Five Things We Can Learn from Pre-K in Other Countries

A growing share of children in the United States participate in formal pre-kindergarten (pre-K/preschool) programs before they enroll in kindergarten. These programs are popular with parents, help children get ready for school, and can reduce academic achievement gaps in kindergarten and beyond.

Behind the Numbers
Connecting All Children to High-Quality Early Care and Education examined access to and participation in pre-school in 17 countries:

New Zealand
South Korea
United Kingdom

The evidence base regarding the most effective approach to pre-K is mixed, with some approaches showing greater benefits than others, as summarized in a 2016 report from the American Enterprise Institute. Economists interpreting the available evidence generally support government investment in quality early childhood programs because the benefits of such investments tend to outweigh the costs. Unfortunately, despite this public and academic support, more than one in three children in the U.S. still enter kindergarten without having attended any formal preschool program. This proportion is considerably higher than in most other high-income countries in the world.

To examine how best to increase the number of children who enroll in preschool, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation asked us to look outside of the U.S. at other high-income countries that have much higher rates of preschool participation. What are the relevant government policies and programs in those countries, and could some of these be adopted here in the U.S.? (All of us realized that the policies we identified may not have caused the differences in preschool participation; this was strictly an exploratory study of policy differences).

When we looked for countries to include in our study, we found countries like Denmark, where 98 percent of 3- to 5-year-old children participate in preschool, and countries like Poland, which increased its pre-school participation rate by more than 35 percent (to 70 percent) between 2001 and 2012. What is it about these countries and their policies that may have contributed to such high participation rates or dramatic growth?

Our research, an inventory of official documents from 17 countries (See sidebar), followed by interviews with a select sample of European policymakers and experts, points to five distinguishing policy features that appear to matter:

  1. Preschool as a Legal Right: Possibly the most striking and consistent similarity across countries with high rates of preschool participation is that all children in those countries are legally entitled to it. Such an entitlement protects preschool programs from being affected by economic downturns and political shifts. Entitlements also make sending one’s child to an “official” preschool program the default child care option for working parents. Even if it is not mandatory to send 4- and 5-year olds to school, a legal entitlement creates an implicit expectation that children enroll.
  2. Strong Public Financial Support: Parent subsidies or public funding for preschool are necessary to support high levels of preschool enrollment among families of all income levels. All countries with nearly universal preschool enrollment have funding structures that ensure that preschool is affordable for all children, including those in middle-income families that otherwise might not qualify for government programs.
  3. Connecting Early: Countries with the highest preschool participation rates often have highly integrated child- and family-serving systems that engage parents at the birth of their child and provide a variety of interconnected services to 0-3 year olds and their parents. These early connections facilitate preschool enrollment and reduce “preschool-readiness” gaps when children first enroll in preschool.
  4. Community Ties: Even in countries with high preschool participation levels, some communities and population groups remain underserved. To encourage preschool enrollment among these groups, extra efforts to engage parents and community stakeholders are necessary. These include actively recruiting and training members of the underserved communities to become preschool staff members. Such recruitment has proven especially effective with immigrant and refugee communities.
  5. Universality: Unlike the U.S., where large government-funded programs such as Head Start serve only low-income children, programs in other high-income countries connect low-income families to the same preschool programs available to higher-income children. Although programs sometimes give preferential treatment to the most vulnerable children and subsidies vary, the goal remains to support all children’s participation in a single universal early care and education system. This promotes social and economic integration, consistent quality, and positive peer effects among children from different backgrounds.

Although adopting these policy and program features in the United States is easier said than done, several states and cities successfully operate universal pre-kindergarten programs that have high and fast-growing participation rates across income groups. These states and localities also often share one or several of the five policy features introduced above. For example, New York City’s free Pre-K for All program scaled from 20,000 to 70,000 program slots between 2014 and 2016 and managed this scale-up while maintaining strict and comprehensive quality standards (which research suggests are important) and enrolling children across all income groups and neighborhoods citywide. Similarly noteworthy programs include statewide universal pre-K programs in Georgia and Oklahoma. In 2016, Oklahoma achieved a 91 percent preschool enrollment rate among four-year olds, which is comparable to many Northern European countries. While not at the same scale we see in Europe, these state examples show us that quick and substantial progress is possible toward large-scale, quality pre-kindergarten programs for U.S. young children and their families.

As in the European countries we studied, the main barriers to implementing these approaches are a lack of sustained and reliable funding and the need to coordinate policy across different providers and systems. The most promising state and local pre-K initiatives have successfully addressed these challenges.

Hans Bos is a senior vice president at AIR who specializes in the evaluation of education programs serving children of all ages.

Gabriele Fain is a principal researcher who specializes in early childhood development and education.

Elena Rein is a research assistant who conducts quantitative and qualitative research on education and social welfare programs.

Note: Most of this evidence is from strong quasi-experimental studies, including studies that use regression-discontinuity designs. These studies provide strong inference about the effects of pre-K for children on the cusp of being age-eligible to enroll in these programs but their findings do not always generalize to the larger population of enrolled children or to universal pre-K programs more broadly defined.