How many kids are in pre-K and kindergarten in the U.S.?

In an era when there’s a database for just about everything, you’d have a hard time finding one that tallies up the total number of children enrolled in kindergarten or pre-K programs in the U.S.  Is that really a problem?

Yes, it is.

Educational research continues to show that access to early-childhood education is a critical factor in children’s readiness for school. Early-learning research has shown that 85 percent of brain development happens before age 5. Clearly, children who have access to early-childhood programs are getting something very beneficial. Those who don’t—and access to these programs is often linked to income—are often forced to play catch-up once they get to school. And let’s face it: our K-12 system is not very good at helping catch-up kids who are very far behind.

The U.S.Census Bureau and child-advocacy organizations regularly publish statistics about early-childhood education. For example, the 2010-211 Yearbook published by the National Institute for Early Education Research [NIEER] says that 28 percent of America’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in a state-funded pre-school. The Children’s Defense Fund says that 14.2 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded pre-k, Head Start, or special education programs,  and that 40.3 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state pre-k, Head Start, or special education programs. But both of these reports include footnotes that explain their own incompleteness. And if you attempt to drill down to state, local and even school-district levels, the information becomes increasingly unreliable.

And if we don’t know how many and which children are—or are not—getting the pluses of early-childhood education, we can’t advocate for policies to overcome the educational inequalities that are exacerbated by unequal access and participation.

Poor data can lead to poor policies, and the implications are serious, say the New America Foundation in a September 2012 report called, “Counting Kids and Tracking Funds in Pre-K and Kindergarten Education.”

City leaders, school board members, superintendents, and elementary school principals often have no idea how many three- and four-year-old children in their districts’ borders are enrolled in publicly funded pre-K programs, let alone whether these children are prepared for kindergarten. State policymakers cannot make sound comparisons between districts or shine light on disparities in access in low-income areas. Nor can they easily determine how many schools in their states offer only a half-day of kindergarten – a critical question as teachers across dozens of states will soon be held accountable for whether their students meet new standards.

Even as pre-K education and kindergarten have gained importance in the educational landscape, federal and state governments, and even local school districts, lack basic information about how many children are enrolled in federally funded early-childhood programs, such as Head Start. The New America foundation’s report explains that our system of early-childhood education is not a system at all. Rather, it’s an incoherent, non-standardized patchwork of local, state and federal programs, with a byzantine, chaotic non-system for funding. What data there is can be difficult to aggregate, because different programs report their information in different ways.

The big picture in this very important education area is that there is no big picture. The report offers several suggestions for getting better data. One would be to encourage the U.S. Census Bureau to improve its on-going American Community Survey questionnaire.

It currently asks whether children in the household attend “nursery school,” “preschool,” or “kindergarten” but does not ask whether that experience is for half or full day, in a publicly funded or private program, or whether parents are paying fees or tuition for these services. Without these data, it is impossible to get a good picture of how many families enroll their children in publicly funded early childhood programs.

To close achievement gaps between economically disadvantaged and advantaged students, policymakers and educators desperately need access to the most basic data on enrollment and public funding for all young children. These data will increase understanding of how public dollars are spent, expose disparities in access to early learning programs, and have the potential to increase educational opportunities for young children. Getting the data right is a critical step toward providing better learning experiences for all young children, laying the groundwork for alignment across the PreK-3rd grade years, and building a strong foundation for their success in school.

And one more suggestion: Don’t fire Big Bird.