Strategy overview

  • Creating a foundation for learning: Child care and early education programs deliver supervision, curricula, programming, and healthy learning environments for children ages 0-5. These programs generally seek to prepare children for kindergarten by developing their cognitive, literacy and language, numerical, and social-emotional skills. Comprehensive approaches to child care and early education can also include direct subsidies for child care or preschool, which enable parents to enter or remain in the workforce.
  • Supporting healthy development: Child care for infants and toddlers (ages 0-3) can include promoting healthy brain development, developing language and numerical skills, and early interventions for children with disabilities. Evidence-based programs and models are mostly delivered in formal settings (like child care centers), though a range of evidence-based practices may be delivered at home.
  • Subsidizing child care: Many families rely on informal child care delivered by relatives, friends, or another trusted caregiver, largely because of the high cost of child care. Some jurisdictions have experimented with providing subsidies to at-home caregivers and/or connecting families to state and federal subsidy programs; more commonly, subsidies are provided to families for use in more formal settings. Subsidies for credentialed caregivers are generally higher, especially when they are delivering evidence-based programming.
  • Preparing 3- and 4-year olds for kindergarten: Preschool is formal, center-based education for children three to five years old. Many programs are free or heavily subsidized by a local jurisdiction, state, or combination of governments. Jurisdictions are increasingly adopting universal prekindergarten for four-year-olds, and in some instances, extending it to three-year-olds. Some programs are offered in a K-12 school building, while others are integrated into community or social service centers or in standalone facilities. Evidence indicates that a full school day (6+ hours) of instruction has the strongest impact, though half-day schedules can also provide benefits.
  • Delivering evidence-based curricula in small classes: High-impact early education programs typically dedicate learning time to evidence-based curricula, which are often vetted by state or local education agencies to ensure they are age-appropriate and align with jurisdictional achievement standards. Class sizes are often strictly capped by state or other authorizing agencies; ideal early education teacher-student ratios are typically no greater than 1:11, with at least two teaching adults in each classroom.
  • Hiring high-quality staff: Recruiting and retaining high-quality caregivers and teachers is among the most crucial components in operating a child care or early education program. However, sufficient staffing is one of the sector’s most significant challenges: access to specialized training can be costly, while wages are often uncompetitive. Certification requirements vary by state and locality, but can includes a college degree, participation in a training program, and/or passing a licensing exam. 
  • Assessing and ensuring quality: High-quality child care and early education programs typically include investments in both internal and external evaluation capacity. This includes planning for and participating in quality ratings and improvement systems (often run by a state education agency alongside multiple partners); formalizing a system for assessing and delivering feedback to staff; and tracking student development against recognized standards and key milestones.

While effects vary across programs, comprehensive research syntheses demonstrate that children who participate in evidence-based child care and early education programs tend to have better academic, career, health, and social-emotional development outcomes than their counterparts.

  • A 2019 meta-analysis of preschool effectiveness found that attending preschool led to significant improvements in math and reading skills, a lower probability of being held back a grade, and improved social-emotional development. While outcomes varied based on the quality of pre-k programs, in general, children who attended pre-k tended to fare better academically than those who did not.

  • A 2020 research synthesis on the long-term impact of enrollment in early childhood education found it is associated with reductions in involvement with the criminal justice system and chronic disease, and increases in educational attainment and wages.

  • A 2015 research synthesis conducted by the Obama administration found that delivering high-quality early education and child care is associated with increased kindergarten readiness, and increased rates of employment and earnings for parents, particularly mothers.

  • A 2022 research synthesis identified preschool education programs as a scientifically supported strategy for improving academic achievement, cognitive skills, and social emotional skills.

Before making investments in this strategy, city and county leaders should ensure it addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute and Mathematica have developed indicator frameworks to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality programs. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

Mathematica's Education-to-Workforce (E-W) Indicator Framework helps local leaders identify the data that matter most in helping students and young adults succeed. Local leaders can use the E-W framework to better understand education and workforce conditions in their communities and to identify strategies that can improve outcomes in these areas.

Several indicators in the E-W Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality programs. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Cultivate vocal government champions: Local government leaders play a critical role in securing funding, implementing quality standards, and supporting family engagement and enrollment efforts. Leaders should also facilitate frequent communication and coordination between key stakeholders, including school districts, state and local early childhood agencies, and community groups.
  • Invest in educators: The foundation of strong child care and early education programs is a strong staff. Local leaders should be prepared to make significant investments in child caregivers and early education teachers, including competitive compensation, ongoing coaching and mentoring opportunities, and relatively small classes. Such investments should extend to building recruiting pipelines in the community in which the program operates.
  • Position teachers to succeed: Early education programs have several system-wide levers available to ensure teachers can effectively run classrooms. This should include dedicating a major portion of each day to focused learning, allocating additional time for teachers to prepare for the next day, and providing compensation and focused time for teachers to learn and train for delivering evidence-based curricula. Early education programs should also provide regular assessments for teachers with actionable feedback for improvement.
  • Prepare children for the transition to kindergarten: Significant gains can be diminished without adequate alignment between prekindergarten and kindergarten programs. Program leaders should prepare to facilitate this transition, such as by convening preschool and elementary school teachers for joint-planning sessions and setting up kindergarten classroom visits.
  • Screen and assess children to provide individualized support: Children vary in their cognitive, social-emotional, language, and physical development. To properly support each child, child care and preschool programs should conduct initial screenings and perform ongoing assessments of each child’s development and learning. This information can inform curriculum planning, the pedagogical strategies used, and more.
  • Offering support services: Broader environmental factors may impact children's development. As such, child care and preschool programs may provide or connect children and their families to supplemental support services. Common support services include parental education programs, health services, case management, transportation assistance, and more. While some services may be provided by the educational program directly (e.g., meals), others are often provided by outside agencies with which the program has a relationship (e.g., health care).

Evidence-based examples

Financial assistance for child care to working parents
Stable and healthy families High-quality employment
Preschool program for low-income children and families prioritizing family engagement
Kindergarten readiness
Systemic approach to assess and improve the quality in early and school-age care and education programs
Kindergarten readiness
Federally funded early preschool program for children aged three or younger
Kindergarten readiness
Formal, school-based education for children age 4–6
Elementary and middle school success
Federally funded preschool program with significant flexibility in service design
Kindergarten readiness
Combination of high-quality early childhood education, parent education and training programs, home visiting, and other support services
Kindergarten readiness Stable and healthy families
Comprehensive, statewide early childhood initiative providing communities with funding for educational childcare, health care, and family support services
Stable and healthy families Kindergarten readiness