We Have to Quit Playing Catch-Up

Only one in three four-year-olds attend a high-quality preschool program — and the number for three-year-olds is much lower. Across the country, children remain on long preschool waiting lists, and families who could benefit from support as they raise their children remain unserved.

Early LearningToday, six states learned that they will have vital new support to build systems that help to solve that problem. Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) funding was awarded to Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont. These states join 14 others that have received RTT-ELC grants and are building their capacity to serve preschool children with quality, accountability, and efficiency.

These new awards bring the Obama Administration’s education funding commitment in early learning systems building to more than $1 billion. With that investment and their own state funds, a bipartisan group of forward-looking governors have worked to increase support for high-quality early learning in their states.

President Obama has put forward a plan, called Preschool for All, that would make high-quality preschool available and affordable for all families, without adding a dime to the deficit. Last month, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced bills to support high-quality preschool services for low- and moderate-income families.

And, many states, and cities, are building new organizational structures, aligning systems, eliminating redundant programs, and raising the bar for teacher preparation. A recent report from the Education Commission of the States documents 38 bills from 25 states that establish state preschool programs; implement quality rating and improvement systems; pilot a school readiness assessment, and more.

In Michigan — one of the new RTT-ELC states — leaders realized that a robust investment in early learning is the best way to rebuild the state’s economy.  Led by Gov. Rick Snyder (R-Mich.), the state legislature voted to invest $60 million more next year on preschool programs. This funding increase of nearly 60 percent will add up to 16,000 more four-year-olds to state-funded preschool next year.

Ultimately, RTT-ELC is only a down payment on early learning – strong systems are not enough. High-quality early learning programs fail to reach the majority of America’s youngest learners – due to a state’s limited capacity, lack of resources, or both. Much more needs to be done.

We have to quit “playing catch-up, and level the playing field for our children before they start kindergarten,” as Secretary Duncan recently said at a global education summit. As business and military leaders, law enforcement officials and educators have repeatedly said, high-quality preschool is the right move to make sure our youngest children are ready for the world ahead of them.

Libby Doggett is the deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning at the U.S. Department of Education. Linda Smith is the deputy assistant secretary and inter-departmental liaison for early childhood development at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


  1. Without the family “nurturing” the pre-school experience becomes “babysitting” instead of “education”. No different than what exists in many grade schools and high schools currently.

  2. I agree with Secretary Duncan 100%. All of my children attended pre-school as did I and I truly believe it was one of the major catalysts in them seeking to further their education post college.

  3. Preschool is a big concern with parents now adays, and parents need better preschool programs for sure. So great initiative by gov.

  4. This is a critical juncture for the administration and the Department of Education. How does the ED define “quality preschool?” If we’re talking about a primarily play-based preschool experience, the kind that the wealthy seek out for their own children, great. If we’re talking “Early Literacy” and “Early Numeracy” when the countries whose PISA scores we covet (*cough cough* FINLAND! *cough cough*) don’t even start formal education till 7YO while their children ALL have access to play-based pre-schooling with lots of enrichment and opportunities for creativity and unstructured/loosely structured learning, forget it – we’ll increase the gap instead of closing it and the money will end up flushed down the “rigor” drain. Again.

  5. I think it is a naive belief that government will have a magical cure for this. It is not feasible to have a ratio of one teacher to four children like what you will find in a family setting. My children are all at the top of their class. Instead of sending them to preschool and trying to outsource our responsibilities as parents, we spent the time at home teaching them and developing a desire within them to learn. Perhaps the focus should be on encouraging people to be responsible parents and not to have an attitude that government should take care of their everything for them.

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