal study conducted by Larsen and Robinson (1989), advantaged children who had attended a high quality prekindergarten program were compared to advantaged children with no prekindergarten experience. Results were the children with prekindergarten experience, particularly males, had higher achievement scores in third grade than the comparison group of children with no prekindergarten experience. Similarly, Warash (1991) found that advantaged children who attended a prekindergarten program attained higher mean scores for academic self-esteem in second and third grade and higher mathematics and reading scores in first and third grade than advantaged students who had attended day care or had no prekindergarten experience.
Recognizing the benefits and effects of early childhood experiences, educators and policymakers should decide the extent in which the availability of prekindergarten programs is to be assured for all children (Wolf & Kessler, 1987). However, Slavin, Karweit, and Wasik (1994) cautioned that care should be taken when establishing policies and programs for preschool-age children. Although Slavin et al. agreed high quality prekindergarten programs could have long-term benefits for children, they also believed prekindergarten experiences alone were not enough to prevent early school failure. They concluded that prekindergarten experiences for four-year-old children should be part of a comprehensive approach to prevention and early intervention and a one year prekindergarten program cannot be expected to solve all the problems that at risk children face.
Cost-Benefits of Prekindergarten Programs
High cost-benefits, as well as educational benefits, have been found for children who attend high quality prekindergarten programs. With the proportion of benefits outweighing the costs, additional emphasis has been placed on the importance of early childhood education (Mitchell, 1989). Members of the Research and Policy Committee of the CED (1991) suggested that, although prekindergarten programs are expensive to operate, the programs are cost-effective in dealing with long-term problems such as the dropout rate of students and in helping at risk students become more productive learners.Accordingly, for every dollar invested in a high quality, comprehensive prekindergarten program, six dollars were saved in long-term costs of crime control, remedial education, welfare, unemployment, and teen pregnancy (Cavazos, 1989; Futrell, 1987; Research and Policy Committee of the CED, 1991).According to Lewis (1993), $7.16 were the eventual savings to the public for every dollar invested in high quality prekindergarten programs.
Regarding the long-term costs of crime control, states with high numbers of students who dropped out of school have had correspondingly high numbers of prisoners (Hodgkinson, 1991). For example, 82% of Americans in prison are high school dropouts and the cost for maintaining each prisoner annually is $20,000. Comparatively, a year of a high quality prekindergarten program costs approximately $4,800 (Research and Policy Committee of the CED, 1991). In two-thirds of the states, more than 10 times as much money is spent on prisons and corrections as is spent on early education programs (Children's Defense Fund [CDF], 1997). Because children's attendance in high quality prekindergarten programs helps decrease the rate of arrest in their teenage years by 40%, additional funding for high quality prekindergarten programs is needed (Research and Policy Committee of the CED, 1991).
An additional cost-benefit related to crime control was provided by the American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth (1993). Members of the organization stated that prekindergarten programs have had a significant impact in preventing violence. One of the recommendations of the organization was that early childhood intervention programs be funded to help build the foundation of preschool-age children's attitudes, knowledge, and behavior related to aggression.
As evidence of the need for funding increase, Schweinhart (1992) stated that in our nation only half of public and private dollars needed to provide quality early childhood programs was being spent. Additionally, White (1994) stated that children younger than the age of five are ignored by America's educational system with low investments for educational programs for these children compared to investments in programs for children in other educational levels. For example, the United States spent an average of over $5,000 per child on a public school education system for children between the ages of 5 and 18. Furthermore, considerably more money was spent on programs at the high school level than programs at the elementary level.
Additional cost-benefits of prekindergarten programs have been reported. One of the cost-benefits relates to remedial education. School systems regain their investment in a prekindergarten program by the time participants of the program have graduated from high school (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1985). Evidence of Schweinhart's and Weikart's findings were supported by the results of a study conducted by the Ohio Department of Education (1992). In this study, children who attended at least six months of some type of prekindergarten program had lower grade retention rates and were less likely to be placed into remedial programs in the elementary grades than children with no prekindergarten experience. Therefore, additional money that would have been spent to support retention and remedial programs was saved.
