Our Insights

Too Many Cities Missing Opportunities to Create Lasting Benefits for their Youngest Learners

Our new national report, Pre-K in American Cities, finds a growing number of large US cities enacting new local funding streams to establish and support Pre-K, yet many programs fail to meet minimum quality standards or serve only a small percentage of eligible children.

Pre-K is a proven policy that every city should employ to ensure all children get a strong and healthy start. High-quality Pre-K provides benefits that go beyond the early years and lays a stronger foundation for later social and economic success and even improved physical health. Most of the large U.S. cities included in the report have a Pre-K program in place, but there is still work to do. To provide children and families the full benefits of Pre-K, city leaders need to design and implement high-quality programs based on research that children and families can readily access.

Based on analysis by NIEER using the same 10 quality standards benchmarks cited in NIEER’s national State of Preschool reports, CityHealth has awarded 5 gold, 8 silver, and 20 bronze medals to cities for Pre-K.

A bronze medal signals that a city meets the criteria for access, a silver represents a city program that mandates quality but provides low accessibility, and a gold medal means that a city earned points for both quality and accessibility in its Pre-K program.

The report is intended to assist localities in determining next steps for providing early learning experiences that improve long-term benefits for children and families. Key findings include:

I. Access is Still Too Low

Access to Pre-K programs is limited in most cities. Only 24 of the 40 largest U.S. cities (60%) offer a Pre-K program that reaches more than 30% of the 4-year-old population.

II. Class Size and Teacher-Student Ratio are Uneven

Just over half of the largest U.S. cities (23 of 40 or 58%) meet quality benchmarks for Pre-K class size, which is one teacher and one teacher assistant for every 20 students.

III. Teacher Preparation is Adequate, but Professional Development and Salary Requirements Are Lacking

Almost two thirds of city programs (25 of 40 or 63%) require Pre-K teachers to have a bachelor’s degree with specialized training in teaching young children, and most programs (34 of 40 or 80%) require at least some specialized training. Only a small fraction of city programs (6 of 40 or 15%) require that all teaching staff receive ongoing professional development. Only 15 (38%) of the rated city programs require that all teachers be paid comparably to those in the K-12 system.

IV. Too Few Cities Conduct Health Screenings

Fewer than a quarter of cities (9 of 40) ensure that children receive vision, hearing, health, and developmental screenings and referrals. The benefits of these screenings are widely recognized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

To see how your city performs in the report, click here.

The report was written in partnership between CityHealth and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. CityHealth, an initiative of the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Permanente, works to advance evidence-based policy solutions with the potential to help millions of people live longer, better lives in vibrant, prosperous communities. One of these policy solutions is access to high-quality Pre-K, which can have significant health benefits for all children, regardless of family income or zip code, when the program’s design adheres to proven practices.

Ellen Frede is Senior Co-Director at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University; Shelley Hearne is President of CityHealth

The Authors

In her work, Dr. Frede applies what she has learned throughout her varied career in early childhood education, including experience as a teacher of ages 0-8, curriculum and professional development specialist at the HighScope Foundation, teacher educator at The College of New Jersey, researcher, pre-k administrator for the New Jersey Department of Education, education lead in a large Head Start grantee and early learning lead at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, conducts and disseminates independent research and analysis to inform early childhood education policy.