Participation in high-quality early childhood care and education programs can have positive effects on children’s cognitive, language, and social development, particularly among children at risk for poor outcomes.1 Sometimes these effects fade in the early school years, but the impacts of some programs have continued into later school years and adulthood.2,3 In an international study involving 15-year-olds from 14 developed countries, students who had attended a year or more of pre-primary education scored an average of 33 points higher on a comprehensive reading assessment, even after accounting for the fact that those attending such programs tend to come from relatively more advantaged backgrounds.4
Quality is an important element of programs that have had strong impacts. High-quality programs do not just meet the basic needs of children, but also provide opportunities for meaningful learning activities and language development, and work to foster close, caring relationships between children and their teachers/caregivers.5
While this indicator does not provide information on aspects of program quality, it describes the percentage of three- to six-year-old children (not yet enrolled in kindergarten) in early childhood care and education programs. Such programs include early learning centers, Head Start programs, and preschools.
The share of three- to six-year-olds (not yet in kindergarten) in early childhood care and education programs remained relatively constant between 1995 and 2007, ranging from 55 percent in 1995 to 57 percent in 2005; in 2007 it was 55 percent. (Appendix 1)
Differences by Poverty Status
Children in poor families (with incomes below the federal poverty line) and those in low-income families (with incomes between the poverty line and twice the poverty line) are less likely than children in more affluent families to be in center based programs. In 2007, 41 percent of three- to six-year-olds in poor families, and 45 percent in low-income families, were in such programs, compared with 65 percent of children in families with higher incomes. (Appendix 1)
Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin
Hispanic children are far less likely than white or black children to be in center-based programs. In 2007, 39 percent of Hispanic three- to six-year-olds attended such programs, compared with 58 percent of white children, 65 percent of black children, and 64 percent of Asian children. (Figure 1) Asian children’s participation in center-based care fell from a high of 70 percent in 2005, to 64 percent in 2007. (Appendix 1)
Differences by Mother’s Highest Level of Education
Mothers with higher levels of education are more likely to enroll their children in early care and education programs than are mothers with less education. In 2007, 29 percent of three- to six-year-olds whose mothers had not completed high school participated in such programs, compared with 43 percent whose mothers were high school graduates, 54 percent whose mothers had at least some vocational/technical training or college, and 71 percent whose mothers were college graduates. (Figure 2) The gap between children of mothers who are the most and least educated is the greatest it has ever been. (Appendix 1)
Differences by Mother’s Employment Status
In 2007, children three to six years old with working mothers were more likely than their peers whose mothers did not work to attend early childhood care and education programs. Sixty-five percent of children whose mother worked full-time, and 62 percent of children whose mothers worked part-time, were in center-based care, compared with 38 percent who had mothers looking for work, and 44 percent whose mothers were not in the labor force (Figure3).
Differences by Region
In 2007, children living in the Northeast were significantly more likely than those living in the West to be in center-based care, at 66 and 48 percent, respectively. Those in the South and Midwest fell in the middle, at 55 and 56 percent, respectively. (Figure 4)
Differences by Family Type
Children living with two unmarried parents are less likely than their peers in other family types to be enrolled in center-based care, and the gap has been growing. In 2007, 38 percent of three- to six-year-olds not yet in kindergarten, who lived with two unmarried parents, were in center-based care, compared with 55 percent of those living with one parent, and 57 percent of children living with two married parents or with no parents. This disparity has grown since 2011, when the gap between unmarried and married parents was 11 percentage points. (Appendix 1)
State and Local Estimates
For 2010 state estimates of the number of children not enrolled in nursery school, preschool or kindergarten, by age group see KIDSCOUNT.
For 2009 state estimates of the number of children enrolled in pre-k in public schools only, see Digest of Education Statistics 2012, Chapter 2, Table 37.
The percentage of children ages three to four enrolled in pre-primary and primary education in selected countries for 2006 is available here. (Indicator 2)
2008 enrollment of children age 4 and under in OECD countries is available here. (Table C1.2)
The U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top: Early Learning Challenge aims to increase the percentage of disadvantaged children who are not yet in school who are enrolled in high-quality early learning programs.
More information is available here.
Center-based early childhood care and education programs include day care centers, Head Start programs, nursery schools, preschools, pre-kindergarten programs, and other early childhood programs.
Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. (2012). America's children: Key national indicators of well-being, 2011, Table Fam3B. Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Raw Data Source
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Household Education Survey (NHES)
Recommended citation: Child Trends (2012). Early Childhood Program Enrollment. Retrieved from www.childtrendsdatabank.org/?q=node/100
Last update: Novemeber 2012
1National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early child development. Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. J. P. Shonkoff & D. A. Phillips, Eds. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. http://books.nap.edu/catalog/9824.html?onpi_newsdoc100300
2See, for example, Campbell, F. A., Pungello, E. P., Miller-Johnson, S., Burchinal, M. & Ramey, C. T. (2001). The development of cognitive and academic abilities: Growth curves from an early childhood educational experiment. Developmental Psychology, 37(2), 231-242.
3Schweinhart, L., Barnes, H., Weikart, D., & Epstein, A. (1993). Significant benefits: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study through age 27. Monographs of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, (10). Ypsilanti, MI: The High/Scope Press.
4Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). (2011). Does participation in pre-primary education translate into better learning outcomes at school? PISA In Focus, No. 1. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/pisa2009/47034256.pdf
5Peisner-Feinberg, E. S., & Burchinal, M. R. (1997). Relations between preschool children’s child care experiences and concurrent development: The cost, quality, and outcomes study. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 43(3), 451-477.