Inadequate Access to High Quality Early Education Programs Widens Readiness Gap

A report released earlier this month by the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes (CEELO) examined the school-readiness gap and suggests that limited and unequal access to high quality early education programs is partially to blame. In fact, scarcity of quality may explain why readiness gaps have remained relatively static over the last few decades despite increased investment in early education and care programs.

There is no doubt that the type and quality of care children receive both inside and outside of the home has an impact on their learning and development. Using data from the National Institute for Early Education Research’s (NIEER) State of Preschool series (coverage of the latest report here) and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study program, CEELO found that access to high quality programs is limited for most children. However, access varies by family background and location, with children from lower-income, less-educated, non-English speaking, and rurally located families facing a greater disadvantage.

CEELO analyzed the type of care children receive at age two, when disparities in vocabulary development are already apparent, finding that very few 2-year-olds are in center-based care. The charts below show that parents with higher incomes and education levels are much more likely to place their children in center-based care, which tends to be higher quality than the various types of home-based settings.

Income level age 2

Education level age 2

     Source: Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes

Still researchers emphasize that “the available data on the quality of infant-toddler care indicates that it is often of low and mediocre quality and rarely of high quality.” (The Early Childhood Longitudinal data, however, only allowed for analysis of enrollment, not on the quality of care provided in each setting.) Better access to affordable, high quality center-based care could benefit children on the losing end of the school readiness gap.

The data examining early education options for four-year-olds measure quality along with enrollment. CEELO found that center-based pre-k is much more likely to be considered “good” quality than home-based care, using the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised (ECERS-R), a widely-used tool that measures the quality of preschool classrooms. Four-year-old enrollment in quality pre-k, and pre-k in general, tends to increase with family income and education level. However, most children lack access to high quality programs, and this finding is consistent across races.

CEELO explains that access to pre-k depends largely upon another factor: location, location, location. Access varies by region, with children in the northeast being about twice as likely to receive quality services as children in the south. Pre-k enrollment is also remarkably different for rural and urban children, with 15 percent of rural children and 30 percent of urban children receiving quality services.

quality region age 4  Urban Rural age 4

     Source: Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes

These disparities in access to quality child care and pre-k programs are concerning because of the long-term benefits associated with strong care and education in the early years. Although access to high quality programs is somewhat inadequate for all children, the numbers are especially troubling for those from low-income and less-educated families and those in rural areas.

On the brighter side, the dearth of quality services might not be quite as dire as this report suggests. The data used to determine enrollment in “good” programs is from 2005, and it is possible that programs have improved. In fact, NIEER recently reported that more state pre-k programs are meeting the standards it uses to measure quality.

There’s still much more to do, though, when it comes to providing all children with access to high quality early education programs. While overall state spending on early childhood programs has increased in the last decade, spending per student has declined. It is exceedingly difficult to improve the quality of services while simultaneously investing less in each child. Expanding access through state pre-k programs and the federal government’s Head Start program can help narrow the readiness gap, but we cannot afford to compromise quality in the effort to increase enrollment."


Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Early & Education Education team, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade