Early Childhood Education

Through most of American history, all early childhood education was provided at home since school systems did not assume any responsibility to educate children prior to first grade. The situation began to change during the second half of the 19th century, as a variety of kindergarten programs emerged to prepare preschool-aged children for socialization and the beginning of elementary school learning and as federal legislation addressed the needs of children with disabilities. This entry describes the scope of legislative and agency efforts in these areas.

Until recent years, most states did not require kindergarten programs. However, some states have enacted laws that require children to attend kindergarten prior to entering standard elementary education. At the same time, legislative efforts have been initiated at both the federal and state levels to require some form of early childhood education. Some states are even seeking to make full-day kindergarten a requirement. Insofar as sociologists and psychologists have been able to demonstrate that a structured learning environment better prepares children for education, there have been attempts to force states to require not only kindergarten programs but also structured preschool programs of varying length and duration.

Federally, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (sometimes still referred to as Public Law 94–142, indicating that it was the 142nd piece of litigation introduced during the 94th Congress, its designation before being enacted), now the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), provides two specific entitlements under Part H for infants and toddlers: One is access to appropriate early intervention programs, while the other is to provide least restrictive programs and placement. To put the IDEA’s mandates into effect, the federal government requires states to create a statewide system of early intervention services that are appropriate for children. Part B of the IDEA also identifies appropriate special education services that states, though local school boards, must provide for children with disabilities.

As reflected since the U.S. Court’s first-ever case interpreting the statutory rights of students with disabilities at any age, Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley (1982), state and local educational agencies must provide services that result in some educational benefit for eligible children with disabilities. Advocates have interpreted Rowley, consistent with the provisions of the IDEA, as meaning that there must be a process and a professionally defensible individualized family service plan that provides a wide range of services that give opportunity for educational benefits for eligible students.

There are still no clear requirements for early childhood education other than those for some special education students. In recent years, a variety of educational groups encompassing a wide array of perspectives have begun to advocate for more organized education prior to the regular public school systems. The National Parent Teacher Association, for example, has advocated for good-quality early childhood programs that could be made available to children in all socioeconomic classes. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Education has conducted a series of cognitive-development summits, which have welcomed presentations by academicians and other experts on early childhood learning.

The phrase “Good Start, Grow Smart” is the name of the current early childhood initiative that is attempting to strengthen Head Start and partner with states to improve early childhood education and provide better information to teachers, caregivers, and parents across the country. The Department of Health and Human Services is also working to strengthen Head Start and Early Head Start in an attempt to serve children from birth to age 5, pregnant women, and their families. These child-focused programs are designed with the goal of increasing readiness for school among the low-income families. Another initiative, Even Start, is a program that supports projects providing educational services to low-income families. Some of Even Start’s efforts have supported programs for women and children in prison, American Indian tribes and tribal organizations, migrant education, homeless education, and formula grants to states, especially in the area of special education for 3- to 5- year-old children.

The fact that there is a growing call for movement in this regard notwithstanding, the effort to provide comprehensive early childhood education, whether based on state or federal initiatives, has a long way to go to achieve universal implementation for all children.

James P. Wilson

See also Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley; Disabled Persons, Rights of

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