Children in the US are increasingly starting their formal education at age 3. Here in the US where we have relied primarily on a market driven approach to providing early childhood services (Cost, Quality and Outcomes Study Team, 1995), we already have some 1 million children in schools prior to the age of kindergarten entry (Clifford, Early & Hills, 1999). In addition, many more children are receiving educational services outside the schools. Other countries are well on their way to developing a true system of services for young children and their families (Kamerman, 1989).
While this conference focuses on the need to provide services to all at risk four-year-olds to ensure that all of these children have at least one year of educational intervention prior to entering the current formal school system in the US at age 5, our contention is that efforts to accomplish this goal must take into account the reality of the shift toward universal provision of services for preschoolers which is underway. At the very least, as we seek to ensure that these at-risk children receive early education services, we should seek to deliver these services in a way that recognizes the move toward universal services and which will blend with the universal system as it develops. In fact, the reality that many of these at-risk children are already being served through a variety of programs emphasizes the need to find a mechanism to coordinate the services. Thus, we start from the premise that a coherent system of high quality early childhood services with access for all children ages 3 and 4 is the goal. This does not mean that we would have one uniform system with all children attending a single institution, but rather the existing service providers would offer options for families which all met a unified set of standards, were open to all families who desired the service for their children, and were affordable.
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These working papers were prepared for the conference “Creating a National Plan for the Education of 4-Year Olds.” They have not been through a formal review process and should be considered drafts. Do not cite or distribute these papers.