In a similar study, Glantz, Goodson, and Layzer (1991) conducted an evaluation of Project Giant Step, a program funded by New York City to provide comprehensive services to all four-year-old children in the city. Educational benefits, as well as cost-benefits, of the program were examined. Glantz et al. found that the program had a significant positive impact on children's cognitive performances and the educational effects of the program were directly related to the cost of the program. Thus, the higher the program's expenditures per child, the higher the average cognitive gains of the children who participated in the program.
Based on the findings of cost-benefits for prekindergarten programs, Barnett (1995) concluded that an immediate and substantial increase in public support for early childhood care and education was warranted. Barnett indicated that the national cost of failing to provide at least two years of quality early childhood care and education for preschool-age children would be extremely high. For example, $100,000 would have to be spent for each child born into poverty or $400 billion for all poor children under the age of five.
Barnett (1995) suggested prekindergarten programs be funded for all children, regardless of SES, because the quality of early childhood care and education services they receive was important for their development. He was concerned that a poor quality program could have detrimental effects on the development of any child at any age. Providing quality programs would not be inexpensive. The cost of providing quality programs for poor children under five years of age alone could be as high as $30 billion per year. However, based on evidence of the cost-benefits of prekindergarten experiences for children, the annual costs would be offset overtime by the reduction of social problems that cost society far more each year than would costs of providing quality early childhood programs.
Readiness for Kindergarten
The issue of school readiness has been an educational topic of much discussion and debate. Over the last several years interest in the topic has increased (Gredler, 1992). With the advent of the first national education goal (i.e., by the year 2000 all children in America will start school ready to learn) and with concerns about the educational achievement of American students, increased interest has been focused on children's readiness levels upon entrance into kindergarten (Kagan, 1992; Meisels, 1992). To help children start school ready to learn, specific objectives for the first goal of Goals 2000 were defined. The objectives were: (a) all children will have access to high quality and developmentally appropriate prekindergarten programs; (b) every parent in America will be a child's first teacher; parents will have access to the training and support parents need; and (c) children will receive the nutrition, physical activity experiences, and health care needed to arrive at school with healthy minds and bodies to maintain the mental alertness necessary to be prepared to learn; through enhanced prenatal health systems the number of low birth weight babies will be significantly reduced (NEGP, 1997).
Over the years, several different theories and definitions of school readiness have been developed; therefore, consensus on the definition of school readiness has not been reached. In fact, Kagan (1990) noted readiness was poorly defined and subjected to many interpretations which has created confusion and conflict among educators, policymakers, and parents who have an interest in the issue. Kagan purported that the history of the theoretical and empirical works in the area of readiness has been concerned with three major issues: (a) distinguishing between ready to learn and ready for school; (b) discerning the differences between maturation and chronological approaches to readiness; and (c) differentiating correlates of readiness regarding specific child abilities. However, little substantive empirical evidence is available about readiness and disagreement about the skills necessary for determining readiness, how the skills might be used for readiness to occur, and how readiness should be accurately assessed still exist (Crnic & Lamberty, 1994).
Although consensus on the definition of school readiness has not been reached, a consensus exists that readiness is something within a child necessary for the child's success in school (Graue, 1993). For some educators, policymakers, and parents the term readiness is depicted as a combination of a child's cognitive, psychomotor, and socio-emotional development congruent with the child's chronological age (Graue, 1993; Gredler, 1992; Morrison, 1991; Thomas, 1984). Therefore, many educators have accepted the idea that children are ready for school when they have reached a certain stage of cognitive development (DiPasquale, Moule, & Flewelling, 1980). When other educators, policymakers, and parents use the concept of readiness, the term is identified as a characteristic of an individual child that develops as the child grows (Graue, 1993).
Morrison (1991) suggested most early childhood educators and parents believe readiness relates to a child's ability to participate and succeed in beginning school, including a child's ability, at a given time, to accomplish activities and engage in processes associated with the educational experiences that occur in school. Thus, readiness is the sum total of a child's physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development at a particular time. Also, in today's educational setting, readiness is measured against the process of formal schooling and a child's lack of readiness may be considered a deficient indicating a lack of what is needed for success in kindergarten.
