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The Promise of Preschool: From Head Start to Universal Pre-Kindergarten

reviewed by Debra Ackerman - May 02, 2011

coverTitle: The Promise of Preschool: From Head Start to Universal Pre-Kindergarten
Author(s): Elizabeth Rose
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford
ISBN: 0195395077, Pages: 288, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

While drafting my review of The Promise of Preschool, I had the opportunity to consider the book’s significance in light of two important historical sources of research on early childhood programs in the United States. The first source is the Encyclopedia of Educational Research (Harris, 1960), which includes a 15-page Early Childhood Education entry that was written in 1957 by Elizabeth Fuller. Her entry focuses on nursery school (and what is now known as child care and/or preschool) and kindergarten programs for young children in the US. It also notes each program’s growing popularity. For example, in the 1950s the number of nursery schools almost doubled from about 3,614 to 7,000 sites. Similarly, between the 1930s and 1953, enrollment in kindergarten grew from up to 30 percent to 43.5 percent of all 5-year olds.

Given that in 2008 there were over 107,000 licensed child care centers in the US (NCCIC & NACCRRA, 2010), and over 94 percent of all age-eligible children are enrolled in kindergarten across the country (US Census Bureau, 2009), Fuller’s data are remarkably quaint. The information provided in her encyclopedia entry is even more remarkable when juxtaposed against a second key source of early childhood program data: The State of Preschool 2010: State Preschool Yearbook (Barnett et al., 2010). The Yearbook provides data on state-funded preschool education programs in the US. Researchers at the National Institute for Early Education first started collecting Yearbook data during the 2001-2002 school year when just 14 percent of all 4s were enrolled in such programs. In 2009-2010, the number of 4s enrolled had risen to 26 percent of the entire population in this age group. An additional 11 percent of all 4s were enrolled in Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for economically disadvantaged families.

With apologies to Bob Dylan, comparing Fuller’s Encyclopedia entry—which does not contain any mention of “preschool,” much less Head Start—with the most recent Yearbook data, arguably gives new meaning to the concept of “The Times They are a Changin’.” However, what neither of these two “bookend” data sources can provide is a thorough understanding of the contexts and individuals that facilitated such impressive growth in education programs for young children over the past 50-plus years. Fortunately, readers interested in filling in the in-between blanks have access to The Promise of Preschool: From Head Start to Universal Pre-Kindergarten. Written by Elizabeth Rose and published in 2010, the 278-page book details the history of both Head Start and state-funded preschool. Also highlighted is the important role policymakers, advocates, and funders have played in expanding access to, and understanding of the importance of, early education.

Rose’s book is divided into two parts. The first part is entitled “How We Got Here” and offers a chronological recounting of how the state-funded preschool education programs outlined in the Preschool Yearbook came to be part of the normative educational landscape in almost every state in the country. Aptly enough, Chapter 1 highlights the politics surrounding the inception of Head Start during the 1960s. Chapter 2 follows with a focus on the 1970s’ policy and ideological differences about the role of the federal government in child care for young children. The next chapter focuses on competing policy efforts in the 1980s to serve educationally at-risk children within the larger context of school reform efforts. Chapter 4 highlights state efforts during the 1990s to provide preschool education to 4-year olds in Georgia, Oklahoma, New York, and New Jersey. The final chapter in this initial section details how over the past decade all of these efforts were transformed into a “preschool for all” movement, aided by philanthropic dollars and the support of key advocacy groups. One common theme across all of these chapters is the important role of political support and the compromises that were made so that all of these initiatives could remain politically viable.

The second section of the book is entitled “Where We are Going” and focuses on the next-step questions that need to be addressed if policymakers are to continue to expand the upward trajectory experienced by publicly funded preschool education initiatives over the past 50 years. Chapter 6 discusses the thorny issues of which children should be served in state funded preschool programs, how quickly programs should expand, and at what level of quality. Chapter 7 considers the additional issue of which auspices should provide state-funded preschool education. Chapter 8 addresses the role program standards play to ensure that state-funded programs bring about the promised benefits of preschool education. These include standards for teacher certification, what children should learn, and the role parents should play. Of course, all of these issues have consequences for political support and program quality. Rose’s analysis of the critical role each factor plays when debating these ongoing programmatic issues is particularly insightful.

The Promise of Preschool concludes with “History Lessons for Preschool Advocates.” As the name of this chapter suggests, the focus here is on five historical lessons that are relevant for improving the quality of current preschool programs and also broadening access to additional families. The takeaway message is one of careful framing and strategic decision making as a means for capitalizing on political momentum, as well as acknowledging the legacies that have brought the early childhood education field to where it was at the time the book was written. Given that the book was researched prior to the recent economic recession, it will be interesting to see whether or not such legacies and lessons will be sufficient for maintaining preschool’s momentum. In the meantime, The Promise of Preschool promises to be an important addition to previous works documenting the early education field’s impressive history.


Barnett, W. S., Epstein, D. J., Carolan, M. E., Fitzgerald, J., Ackerman, D. J., & Friedman, A. H. (2010). The state of preschool 2010: State preschool yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research.

Fuller, E. M. (1960). Early childhood education. In C. W. Harris (Ed.,), Encyclopedia of Educational Research (pp. 385-398). New York: The Macmillan Company.

Harris, C. W. (Ed). (1960). Encyclopedia of educational research (3rd ed.). New York: The Macmillan Company.

NCCIC & NACCRRA. (2010). 2008 Child care licensing study. Washington, DC: Authors.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2009). School enrollment—Social and economic characteristics of students: October 2009 Table 1. Retrieved April 18, 2011, from http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/school/cps2009.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 02, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16397, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 8:40:27 AM

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About the Author
  • Debra Ackerman
    Educational Testing Service (ETS)
    E-mail Author
    DEBRA J. ACKERMAN is the Associate Director at the Understanding Teaching Quality Center at Educational Testing Service (ETS), where she supports research on content knowledge for teaching and developing the next generation of teaching assessments. Prior to working at ETS, she was the Associate Director for Research at the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Dr. Ackermanís work has focused on evaluations of early education program policies and issues related to the early care and education workforce. She has published in various scholarly journals including Early Childhood Research & Practice, Early Education & Development, Educational Policy, and Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education.
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