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Pre-K Access and Quality: A Look at the Leading States

New America’s Early & Elementary Education Policy team recently released From Crawling to Walking: Ranking States on Birth-3rd Grade Policies that Support Strong Readers. This comprehensive report ranks states on 65 policy indicators in seven policy areas that promote strong literacy skills by the end of third grade. States are grouped into one of three categories - crawling, toddling, or walking - across all seven policy areas combined and within each individual policy area.

One policy area we focus on in the report is the specific nature of each state’s pre-K program. State and local policymakers are increasingly embracing public pre-K as an effective means to improve student outcomes. Research has shown that high-quality pre-K programs have a positive impact on children’s cognitive and social-emotional skills, leaving them better prepared for kindergarten. Some long-term studies have also found that children who attend high-quality early learning programs are more likely to graduate high school and be employed, and less likely to commit violent crimes.

Despite this solid research base illustrating the benefits of early learning programs, the United States continues to lag behindmost other industrialized nations when it comes to pre-K enrollment. In 2012, for example, about 54 percent of three- and four-year-olds in the United States were enrolled in some kind of pre-K program compared to the average of 76 percent enrollment among all 34 OECD countries.

The good news is that a growing number of states are establishing pre-K programs. In fact, all but six states have established some sort of pre-K opportunity. The level of program quality, however, varies significantly from state to state. From Crawling to Walking uses data collected by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) to evaluate states’ pre-K programs on nine criteria (listed below). While many states have been ramping up their programs for four-year-olds, the vast majority of states have yet to provide services for three-year-olds. Yet research shows that two years of pre-K education results in significantly higher performance on both academic and social measures by the time students finish kindergarten. And even in pre-K programs that serve both three- and four-year-olds, there is often only the capacity and funding available to serve a small minority of eligible children.


While access to pre-K is important, the quality of programs is key to long-term positive benefits for the children who attend. The quality of the workforce is paramount. One way to look at this is through educational credentials. Pre-K students will only realize significant academic and non-academic gains if they are taught by well-trained, highly-qualified educators with specialized knowledge of child development and age-appropriate classroom strategies. In our report, we award points to states that require bachelor’s degrees with early childhood specialization for lead teachers and at least a child development associate credential for assistant teachers. The recent Institute of Medicine’s “Transforming the Workforce” report calls for lead teachers in early childhood classrooms to have at least a bachelor’s degrees as well as specialization in early childhood.

Our analysis also includes other structural quality indicators such as a maximum child-teacher ratio of ten to one and a full-day pre-K experience. Research finds that children who attend full-day programs outperform their peers in half-day programs in reading and math. These gains have been shown to persist through kindergarten and into first grade.

The map below shows that two states, Georgia and North Carolina, along with the District of Columbia, stand out for the quality and availability of their pre-K programs. These two states, and DC, have a couple of things in common in regards to their pre-K programs: they all provide full-day services and require lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree along with ECE specialization. DC, when compared to states, is especially impressive when it comes to pre-K access for both three- and four-year-olds. According to NIEER, 99 percent of four-year-olds in DC are enrolled in pre-K along with 69 percent of three-year-olds. Georgia’s pre-K access for four-year-olds is also impressive, with 60 percent of four-year-olds enrolled. Additionally, both Georgia and North Carolina require assistant teachers to possess the minimum of a CDA to serve in the classroom.


While DC, Georgia, and North Carolina’s pre-K programs all scored well in our report, even these three top programs did not meet all nine of our policy indicators, proving that much work remains to be done nationwide in order to improve pre-K quality and access.