Thomas (1984) also viewed school readiness as part of the process of formal schooling. He stated that the concept of school readiness is applicable to learning at different levels of school, although readiness is usually associated with children in kindergarten through third grade. Furthermore, readiness is a function of the expectations for learning that educators have for children entering school, as well as a function of a child's characteristics. To many educators the expectations of readiness for learning are associated with a child's language, independence, impulse control, interpersonal skills, experiences, and health (Morrison, 1991).
In relation to the definitions of school readiness, five general theories or models of school readiness have developed over the years. The models include the developmental age or maturation of children (the maturationist model), environmental issues affecting children (the environmentalist model), the joint consideration of maturation and environmental issues at the individual level model, the constructivist model (Graue, 1993), and the cumulative-skills model (Gredler, 1997). Graue noted that advocates of the maturationist model of readiness, such as Gesell (1954), perceived readiness as a biological state related to cognitive, psychomotor, and emotional structures that are the foundation of child behavior. Proponents of the maturationist model recommend that children who are not developmentally ready wait a year before progressing to the next educational level (Buntaine & Costenbader, 1997). Educational policies, such as increasing the entrance age into kindergarten, retention in the early grades, and using transition programs between kindergarten and first grade, are based on the maturationist model (Gredler, 1997).
From the environmentalist perspective, readiness is depicted as a child's skills or experiences that must be compromised in a certain way for school success (Graue, 1993). In the joint consideration of maturation and environment at the individual level model, readiness is viewed as a particular state in the child that depends on both growth and maturation as well as the social experiences of the child (Ausubel, 1958). Advocates of the constructivist model of readiness, such as Vygotsky (1978), described readiness as the level of tasks that can be learned in collaboration with a more knowledgeable peer or adult (Graue, 1993). In the cumulative-skills model, Gagne (1985) defined readiness as the availability of relevant skills or capabilities of the learner. Assessing readiness from this perspective is determining that the learner has acquired the prerequisite skills essential for learning a particular subject.
Several issues have had an impact on the definition of school readiness. The issues are the age at school entrance, the development of readiness screening programs, retention in kindergarten, and the provision of transition programs for children who are considered not ready for kindergarten or first grade (Graue, 1993; U. S. Department of Education, 1991). Evolving from the issues are various methods used to identify prekindergarten and kindergarten children who are not ready for the next level of formal schooling (Buntaine & Costenbader, 1997). If children are considered not ready for formal schooling, recommended alternatives are increasing the age of entrance into kindergarten, attending a prekindergarten program, retention in kindergarten, or attending a transition program after attending a year of kindergarten (Buntaine & Costenbader, 1997; Charlesworth, 1989).
Regarding age of entrance into school and the maturation concept of school readiness, Shepard and Smith (1986), Smith and Shepard (1988), and Uphoff and Gilmore (1986) found younger five-year-old children performed more poorly on standardized tests than older five-year-old children. Also, younger five-year-old children were more likely to be referred for retention or assessment for learning disabilities than were older five- or six-year-old children. In a similar study, Gullo and Burton (1992) concluded that children who were the youngest in their kindergarten class did not score as high on the MRT in first grade as did their older counterparts. Thus, little empirical evidence exists to support the fact that age five is the optimal age for school readiness (Crnic & Lamberty, 1994).
Another issue that has had an impact on the definition of school readiness is retention in kindergarten. Shepard and Smith (1986) suggested that the outcomes of early school retention, such as kindergarten retention, were negative. According to Shepard and Smith, no academic advantages for retention have been found and children who are retained often suffer negative social and emotional consequences. Furthermore, children who are retained have a significantly higher dropout rate than children who are not retained (Lloyd, 1978; Shepard & Smith, 1986).
Several studies were conducted to examine the effects of retention on the academic achievement of children. In one study, Shepard and Smith (1987) compared a group of 40 children who had been retained in kindergarten to a group of nonretained children who matched the retained group on SES and achievement levels. No significant differences in teacher ratings of reading achievement, math achievement, social maturity, learner self-concept, or attention were found between the retained and nonretained groups at the end of first grade.
