Menu Close

The latest news from NIEER

Press Releases

New Research Debunks Myths About Preschool

October 21, 2004

Children from families of modest income, not the poor, have the least access to preschool in the United States. That’s just one of the findings in a new study by the National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) that debunks a number of myths or misconceptions about preschool.

Commonly held beliefs challenged by the study included:

· Most parents send their kids to preschool so they can work. Not so, the study found that education is the primary motivation of most parents. In fact, a majority of stay-at-home mothers send their children to preschool.

· Head Start and other programs targeted at children in poverty effectively enroll the intended children. Not so, large numbers of eligible children are left out because of difficulties in identification, frequent changes in eligibility, geographic mobility of the target population and other reasons.

· Single parents are more likely to send their children to preschool. Not so, the children of single parents are neither more nor less likely to attend preschool than children from two-parent families.

The study, Who Goes to Preschool and Why Does It Matter? investigated the influence on preschool attendance of such key characteristics of children and their families as age, ethnicity, family size, income, and parental education.

The study identified an alarming gap in preschool participation between children in lower and higher income families. The gap was even worse for working families above the poverty line (earning $40,000 to $50,000) than for those in poverty.

Our findings point to a large under-served segment of America whose incomes are above the eligibility levels for programs targeted to disadvantaged families, said the reports co-author and NIEER Director W. Steven Barnett. The evidence shows how poorly private and state-funded preschool programs have been able to pick up where programs targeted toward the disadvantaged like Head Start leave off.

The study showed that over time progress toward increased access to preschool has been uneven across the U.S., with western states falling behind. Of the 12 states that offer no state-funded preschool, seven are in the west.

Many of the preschool inequities were attributed to failures of public policy. The report recommended:

· Expansion and greater coordination of federal and state programs to reach disadvantaged children with high quality preschool education.

· Consideration of strategies that move beyond targeting the disadvantaged in order to increase access for middle-income families.

· Consideration of federal matching funds as an incentive for states to create and expand programs and reduce regional imbalances.

For more information, call Steve Barnett; Carol Shipp, Deputy Director (732) 932-4350 x225; or Pat Ainsworth, Communications Director (732) 932-4350 x229; or visit

The National Institute for Early Education Research (, a unit of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, supports early childhood education policy by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research. NIEER is supported through grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts and others.

The Pew Charitable Trusts ( serve the public interest by providing information, policy solutions and support for civic life. Based in Philadelphia, with an office in Washington, D.C., the Trusts make investments to provide organizations and citizens with fact-based research and practical solutions for challenging issues. With approximately $4.1 billion in dedicated assets, in 2003 the Trusts committed more than $143 million to 151 nonprofit organizations.