In a similar study, Dennebaum and Kulberg (1994) examined the effects of kindergarten retention and transition programs on academic achievement. Participants were 95 fourth and fifth grade students who had either been retained in kindergarten, attended a transition program after completing kindergarten, were recommended for a transition program after kindergarten but went directly into first grade, or went directly into first grade without teacher reservation. The participants who were retained in kindergarten performed significantly lower on the Metropolitan Achievement Test (MAT) than did participants in the other three groups. Also, despite an extra year of schooling, participants who had attended a transition program did not differ significantly in their performance on the MAT from participants who were recommended for the transition program but did not attend.
The issue of providing transition programs for children who are considered not ready for first grade has also had an impact on the definition of school readiness. In an analysis of research studies of transition programs, Gredler (1984) noted that in the majority of studies involving transition programs, no significant educational advantages for children who attended such programs were found. Moreover, Shepard (1989) indicated that the educational effectiveness of transition programs for developmentally immature children was not supported by research.
Other researchers have reported similar results of the educational effectiveness of transition programs. May and Welch (1984) found that children who attended a transition program between kindergarten and first grade did not perform better academically in third grade than children who did not attend the transition program but were eligible to attend. In another study, Ferguson (1991) determined that children who attended a transitional first grade readiness program did not exhibit significant differences in achievement, related services, or teacher rating outcomes in second grade when compared with students who were recommended for the transitional first grade program but advanced directly to first grade.
Recently, concerns regarding circumstances of children's lives have had a substantial impact on the definition of school readiness. According to the NASBE (1991), readiness is more than academic knowledge. That is, readiness is based on children's health, self-confidence, and social competence and is shaped and developed by people and environments. Thus, children's readiness for school is affected by environmental factors, such as poverty, SES, prenatal care, health issues, and early experiences. Additionally, Zill et al. (1995) identified the following related factors of children's lives associated with school readiness: (a) having a mother who has less than a high school education; (b) having a mother who speaks a language other than English as her primary language; (c) having a mother who was unmarried at the time of the child's birth; and (d) having only one parent present in the home.
Brazelton (1995) also believed children's readiness for school was affected by environmental factors. He indicated that even in the best of our nation's schools, too many children are not ready for school because they come to school without the essential backgrounds and support needed to learn effectively. Accordingly, based on the results of a survey of kindergarten teachers, one third of children entering kindergarten lack the skills necessary for academic success (Boyer, 1991; Carnegie Task Force on Learning in the Primary Grades, 1996).
The background and support children need to be ready for school and to learn effectively are established long before children begin formal schooling. Even before birth a child's brain development is affected by the kind of nourishment and care the child receives (Newberger, 1997). Furthermore, a child's brain grows most rapidly during the first year of life. Children who are deprived of adequate nutrition during the critical years of brain growth are at risk for deficiencies in cognitive processes which can restrict later learning (Boyer, 1987). Brierley (1994) suggested because brain growth is related to body growth, the best way to ensure good brain growth is to ensure proper body growth.
In addition to nourishment and care for brain development, early experiences have an influence on brain development. Brierley (1994) reported that most of a brain's cortex at birth is similar to a blank slate on which lessons of experience will be written. The lessons of experience will help establish connective pathways in a child's brain during the early years of a child's life. If some connective pathways are not formed during the first few years of life, learning new concepts later in life can be difficult (Chugani, 1996). Thus, the quality of a child's early experiences has an effect on brain development and a child's later ability to learn and reason (Robinson, 1997).
The results of children's brain development and early experiences have dramatic implications for school readiness issues. White (1994) suggested that the first few years of a child's life are the most important years in developing the child's capacity for learning. Similarly, Brierley (1994) perceived the years from birth to puberty as a crucial time when a child's ability to learn is more predominant than any other time in the child's life. In fact, children's success in school and in life is determined by the quality of their early experiences (Brazelton, 1995).
Other factors, as well as brain development and early experiences, have profound effects on school readiness. According to the National Governors' Association (1992), poverty and economic instability are two of the most powerful predictors of children's later academic success. Unfortunately, in America approximately 40% of all persons who are classified as poor are children and children under the age of six are more likely to live in poverty than children who are over six years of age. Accordingly, in 1995, 24% of America children under the age of six lived in poverty compared to 18% of children older than six years of age (Federal Interagency Forum on Children and Family Statistics, 1997). In 1996, one child in every four children in America was born into poverty and 20.5% of children under the age of 18 lived in poverty (CDF, 1997). Also, in America an additional half-million children are malnourished (Boyer, 1987), 100,000 children are homeless (Tirozzi, 1994), one child in every four children below the age of six lives in unsafe housing (Boyer, 1991), and one child in every seven children receives public assistance (National Governors' Association, 1992). These children do not receive the nourishment, care, and quality experiences needed for healthy brain development, before or after birth, limiting their chances for later academic success (Boyer, 1987).
Researchers and educators have determined that school readiness is also affected by issues of prenatal care. Boyer (1987) stated that expectant mothers who have growing fetuses but lack adequate nutrition and prenatal care do not get the protein, vitamins, and minerals needed for proper growth for those fetuses. The issue of prenatal care is even more critical for teenage mothers than for older mothers. For example, more than 90 out of every 1,000 teenage girls in this country have babies every year and are less likely to obtain prenatal care than older mothers, greatly increasing the chances that their babies will be born with medical problems and developmental delays (Harris, 1996). Other related data are in 1996, one child in every eight children was born to a teenage mother, one child in every five children was born to a mother who did not receive prenatal care in the first three months of pregnancy, and one child in every 21 children was born to a mother who received late prenatal care or no prenatal care (CDF, 1997).
School readiness is affected by other prenatal factors. First, over 1,000 cocaine babies are born every year (Tirozzi, 1994). Second, annually, approximately 40,000 children are born with alcohol-related birth defects (Amundson, 1992). Third, approximately 260,000 children are born each year with lower than normal birth weights (Amundson, 1992). Finally, 1 child in every 14 children was born with lower than normal birth weight in 1996 (CDF, 1997).
Another factor that affects school readiness is health care of families and children. The number of children in America who lack access to basic health care is of critical importance in reaching the first goal of Goals 2000 and meeting the objective of children arriving at school with healthy minds and bodies. Morrison (1991) reported that nine million children in America do not have access to basic health care. In 1996, one child in every seven children had no health insurance with 13.8% of children under the age of 18 having no health insurance (CDF, 1997). Furthermore, 20% of preschool-age children were not vaccinated against polio (Amundson, 1992).
According to the National Governors' Association (1992), of all children, poor children experience the most health problems, live in unsafe and unhealthy environments, and have the least access to health care. These children are considered to be at a high risk of education failure and often attend ineffective schools and their families often experience stress and have weak family support systems. Moreover, as risk factors, such as poverty, low maternal education, inadequate social support, large family size, and other stressful situations accumulate, the cognitive performances of children tend to decline (Sameroff & Seifer, 1983).
The previously mentioned factors and concerns relating to children's readiness for school are national in scope; however, problems are more severe in southern states than in other regions of the country (SREB, 1992). Whitfill, Liu, and Johnson (1989) delineated the following concerns regarding school readiness for southern children:
The South still lags badly behind the nation on most key child measures. Southern children are still more likely than other American children to die, to be in poorer health at all ages, to become teen parents, and to lack access to adequate health and economic supports. (p. viii). Compared to the children in the rest of the nation, young children in the southern region of the country are more likely to: (a) be born to mothers who did not receive prenatal care; (b) be born prematurely or at low birth weight; (c) be born to teenage mothers; (d) die between the ages of one and four; (e) live in poverty; (f) lack basic health care; and (g) attend a child care center that falls below minimum standards for staffing and teacher/child ratios (SREB, 1992).
In regard to poverty, several studies were conducted to ascertain the effects of risk factors, such as poverty and SES, on children's readiness for school. Patterson, Kupersmidt, and Vaden (1990) evaluated demographic variables of family income level, gender, ethnicity, and household composition as predictors of children's competence in school. The researchers determined that poverty, gender, ethnicity, and household composition were associated with children's academic achievement. Patterson et al. concluded that income level and gender were stronger overall predictors of children's academic achievement than were ethnicity or household composition.
Similarly, Kohn and Rosman (1974) compared the relationship of demographic variables of ethnicity, SES, social class, and family size to the academic achievement of second grade students. Findings were that academic achievement of the students was predicted by all four demographic variables. Kohn and Rosman identified SES and ethnicity as stronger predictors of academic success than social class and family size.
Walker, Greenwood, Hart, and Carta (1994) conducted a study to compare the relationship of children's early language and SES to later measures of language, verbal ability, and academic achievement in kindergarten through third grade. Findings were that children who differed in SES also differed in magnitude of their total spoken vocabulary and total spoken vocabulary correlated with SES, parent education, and occupational status. Additionally, children's language, verbal ability, and academic achievement outcomes were related to their SES. To assess the relationship of SES to school readiness, Walsh, Ellwein, Eads, and Miller (1991) analyzed the relationship of kindergarten placement and demographic variables of SES, ethnicity, gender, and age. Walsh et al. concluded that SES, gender, and age were moderate predictors of placement of children into regular kindergarten or into a transitional kindergarten program. The researchers also found that SES, gender, and age, in combination, were strong overall predictors of kindergarten placement.
Another study was conducted by Gullo (1991) to determine the effects of years of preschool attendance, gender, and at risk status on children's readiness for first grade. Gullo reported that children's readiness for first grade was affected by their gender and at risk status, as measured by the MRT, administered to the children at the end of their kindergarten year. The at risk group scored significantly lower on the MRT in first grade than did children who were not in the at risk group.
According to the National Governors' Association (1992), to help our country reach the first national education goal, the development of a common vision of school readiness from educational, health, and social service systems is needed. Similarly, Morrison (1991) and the SREB (1992) considered readiness the responsibility of the members of every institution, public or private, whose activities are related to the well-being of children and families. The following factors that educators, policymakers, and parents should consider when developing policies and programs involving school readiness issues were developed by the SREB: (a) learning begins at birth, not with a children's entry into school; therefore, efforts to achieve readiness for school must begin before birth with support of children's prenatal care; (b) readiness is a social and economic issue, as well as an educational issue; therefore, preparing a child for school is not just the responsibility of the educational system; related issues such as health and health services, physical living conditions, family support, and economic prosperity need to be addressed; (c) learning is not limited to formal schooling; success in school is directly affected by many factors that have no relation to education; (d) children who must deal with illness, hunger, and lack of family support may never be ready for school; and (e) children should have access to developmentally appropriate child care and early education experiences.
In regard to school readiness issues, beliefs of the NAEYC (1990) were similar to the beliefs of the SREB (1992). Members of the NAEYC recommended that educators, policymakers, and parents reject the idea that readiness is something children must possess when they enter school because proponents of readiness theories have placed the burden of proof of readiness on the child. Placing the burden of proof of readiness on the child is an unfair situation for the child given the experiential, economic, and cultural inequities inherent in our society. Accordingly, if school readiness is based on the assumption that a predetermined set of capabilities exists and all children must have these capabilities before entering school, the following concepts must be considered in the promotion of universal school readiness: (a) addressing the inequities in children's early life experiences so that all children have access to the opportunities that promote educational success; (b) recognizing and supporting individual differences in development among children; and (c) establishing reasonable and appropriate expectations of children's capabilities upon school entry.
These school readiness issues can be fostered by community activities (Amundson, 1992). Specific ways included providing adequate health care, ensuring children have access to a quality prekindergarten program, providing adequate salary and training for child care providers and prekindergarten teachers, and providing easier access for families to obtain the support they need. Similarly, Boyer (1991) developed a seven-step strategy plan to achieve the first national education goal and to ensure learning readiness for all children in America. Boyer's plan consisted of the following components: 1. A healthy start; 2. Empowered parents, guardians, or caretakers who encourage language development; 3. Access to a quality prekindergarten program in which good care is provided and all dimensions of school readiness are addressed; 4. Responsive workplaces of parents, guardians, and caretakers that offer child care services; 5. Television programming that is educational and enriching; 6. Safe and friendly neighborhoods; 7. Allowing children opportunities to connect to other generations which will provide children with a sense of security and continuity.
The previously mentioned guidelines for promoting school readiness relate to preparing children for school. Another aspect of school readiness that should be considered is preparing schools for children (Morrison, 1991). Children's readiness for school depends on the schools' expectations of children (NASBE, 1991). Thus, readiness must apply to schools as well as to children because readiness for school means different things for different children (SREB, 1994).
Kagan (1992) recommended that schools collaborate with families, nonschool-based providers of child care, and other community institutions to achieve the national goal of school readiness. With family, child care, and institutional collaboration, comprehensive and family support services can be provided to children and families prior to school entry. By providing comprehensive services, children will be better prepared to succeed in school; therefore, helping the unfair situations in which many children have to live. Also, schools and teachers can help children's unfair situations by individualizing schools' curricula and teaching practices because differences in development and variation in the skills and abilities of children entering school will always exist (NAEYC, 1990; U. S. Department of Education, 1991).
Since this country was founded, a variety of early childhood programs has been provided for young children. The nursery school movement and the development of public school kindergartens for five-year-old children have had a substantial impact on children's early educational experiences (Zill et al., 1995). More recently, with increased state funding and the public school sponsorship of prekindergarten programs, the number of prekindergarten programs for four-year-old children has expanded (Mitchell et al., 1989). With the increase in the number of public school prekindergarten programs, concerns regarding the push down curriculum and placing children under academic stress have increased, as well (Elkind, 1988).
Evidence of the positive long-term educational and cost-benefits of quality prekindergarten programs have been provided by studies similar to the ones conducted by Schweinhart and Weikart (1993) and Frede and Barnett (1992). According to the NAEYC (1986) and SACUS (1986), high quality, developmentally appropriate programs should be made available to all four-year-old children. To ensure that high quality programs are developed and implemented, guidelines for class size, teacher/child ratios, comprehensive services, teacher qualifications, and curricula have been established (Day & Thomas, 1988; Mitchell, 1989; Morado, 1986; Schweinhart, 1988).
In this article, we examined the extant literature regarding prekindergarten programs along the following lines: history of early childhood education in America; public and private prekindergarten program development; comparisons of public school and private prekindergarten programs; public school prekindergarten sponsorship debate; characteristics of quality prekindergarten programs; educational benefits of prekindergarten programs cost-benefits of prekindergarten programs; and readiness for kindergarten. We believe the evidence of supportive of prekindergarten as providing a solid basis for children to be ready for kindergarten.
Shirley P. Andrews is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Middle Grades and Secondary Education at Valdosta State University. She teaches introduction to education courses at the undergraduate level and mentor training courses at the graduate level. She also serves as Coordinator of the Introduction to Education and Teacher Support Specialist programs. Dr. Andrews' research interests include children's experiences in prekindergarten programs, assessment through the use of electronic portfolios, preservice and beginning teacher induction and mentoring programs, and teacher retention. Dr. Andrews may be reached via email at email@example.com.
John R. Slate is is a Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations at the University of Texas in El Paso. He teaches quantitative and qualitative research design and analysis courses and program evaluation courses at the master's and at the doctoral level. Dr. Slate's research interests involve educational reform. Recent publications have been in areas of school size and student achievement; block scheduling; and factors related to academic success. Dr. Slate may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through snail mail at UTEP, COE 501D, El Paso, TX 79968.
Adams, G., & Sandfort, J. (1994). First steps, promising futures: State prekindergarten initiatives in the early 1990s. Washington, DC: Children's Defense Fund.
Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, Administration for Children and Families. (1995). Project Head Start statistical fact sheet. Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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